We Were Soldiers: Filipinos Who Fought in the Korean War

The Korean War seems to be a distant memory but there was a time when Filipinos fought in a war that is not theirs to begin with. A war may have been forgotten but it has left an imprint to our history of being freedom fighters. In fact, a memory of the war was even etched in our P500 paper bill that most of us do not know. It was the time before Koreans arrived in the Philippines in record numbers. They owe us their freedom because without these valiant soldiers, South Korea would have been under Communist rule.

Editor's Note: The Korean War seems to be a distant memory but there was a time when Filipinos fought in a war that is not theirs to begin with. A war may have been forgotten but it has left an imprint to our history of being freedom fighters. In fact, a memory of the war was even etched in our P500 paper bill that most of us do not know. It was the time before Koreans arrived in the Philippines in record numbers. They owe us their freedom because without these valiant soldiers, South Korea would have been under Communist rule.

After 35 years of Japanese rule, the Korean peninsula was transformed into another battleground as lines were drawn between opposing political ideologies of the Communist bloc (Soviet Union and the newly proclaimed People's Republic of China) against the Western democracies (United States, Great Britain, and the rest of the "free" world). As battle lines were drawn in post-war Europe, Korea was divided into two armed camps with the Communist puppet state of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (led by Kim Il-Sung) in the North and the Republic of Korea (led by Syngman Rhee) in the South. Formed in support of their powerful benefactors, this chess match has been drawn by both superpowers as pawns for popular support in their geopolitical interests.

Though hostilities in the Second World War officially over, the war has to be fought all over again as the Korean People's Army swept past the 38 parallel line on June 25, 1950 to invade the South. As part of the United Nations, the Philippines sent troops together with member countries from Turkey, Ethiopia, United States, United Kingdom, France, and other contingents to help upheld the UN Resolution. This is the story of the Philippine units that served during the war especially during the Battle of Yultong Bridge and the Battle of Hill Eerie.

The Puwersang Expedisyonarya ng Pilipinas sa Korea, popularly known as PEFTOK in it's English name, was composed of 7,500 troops of infantry and armored brigades. Despite the fourth largest force in the UN command, it fought support role of the depleted US forces of Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur, which included the US 1st Cavalry Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Division, and the 45th Infantry Division.

Later during the war, Filipinos fought against the rampaging People's Liberation Army of the newly-independent China. Faced against all odds, many men have died defending Korean territory and young soldiers became heroes from the likes of Benjamin Santos, Cezar Batilo, Rodolfo Maestro, and future President Fidel V. Ramos. This is their story:

Known as the "Black Lion," this unit is the most experienced combat force the country has had. Formed just after Philippine independence in July 1946, this unit served in the anti-guerilla campaigns against the Hukbalahap of Central and Southern Luzon. With its vast tactical experience in this type of asymmetric warfare, the 2nd BCT were trained in Marikina in preparation for its deployment in Korea. 

It was at the height of the war where advanced elements were sent. From December 1953 to April 1954, the men under Col. Antonio de Veyra and Col. Reynaldo Mendoza performed exemplary service under tremendous obstacles.

The unit arrived in Pusan and then proceeded to the Yanggu Valley where they were attached to the US 24th Infantry Division. Although the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, there were occasional armed incidents between both sides. The unit were demobilized on May 13 to June 6, 1955.

As the PEFTOK's only armored battalion, the 10th BCT is the most decorated and famous Filipino unit to have served in the Korean War. They joined the Pusan landing on September 19, 1950 after a four-day voyage on a US Navy troop transport ship. Though originally known as the 3rd BCT, the unit was activated on April 29, 1949 but was redesignated as a motorized unit in January 1950 and later became an armored battalion with the addition of M4 Sherman tanks and M5 Stuart light tanks. It was led by US-trained Col. Mariano Azurin.

In a country already devastated by war, it was quite surprising for the government to send units to a foreign war when most people are already tired of the needless bloodletting in a growing struggle of superpowers for world dominance. Many leaders view it as an honor and dedication to fight and save democracy from the growing Communist threat.

There was a great deal of press coverage that newspapers like the Evening News, The Manila Times, and The Philippine Herald have sent war correspondents to cover the exploits of the various BCT units in Korea. On a sunny day on September 2, 1950, 60,000 Filipinos filled the Rizal Memorial Stadium to see the 10th BCT parade prior to their September 16 departure.

The 1,400-man BCT arrived on September 19 with a strength composed of a medium tank company, three rifle companies, a reconnaissance company supported by light tanks, and a field artillery battery. Unfortunately, the tanks promised by the Americans to replace the BCT's 17 M4 Shermans and lone M10 Wolverine tank destroyer were destroyed during the UN retreat to the Pusan Perimeter. So they weren't able to use the new tanks in combat.

Fortunately, only the Recon Company received M24 Chaffee tanks while the rest of the "tankless" armored company was reorganized into a heavy weapons company. Nevertheless, the unit served well in the Battle of Yuldong in April 1951 that it become one of the most highly decorated unit in the war.

After two acclimatizing with the Korean terrain, the unit joined the action in Waegwan where they were attached to the US 25th infantry division. Aside from that, the 10th BCT earned its reputation as a one tough anti-guerilla fighting machine with missions that include hunting down North Korean guerillas that harrassed the main supply route.

As they suppressed guerillas that disrupted communications and transport, the unit took casualties from the 35,000-strong Communist guerillas scattered throughout the rugged redion. Pvt. Alipio Ceciliano was killed in a guerilla ambush along the Naktong River, the first Filipino killed-in-action in the Korean War.

Crossing the 38th parallel line on October 31, 1950, war correspondent Johnny Villasanta became the first reporter to reached the North with advanced elements of the 10th BCT. They arrived in Pyongyang the next day and given the mission to secure the supply route from Kaesong to the North Korean capital from marauding guerillas.

In the outskirts of Muldong, the Filipinos met resistance against a determined North Korean battalion where 50 Koreans and a Filipino killed in the pitch battle. It was the first military victory by the Philippines in foreign soil. Subsequently, five-man commando team led by Lt. Venancio "Bonny" Serrano raided a North Korean unit on November 5, 1950 resulting in 77 captured enemy soldiers and sympathizers along with their arms and supplies.
The arrival of the cold winter weather and impending entry of the million-strong Chinese forces have put the unit into the breaking point. With men not accustomed to subzero conditions, relations between Col. Azurin and the commanding officer of the American unit grew and Azurin was eventually relieved from his command. Col. Dionesio Ojeda picked up the slack despite new heavy winter gear were already distributed to the men.

Already worn out and drained in morale, the men faced the full fury of the Chinese as the People's Republic of China sent more than 200,000 men on November 25, 1950 in support of their North Korean comrades. The US 10th Corps and 8th Army took the brunt of the Chinese offensive in the Yalu River. The Chinese eventually pushed the Allied forces back to the south and captured Pyongyang and Seoul within the year. It was the longest retreat thereby breaking their "Home for Christmas" campaign. The war has to be fought all over again when it seems that their already in the brink of ending it.

Christmas of 1950 was celebrated in Suwon, along the Han River, and culminated with a February 1951 counterattack with the illustrious US 3rd Infantry Division. This time, the Chinese units were already a spent force as they sufferred heavy losses and materiel. In a hill to hill campaign, the 10th BCT was busy capturing enemy positions and defeating Chinese counterattacks along the way from March to April 1951.

The battalion took part in the largest battle of all - the Battle of Yuldong. In the so-called Great Spring Offensive, the Chinese and North Korean allies massed over quarter a million men to finally destroy the UN forces. On April 22, 1951, the counterattack began and Filipino units try to bombard the enemy with mortar fire. But the enemy moved through the night to avoid being spotted so the UN forces eventually gave up ground amidst these unhindered enemy assault.

The UN command decided to establish lines of control througout the peninsula in order to serve as springboards for attacks and defensive fortifications. One of these lines was Line Kansas, which was located 10-14 miles north of the demarcation line. The Line Kansas is composed of two northward bulges called Line Wyoming and Line Utah where the 10th were deployed to reinforce the later on April 22. Signs of enemy counterattack were determined so they reinforced the position with foxholes, machine gun nest, and barbed wire entanglement in order to defend the three-mile sector of the 40-mile front line above the Imjin River.

Also added into the mix are the Puerto Ricans of the US 65th Infantry Regiment, the British 29th Independent Infantry Brigade with Belgian soldiers, the British 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, the British 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, the British 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, the US 3rd Infantry Division, and the South Korean 1st Division. Also joining into the defense is a battalion of the Turkish Brigade.

Opposing them are the Chinese 31st, 34th, 35th and 181st Divisions that were part of the 12th Army. The 40,000 men army is also supported with 200,000 "volunteers" and heavy concentration of artilleries and armoured units.

The Chinese started the opening salvo with a massive artillery barrage that lasted four hours as some UN sectors are under attacked. The Heavy Weapons company of the 10th BCT made contact with the Chinese in a furious firefight. Despite the flood of enemy soldiers, the unit held their ground as the battleground became hellishly chaotic. 

Unfortunately, the Chinese started to break through as the weaker units started to fall back. Many supporting units were wiped out or simply retreated by April 23 leaving the 10th BCT surrounded by the Chinese. Despite terrible losses, the enemy continued to attack and ventually overran the lone Tank Company. Capt. Conrado Yap, commanding officer of the Tank Company, was killed in this counterattack. His men had, however, retrieved the bodies of Lt. Jose Artiaga (Yap's closest friend) and the men of Lt. Artiaga's shattered and badly understrength 1st Platoon. 

Artiaga received the Distinguished Service Cross for leading his outnumbered men in the most dramatic saga of the Battle of Yuldong while Yap was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor, the Philippines' highest award for heroism. The Tank Company received a unit citation from the US Eighth Army for this valiant action. 

At dawn on April 23, the 10th BCT supported by two of its M24 light tanks got their revenge by attacking the surprised Chinese, who were regrouping following the murderous night battle, killing many and driving the survivors out of its positions.

The unit withdraw despite missing other UN units to perform rear-guard action against the relentless enemy attacks. But the exhausted 10th BCT was placed with under the British in a counterattack to relieve the encircled Gloucestershire battalion. With their M24 light tanks, the Filipinos fought to save the battalion. Many of the soldiers died along the way. With no room to maneuver, the rescue attempt faltered as the Chinese destroyed the British battalion.

On April 26, a Chinese regiment encircled and captured an entire Filipino platoon of 40 men in a sudden attack. The confused fighting during the nerve-wracking withdrawal saw the heroic death of Staff Sgt. Nicolas Mahusay, who gave his life in an attack on enemy mortars that had pinned down the battalion. He was cut down by enemy fire after silencing the mortars and allowing the battalion to escape.

During the UN counterattack in June 1951, the 10th was once more in the fight, battering Chinese rearguards impeding its advance. The 10th led the UN advance to the Taejo River, where it killed 65 Chinese, and secured the vital Chorwon Reservoir. The battalion then reverted to the reserve of the US 3rd Infantry Division. The US 3rd Infantry Division commanding officer Maj. Gen. Robert “Shorty” Soule said the 10th was the best Allied unit in his division and earned the famous nickname, “The Fighting Filipinos.”

The repulse of the Chinese Spring Offensive in April and the second phase of this offensive in May brought the combatants to the peace table. Armistice negotiations to end the war began 10 July 1951 in Kaesong, a village in North Korea. With the beginning of peace talks, the war of movement and big battles came to an end and was replaced by savage small unit actions for strategic terrain. 

The Chinese used the lull to reinforce and bring up its heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns. As a result, artillery barrages by both the Chinese and the UN were heavier than those in World Wars 1 and 2. Half of the Americans killed during the Korea War died during the truce negotiations.

In the end, the battle cost the 10th BCT 10 KIA, 26 WIA, and 14 MIA while the UN command lost over 7,000 men during the first day of the Chinese counterattack while the Chinese suffered 70,000 dead.

On September 6, 1951, the 10th BCT were relieved by the 20th BCT. They were officially pulled out from the war 21 days later and the heroes of the Battle of Yuldong received a rapturous heroes welcome back in Manila on October 23. 

In its 398 days in the Korean War, the battalion lost 63 men killed, 145 wounded and 58 missing-in-action, for a total of 266 battle casualties, the highest casualty toll among all five PEFTOK BCTs. On 5 May 1952, the battalion’s dead returned to the Philippines, with many buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

More than just comic book superheroes, the Avengers were formed by then-Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay because of its service record in the anti-Huk campaign. Under the leadership of Col. Nicanor Jimenez, the 14th BCT arrived in Pusan on March 26, 1953.

The unit proceeded to Chuncon via train and were transported to the Injo Valley. They were deployed to the frontline by May 15 in a sector where the main invasion routes of the west central front are located. Its mission was to preven the enemy from using the valley, which included the "Sandbag Castle" and "Heartbreak Ridge," as strategic command centers. 

Skirmish with the enemy ensued as aggressive patrols in the enemy territory resulted in a vicious close quarter combat. A squad under Staff Sgt. Ponciano Agno rescued another squad encircled by the Chinese. Among the rescued was Pfc. Aquilino Agustin, who escaped by exploding two grenades into the face of his captors. As a result, Agustin received the US Silver Star for his heroic act.

After two months at the front during which it lost 4 men KIA and 27 WIA, the battalion was relieved by units of the US 45th Infantry Division. On its return to the front, the unit was involved in another rescue mission with the South Korean 20th Infantry in danger.

In late July, the 14th was pulled out of the front line and moved to the Yanggu Valley. In this new base, the battalion embarked on an intensive training program and joined in efforts to rebuild villages along the Yanggu Valley. For its efforts, the 14th BCT received the South Korean Presidential Unit Citation in December 1953, and the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation upon its return home in March 1954.

Another anti-Huk campaign veteran is the 19th BCT. It arrived in Korea in late April 1952 with Col. Ramon Aguirre at the helm.

The unit held an area of the main line of resistance in the Chorwon-Siboni corridor in the west central sector of Korea. It was first attached operationally to the US 1st Corps and then to the US 45th Infantry Division. Armistice negotiations to end the war were being discussed when the 19th went into action against the Chinese People's Volunteer Army. But their most outstanding combat achievement was in the battle for hills dominating the Chorwon-Siboni area, considered he most vulnerable sector of the UN’s frontline. The battalion was given responsibility for defending Hill 191 (also called Arsenal Hill) and Hill Eerie, comprising Combat Outpost No. 8, on June 17, 1952.

On June 18, the Chinese bombarded the unit's positions with heavy artillery fire, killing two men and wounding four. The battalion’s howitzers and mortars returned fire, inflicting casualties on the enemy as well. The intense artillery duel was a prelude to what would soon be called “The Rizal Day Battle for Combat Outpost No. 8.” The Chinese continued pummeling the battalion’s positions the next day in preparation for an infantry assault that was later aborted after the 19th returned fire. The intense artillery duels resulted in the deaths of eight Filipinos, including an officer.

On the night of June 20, the Chinese opened a heavy artillery and mortar barrage against the unit and an immediate and massive infantry attack towards Hills Eerie and 191. A savage hand-to-hand and bayonet melee throughout the evening ensued. Just like a medieval battle, the trench warfare was confusing and bloody with Lt. Apollo Tiano personally led his platoon in a bayonet charge against the advancing Chinese, killing one before being killed himself. His men held their positions despite the relentless seige.

The Chinese ware fought to a standstill and forced to retreat by a savage counterattack. The fight continued until the morning of the 21st. The retreating Chinese left behind the hulks of two tanks and over 500 dead. Eight Filipinos were killed and 16 wounded in the brutal night battle.

At the end of this gory, four-day battle, a group of Filipino soldiers ascended Hill 191 and, in full view of the Chinese, planted the Filipino flag on its summit. It was a heroic act of defiance that told the Chinese they had lost this battle.

The unit drew respect and praise from other UN units. They were the first battalion to receive the South Korean Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation and a Battle Citation from the US X Corps.

A few weeks before the Battle of Yuldong, the first contingent of the 20th BCT arrived to relieve the depleted 10th BCT on September 5, 1951. The veteran anti-Huk unit was led by Col. Salvador Abcede.

Inheriting a vicious guerrilla war from the 10th BCT, both the UN forces and the Communists opened armistice negotiations to end the war by July 1951, first at the town of Kaesong then at Panmunjom. As a result, the great attacks and counterattacks of the war’s first year gave way to a stalemate on the battlefield.

Refreshing the trench warfare of the Western Front, this time modern artillery and unequaled savagery mowed units to death in a land studded with land mines, barbed wire fences, and machine gun nests. It seems that the battle is going to a stalemate. During the Allies’ autumn offensive, the 20th BCT attacked and forced the Chinese from Hills 277, 321, 300 and 313. In its forward drive, the 20th penetrated the farthest north (towards Pyongyang) than any UN unit.

By late October, the unit took part in the Allied attack on the heavily defended “Iron Triangle,” made up of the cities of Pyonggang, Kumhwa and Chorwon. It took two hills from the Chinese and repelled tank-led enemy attacks at Sibyon-yi. In late November, the battalion was in Kojang-yari, west of the Imjin River. It was part of the UN force that established the truce demarcation line and beat off repeated enemy attacks on this line. With the US 67th Infantry Regiment, the 20th destroyed the Chinese 64th Army that attacked the Allied line east of the Imjin River.

The 20th BCT was involved in establishing outposts in strategic areas and repelling any enemy incursions into the forward positions by late 1951 and early 1952. Offensive patrols raided enemy positions to the north. The unit was then committed east of Imjin by March and April with several patrol missions to weed out enemy tanks and self-propelled guns resulting into 400 enemy casualties.

At the town of Karhwagol, west of Chorwon, the battalion fought the Chinese in nine combat actions, seven of which were close quarter fights at Hills Eerie, 191, 200, 198, Yoke and Old Baldy.

They later fought at Pork Chop Hill and at the Alligator Jaw, a terrain feature so named because its hills and ridges formed the letter V. Hill Eerie, a particularly infamous hill that had changed hands many times, was attacked and taken for the last time on May 21 by a platoon commanded by Lt. Fidel Ramos, the future Philippine president. At the end of their tour of duty, the 20th BCT lost 13 men killed in action, 100 wounded in action and one man missing in action.

Peftok Stories by Rina Jimenez-David


  1. tnx..for posting this article, i'm a filipino, and i'm proud to be..

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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: We Were Soldiers: Filipinos Who Fought in the Korean War
We Were Soldiers: Filipinos Who Fought in the Korean War
The Korean War seems to be a distant memory but there was a time when Filipinos fought in a war that is not theirs to begin with. A war may have been forgotten but it has left an imprint to our history of being freedom fighters. In fact, a memory of the war was even etched in our P500 paper bill that most of us do not know. It was the time before Koreans arrived in the Philippines in record numbers. They owe us their freedom because without these valiant soldiers, South Korea would have been under Communist rule.
Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger
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