YEONCHEON COUNTY, South Korea?Leading a group of around 20 Filipinos in prayer, Sister Luz Olalia bowed solemnly in front of the Philippine monuments in Yuldong as she recited the exploits of Filipino soldiers who fought during the Korean War.
Yuldong was the site of a fierce battle in 1951 where the 10th Battalion Combat Team of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK) suffered heavy casualty while defending South Korea from the invasion of the communist North.
Near the battle site, two monuments dedicated to Filipino soldiers were later erected by the South Korean and US governments as a tribute to the conviction and brave decision of the Filipino soldiers to continue securing the front lines despite aggressive attacks from enemy forces.
Largely unknown because of their distance from Seoul and their precarious proximity to the border with North Korea, the monuments were partly covered in snow when visited by a group of Filipinos from Kasan led by Sister Olalia. Except for her, none of the other Filipinos were aware of the participation of Philippine troops in the Korean War, much less the existence of monuments dedicated to their heroism.
This lack of awareness is what the Philippine Embassy in South Korea is aiming to change, according to Ambassador Luis T. Cruz. As the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Yuldong approaches on 22 April 2011, he expressed hope that more Filipinos would undertake activities similar to the one spearheaded by Sister Olalia on 4 February.
?It is important for us to learn the role of Filipino soldiers in safeguarding the freedom of South Korea and understand the strong ties that bind our histories,? he said, adding that Philippine textbooks do not contain detailed information about the exploits of the first Filipino combat troops to fight in a foreign country.
?Their stories of valor and loyalty, of defeats and triumphs, of literally offering their lives to assist others in a time of war?these are stories from which we can gather pride, solace and strength,? he stated.
The Philippines in the Korean War
The Philippines sent a total of 7,420 soldiers to South Korea, 112 of whom were killed in action. Five battalion combat teams?each combat team had a one-year tour of duty?were deployed from 1950 to 1955.
The first team left Manila on 16 September 1950 on board the ship Antolak after a massive send-off rally at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila. Carrying 1,367 men, the ship landed on Busan on 19 September.
It was this team that figured prominently in the Battle of Yuldong, where besieged UN forces were forced to retreat following the Chinese Spring Offensive of 1951.
?This monument commemorates the most brilliant victory of Filipino soldiers over Red Chinese forces in the battle for Yuldong,? proclaims the bigger monument. The meter-high monument was erected by the people of Yeoncheon County and unveiled on 22 April 1966 in a ceremony attended by high-ranking Korean and Filipino officials.
A smaller monument, unfortunately worn and unreadable in some parts because of time, reads, ?In memory of the gallant officers and men? who on this spot paid the supreme sacrifice in the cause of freedom under the banner of the United Nations.?
The marker is ?dedicated to the heroes of Yuldong by their comrades in arms of the 20th Battalion Combat Team,? which replaced the contingent that fought in Yuldong.
For almost four decades since they were erected, the monuments were with few visitors. Access was difficult and their proximity to the border meant that the movement of vehicles and people in the area was restricted during volatile times.
In 2008, the eve of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and South Korea, the Philippine Embassy began coordination with the local government of Yeoncheon County to improve the condition of the markers. The County consequently converted the place where the bigger monument stood into a small park, buying adjacent land to increase the area devoted to the memory of the PEFTOK.
The smaller monument was moved from its original location on top of a low hill some 30 meters away. The two monuments now stand together on a common base over one meter in height, beside poles that fly the Philippine, Korean and UN flags.
Not Just Yuldong
In the course of their duty, the PEFTOK battalions fought several other battles and received citations from the Korean and Philippine governments.
Former President Fidel V. Ramos, who was then a second lieutenant, commanded a reconnaissance platoon that successfully took over Hill Eerie on 21 May 1952. The tactically important hill ensured that it became part of the defense lines of the UN.
Filipino troops also took part in campaigns in other places such as Miudong in North Korea. Fought on 31 October 1950, it was the first battle on foreign soil involving Filipino soldiers. Also based on the account of Filipino writer Mariano Manawis, the first Philippine military court to convene outside the Philippines held its session by the Han River in May 1951.
The role of the Philippines in ensuring its freedom is a continuing source of gratitude for the government of South Korea, and in October 1974 it inaugurated the biggest memorial for the Philippines. Towering at 21.5 meters, the Philippine Monument in Goyang City incorporates both Filipino and Korean motif in its design. South Korea dedicated monuments to all countries that stood with them during the Korean War, and the Philippines was certainly no exception.
The War Memorial in Seoul and the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan both contain the names of Filipinos who perished during the war. The Philippine Department of National Defense funded the construction of the marker at the UN Memorial Cemetery in 2009, where fallen Filipino soldiers were temporarily interred before their bodies were repatriated to the Philippines.
Sister Olalia, a long-time missionary in South Korea and recipient of the 2010 Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals Overseas, said that stories about the Filipino veterans inspired her to involve her community in knowing more about the first Filipinos in South Korea.
?Iba ang pakiramdam kapag nakita mo ang bandera ng Pilipinas sa ibang bansa,? she shared.
?We hope to further connect Filipinos in South Korea with an exemplary moment in our history by intensifying efforts to promote awareness about the role of Filipinos in the Korean War,? said Amb. Cruz.
The Philippines was the eighth country to respond to the call of the United Nations for a joint coalition to assist South Korea after the North?s surprise invasion on 25 June 1950.
Filipino General Carlos Romulo, who was the president of the U.N. General Assembly in 1950, strongly supported military action in defense of South Korea.
"The application of military sanctions in Korea is in itself an act of the greatest significance," he declared in a speech at the General Assembly on 25 September 1950, referring to the decision of the Security Council to create an international coalition to send to the peninsula.