Pinoys fighting in Seoul and other war stories

ZERO-FARE TRANSIT Free transport given to liberated Filipinos by the American Army

There are not many days when you know a single act can be a transformative event in your life.

Two months into the pandemic lockdown, which to me was a daily repetitive cycle of household chores, I decided to bite the bullet, watching my very first K-drama series. I had heard so much about K-dramas (short of Korean dramas), but I never succumbed, knowing perhaps that I too would get hooked. The day was March 19, 2020. The K-drama was Crash Landing on You (CLOY).

I love books that get you so invested in the characters. Ending the story on pages is a mere excuse for the readers to get on with their lives, while the people we learned to love and hate in those pages continue to go on with theirs. Well, thinking that the characters continue in some parallel universe is a coping mechanism built on decades worth of suffering from “book hangovers.” Who hasn’t grieved at ending a book and, worse, at the concurrent feeling of not wanting it to end… even reading slower to delay the inevitable? The same now goes for really good K-dramas for me.

LIBERATION SNAP My father's sister Imelda, photo taken in 1945, a month before World War II ended, during the first anniversary of The Battle of Leyte Gulf, which took place from Oct. 23 to 26 in 1944, initiating the liberation of the rest of the archipelago

CLOY is about a South Korean woman who is swept by a freak tornado into North Korea, where she meets a North Korean soldier. Yoon Seri (played by Seo Ji-hye) and Captain Ri (played by Hyun Bin) fall in love and navigate through the complicated geo, socio-political landscape they both find themselves in. Spoiler Alert: Love conquers all. My goodness, the man crawled through an abandoned mine to cross the border to see his love once again—and looking impeccable, if I may say—as he emerged at the southern end of it. That image of Captain Ri managing to cross the four-kilometer-wide 38th parallel while still looking so guapo will forever be etched in my mind.

In high school, I learned about the 38th parallel that divides the Korean Peninsula into the North and the South. It is so called because it sits on the circle of latitude 38 degrees north of the earth’s equatorial plane. This line was drawn during World War 2 (WW2, 1938-1945) to delineate the area of responsibility for allied forces against the Japanese, who had occupied Korea since 1910. The Russians took charge of offenses against the Japanese in the north while America took charge of the south. After the war, with the defeat of Japan, the Korean Peninsula was formally divided into North and South Korea and the 240-kilometer-long 38th parallel was renamed the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Right after WW2, the South was administered by the Americans and the North by the Russians. Soon administration was turned over to their respective Korean counterparts.

FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH On July 1950, the Philippines deployed 16 M4A1 composite hull sherman tanks and a single M-18 Hellcat tank destroyer to Pusan, Republic of Korea to augment United Nations Command Armored Forces. The tanks were brought in by 2LT Francisco S. Tamondong with two of his NCO's from the 10th Battalion Combat Team

In just a matter of years, tension grew between the North and South, exacerbated by differing ideologies (the north turning communist and now backed by China while the South had been heavily influenced by the west). Today North Korea’s ideology is Juche, a political ideology that is based on the principles of Marxism and Leninism.

When the United Nations (UN) called on member nations to help drive North Koreans out of Seoul, the first Asian country to volunteer was the Philippines.

Skirmishes between North and South Korea grew frequent and culminated in the North invading Seoul on June 25, 1950. On the same day the United Nations (UN) called on member nations to help drive North Koreans out of Seoul and the first Asian country to volunteer was the Philippines. Barely three months after the invasion, the Philippines sent its first battalion (one of five to be sent to Korea)—the 10th Battalion Combat Team consisting of 1,400 volunteer soldiers—the youngest being 17 years old, the oldest 24—to Busan, South Korea. Who would have imagined, these Filipino soldiers, all younger than the seven-member K-pop group BTS, would play a role in ensuring that, 70 years later, the final BTS concert (before each member fulfills their respective military service) could take place in a communist-free South Korea. The Korean war lasted three years. The Philippines sent a total of 7,420 Filipino soldiers, of whom 116 died in the war.

DEFYING THE COLD Troopers of an unknown Philippine Expeditionary Force To Korea (PEFTOK) Battalion Combat Team repairing a heavy caliber machine gun in winter time somewhere in Korea

I grew up hearing about young soldiers dying in war from my dad who grew up during WW2. He was five when the Philippines entered the war and about six to seven years old when his hometown of Tacloban in Leyte was occupied by the Japanese. He recalled how his dad (my lolo Orestes) dug a trench underneath their house on Gran Capitan Street, now Justice Norberto Romualdez Street, where they would seek safety every time the Americans bombed Tacloban. One time, while they were holed up during a heavy bombardment that saw the second-floor windows shattering from the force, a group of Japanese soldiers sought refuge. As each cluster of bombs hit, the Japanese soldiers would calmly reassure them (all the frightened siblings) to just stay down, everything would be all right. The bombs just kept dropping but the Japanese soldiers had to move. I asked my dad what happened to them but his look indicated they didn’t make it after leaving their house. These were still the early days of conflict.

FAREWELL Officers and troopers of the 10th Battalion Combat Team bid farewell to their comrades in arms at the UN Cemetery in Pusan, prior to departing for Manila (Circa June 1951)

Once in Leyte, while we were eating by the sea, my dad lost in thought said out loud that at one point during the war, the water in the bay turned red and so did the sand. He was recalling the days after the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the largest naval battle it is said in history.  He didn’t witness the battle but he saw the skies—the dogfights and the Kamikaze pilots on suicide attacks, whose maneuvers he would illustrate with hand gestures decades later to my sons William and Ian Orestes. When they returned to the city after being warned to seek shelter before the battle outside Tacloban, my dad remembered seeing up-close the death and devastation. Over 23,000 American soldiers and close to 420,000 Japanese soldiers died in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

HOSTS TO THE AMERICANS Families in Leyte were requested by the US military to house officers. In photo are two sisters of the author's father, Victoria and Imelda, with one of the officers billeted in their home

Arranging my uncle the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos’ books, which had been stored in boxes for decades, according to when they were published, I couldn’t help thinking, “Wow! What a war freak!” At a cursory glance, all the books seemed to deal with war, including century-old books on the first World War. As I looked at each book up close, I realized that through the years, my uncle had been interested in the rationale behind wars, the lessons learned from them, how nations were built, lost, and won by war, always keeping tabs on the progress and development of all aspect of the societies borne out of war. I realized then how it must have been for him as a soldier who put his life on the line to live with fear every day, to watch friends and family die, to lose so much, and to give up so much… was it all worth it? Seeing his accomplishments as a public servant and the path he laid out for the country as president, I saw my uncle’s determination to make sure it was.

Korean war photos courtesy of Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK) War Memorial Hall.

A VISIT TO THE EXPEDITIARY FORCE TO KOREA At the Korea War Memorial Hall are (from left) The PKWMH assistant museum curator SGT Alfed Yalong PAFR, the author, and CDR Mark R. Condeno PCG (Res) (Image courtesy of SIC Gerry Paloma of OSSI-PKFC Detachment, Aldwin Pareja, and Joza Cervantes of Lserve Inc.)