Korean War Correspondent
The Evening News, Philippine News Service, DZRH and the Agence France Presse (accredited with the United Nations)
Covered the 10th, 20th, 19th and 14th Battalion Combat Teams
MY BELOVED FATHER talked mostly about the Korean War only when asked to by his family, relatives or friends. That was his nature: a reserved and kind man whose job as a journalist was to listen and not talk.
|Johnny Villasanta in the Korean War|
He knew that there were going to be many accounts of the war dealing with the great battles, the grand strategies, the victories and defeats.
He wanted to write about the front line Filipino soldier, those men of special stuff that did the fighting, the suffering and the dying.
My father covered the war from the only place he wanted to be—the front line. He rode with the men of the 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT) when its advanced units crossed the 38th Parallel. He shivered in foxholes when arctic winds from Manchuria ripped across Korea’s mountains. He went out on patrols. He saw his countrymen fight, suffer and die.
On one occasion, a Chinese sniper put a bullet through the portable typewriter he was carrying. A few inches to the left and my father would have been just another statistic in the Korean War’s horrible butcher’s bill. He went on these many patrols unarmed.
My father was deeply honored when he was bestowed in October 1954 with the Philippine Legion of Honor (with the rank of Legionnaire)—the Philippines’ highest military civilian award—for his news stories about our boys in the Korean War. He felt odd, however, that he should receive an award for doing a job he wanted to do.
He first went to Korea in September 1950 as a correspondent for the Evening News, the leading afternoon daily, and the Philippine News Service, a leading wire service agency, arriving only a week after the 10th BCT. He was the first Filipino war correspondent to set foot in Korea.
He left for home and returned in 1951 at the request of the 20th BCT, the second Philippine battalion in Korea. He took a leave of absence without pay from his newspaper, the Evening News, and received accreditation from the United Nations Command in Korea as a War Correspondent for the Agence France Presse (AFP), a foreign wire service agency.
My father's commitment to enshrining the memory of PEFTOK was once again proven when he wrote the lyrics to "The PEFTOK Welcome Song" in 1953. The music for this work was composed by Ida Aguinaldo. My father also created the popular radio program, "PI Calling Korea," hosted by the famous celebrity, Rafael "Paeng" Yabut.
PI Calling Korea, which was first broadcast on 21 April 1951, provided a live radio link that allowed the men of PEFTOK in Korea to talk to their families back home.
If anything, this conflict convinced this kind man that war was never the answer to any misunderstanding among nations. His passionate belief in democracy as man’s natural birthright led to his opposition to totalitarianism in whatever form.
|Filipino War Correspondents who covered the Korean War are remembered at the PEFTOK Korean War Memorial Hall Museum. The late Sen. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, father of Pres. Benigno Simeon Aquino III, was one of these correspondents, as was my father.|
When he joined The Weekly Graphic and The Nation magazines in the 1960s, he wrote stories about defense and investigative pieces exposing corruption and wrongdoing. He was also very active in unionism and, being a lawyer, advised several labor unions.
He was asked by the government of Quezon City to become the Editor-in-Chief of the city's first community newspaper, "The Quezon City Express." The first issue of this broadsheet came out in 1966, and I remember handing out free copies of the newspaper's maiden issue to passers-by.
My father's generation of journalists resurrected the country’s mass media after the terrible devastation of the Second World War. Their pay was low and they sometimes went unpaid when the payroll came late during those uncertain days. My father spoke of eating peanuts as his breakfast; lunch and dinner because that was all he could buy sometimes.
But he continued to write and to engage in his other great passion—chess. He was there when the Philippine Chess Federation was founded six decades ago.
His contributions to national defense led to his being conferred another Philippine Legion of Honor (with the rank of Officer) in 1964. I recall being seated at the grandstand at Fort Bonifacio watching my father receive the award. My mother, the former Margarita Janda, was there as was my sister, Fides, and brothers, Eric and Gilbert; my late grandparents, Ramon and Carmen Villasanta, and my late aunt, Lilian.
After retiring from journalism, my father put his skills to work for the medical sector, becoming Editor-in-Chief of “Pulse Philippines,” the country’s first nationwide medical newspaper that was published by the drug company, Winthrop-Stearns. The Philippine Medical Association asked him to join them in the 1970s. He was a consultant of the PMA when he died on December 14, 1997 from complications caused by cancer. It was the darkest day of our lives.
I grew up on stories about the Korean War. As a young boy, I was inspired by the heroism of our fighting men. As a young man, however, that focus on heroism was tempered by the realization that war is the most terrible of all man-made tragedies.
I now understand why my father followed many of those stories with a long, almost reverential silence and by a deep stare at some unseen object far off. The war had never left him and the stories brought back memories, both bitter and bittersweet, of old comrades far away.
I couldn't understand a word of what they said, but I remember the flowing, sing-song tones of that strange tongue. One of my greatest regrets is not having learned how to speak and read the melodic Ibanag language.
My father was born in Aparri, Cagayan. He grew up in that town and in Tuguegarao. He became "Boy Mayor" of Tuguegarao before World War II.
One of the main reasons for my father having accomplished so much in his professional career was the undying love and support from his wife and my mother, Margarita Janda Villasanta from Boac, Marinduque. My mother allowed my father to flourish. She gave up her career as a teacher so my father could be all he could be. It is the greatest love imaginable.
My parents were devout Roman Catholics with a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
|Our Lady of Piat, known to Ibanags as “Yena Tam Ngamin” (Mother of Us All), is venerated as the "Mother of Cagayan."|
All of us who love him miss my father deeply. My father’s death was particularly hard on my sister, Fides, and my brother, Eric, who were abroad when the tragedy occurred and could not return for his funeral.
Ten grandchildren and three great grandchildren are heirs to his memory. Grandchildren Jose Gabriel, Mary Rose, Troy Arthur John, Kimberly, James Kevin, Mike Emmanuel, Princess Nicole, Eugene, Errol, Dave and Neil (+), and great grandchildren Nathaniel Matthew, Noah Dominic and Scarlet Ashlee Mei, will never hear their “lolo” tell them about the Korean War.
But they can read about what their lolo wrote during the Korean War. And when they grow older, they’ll probably learn what my father learned in the bloody and shell torn hills of Korea—Peace is always preferable to war.
"Our eternal love goes with you to Heaven"
CRUCIAL MOMENTS IN KOREA
By Juan F. Villasanta
Excerpts from a series of news stories describing crucial moments facing the 10th BCT in Korea published in the Evening News from 8 Jan. 1951 to 4 Feb. 1951.
I - Experience in Wonsanni
That night of Dec 11 last year when our Tenth battalion combat team was under immediate threat of enemy envelopment in Wichonni, 15 miles above the 38th Parallel was, to my mind, the most crucial moment experienced by the Filipino force in Korea.
The allied situation early that day was something like this: an element of the British brigade was at Kumchon, 20 miles to the Filipino battalion's left; to the right, across guerilla-infested mountains, at Yonchon, 30 air miles away, was a South Korean division; to the front, 25 miles north, in the vicinity of Sibyoni was another ROK division, which was that day the main blocking force in the allied leap-frog withdrawal from the north. Sometime that day the British started moving down to Munsani, below Kaesong, south of the Parallel.
The enemy situation was hazy. The communists were advancing rapidly and were reported active in Sariwon, the site of Col. Mariano Azurin's headquarters when he left the battalion after his recall, and in Singye, a red stronghold which was shelled by the 10th BCT during the Nov 11 fight in Miudong. Singye is only a quarter of an hour's drive to Sibyoni.
A leap-frog withdrawal looks something like this: Let us suppose that allied units A, B, C, and D are in the movement, A the northernmost and D the southernmost. B stands as a blocking force to slow down the enemy advance while A withdraws to a position behind D. Then C blocks while B moves down to the rear of A. Then D covers C's withdrawal, and so on in leap-frog fashion.
The 10th BCT assisted blocking forces north of Pyongyang and also in Sariwon. But after it left Sariwon, the Sibyoni-Munsani road of guerrillas and thus open a secondary withdrawal route for the allies to be used in case the main route gets untenable. The mission had just been accomplished with the Filipino battalion resting in Wichonni after having killed 15 guerrillas in two engagements.
But Col. Dionisio Ojeda, the new commanding officer, had something of a sixth sense which told him his boys were not to have any rest in Wichonni. On the night of Dec 10, when the battalion hit that town, he confided to me that "this is a hot place".
He ordered all the boys to clean their guns and company commanders to get their men a full supply of ammunition. He asked Capt. Pedro de las Alas, assistant battalion S-3 (operations) officer, to check up on compliance with these orders. The captain saw to it that even the chaplain had all the ammo required.
The boys got busy cleaning their guns and sharpening their bayonets, and although their CO did not tell them why they had to, they had an inkling of the danger looming over the battalion. I asked a medic who was cleaning a machine gun why, and he said:
"This, sir, is heartily dedicated to Mao Tse-tung. We heard his boys want to pay us a visit. They'll get a hot reception."
II - The Odds Unfold Grimly Before The Embattled Battalion
Fortunately, nothing untoward happened that Dec 10 night. But the battalion alert was still on the next day. In the afternoon there were indications that the alert was well advised. Civilian evacuees started streaming southward through Wichonni, and even the Wichonni inhabitants were beginning to pack up.
"Something must be happening on our immediate north," Major Delfin Argao, operations chief, told me.
And indeed, when night fell, something started to happen. Ojeda, Argao, and Capt. Mauricio Manio, communications officer, observed that night a train of trucks coming down the road southward. Capt. Francisco Javier, intelligence chief, was busy with his boys feeling out the enemy situation. Lt. Col. Gamaliel Manikan, battalion exec, was also awake the whole night.
Lt. Bonny Serrano who was sent to identify the units on the trucks, came back with the report: "Sir, they are South Koreans. They are withdrawing."
"Then, we are it," Ojeda told me solemnly.
It was then that I had the inkling that the puny Filipinos had become the blocking force.
The trucks were moving down south all through the night up to past midnight.
"Gosh, I have counted the trucks," Manio said. "This must be a division."
A few minutes later, Manio was called to his radio station. His boys were excited. He emerged from the station with a radiogram for Ojeda from Brig. Gen. Frank Bowen, commanding general of the 187th Regimental Combat Team to which the 10th BCT was then attached. It read:
"TO CO 10TH BCT: FRIENDLY UNITS REPORT ENEMY
ADVANCING SOUTHWEST YOUR DIRECTION PD
YOUR NORTHERN FLANK COMPLETELY EXPOSED
PD IMPERATIVE YOU HOLD APPROACHES WICHONNI
AT ALL COST PD LIAISON OFFICER ENROUTE WITH
COMPLETE PARTICULARS END CG 187TH RCT."
COMPLETE PARTICULARS END CG 187TH RCT."
"At all cost!" Ojeda muttered. "Okay, we'll do it!"
Ojeda quickly summoned all company commanders and informed them of the situation. Last-stand plans were hastily drawn and everybody stood ready to execute them.
The Filipinos were grimly waiting for the enemy all night but none showed up. Next day, intelligence about the enemy showed that the reds had changed the course of their advance. There was a fork in the road which gave them the choice of attacking either the Filipinos, or the ROKs to the east. The ROKs were chosen.
Forty miles away in Seoul at Eighth Army headquarters that crucial Dec. 11 night, three Filipino officers were watching the huge war map used by allied top war planners to plot the progress of operations. They skipped their supper to keep continuous vigil over the overlay as if it were a dying patient. The map indicated that the Filipino 10th BCT was in immediate danger of enemy envelopment being the northernmost unit, of battalion strength at that, in the sector north of Seoul. The three officers were our liaison group at EUSAK.
"Boy, we were really scared," Lt. Enrique Galang, one of the three, told me later in Seoul. "The 10th BCT was like a thumb sticking out in that map and it could have been bitten off by the reds. I was thumbing my rosary looking at that map all night. And, we felt relieved when on the 13th the map showed you moved south to Munsani."
But if the communists had chosen to attack the battalion that crucial night, they would have bitten something that would have given them indigestion. Our boys were ready to hold their ground at all cost as ordered.