Mission possible to Ayungin Shoal: Get around China to revisit ‘LT 57’ | Global News

Mission possible to Ayungin Shoal: Get around China to revisit ‘LT 57’

By: - Reporter / @NikkoDizonINQ
/ 01:19 AM April 06, 2014

HOORAY. Marine Sgt. Rey Sarmiento (R) and Pfc. Ryan Esteban react when the PH supply ship arrives March 29, alongside BRP Sierra Madre, their home for 138 days. GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE

AYUNGIN SHOAL, West Philippine Sea—Standing on the bridge of the AM700, our small resupply vessel, Navy Lt. (s.g.) Ferdinand Gato had his eyes on the looming image of a huge rusting ship here on Ayungin Shoal.

We were sailing on a shallow part of the shoal. The Chinese Coast Guard vessel that tried to block our way earlier was already behind us.


From the moment we began our 36-and-a-half-hour trip to Ayungin Shoal, Gato had a mantra: “We will get to 57, no matter what.”

His smile, as he repeatedly said this throughout our journey on the high seas, wasn’t so much an indication of confidence as of determination.


By “57,” Gato was referring to the BRP Sierra Madre, the dilapidated landing ship tank (LT 57) that has become the country’s symbol of sovereignty in the territory that is also being claimed by China.


Mischievous reply

It was run aground in 1999 as the Philippines’ reply to China’s seizure of the nearby Mischief Reef four years earlier.


But aside from bringing a fresh batch of Marine soldiers and months-long worth of food and other necessities, Gato’s trip was inadvertently a personal one, too.

The Sierra Madre had been his ship from 1993 to 1994, when, as a young Navy lieutenant, he knew the ship like the back of his hand. He was its gunnery and cargo officer. Ironically, he was also on top of making sure the ship was always spanking clean.

In the galley while waiting for the other journalists to have a boodle breakfast of fried rice and sardines on Sunday morning, Gato, nicknamed “Gats” in the military, said we were standing on top of the ship’s war room, its cargo area, as well as the hospital.


“Those are still the original plates of the cargo area,” he pointed to the floor.

Gato, 45, said his heart sank when he saw Sierra Madre that he and other Navy men tried to keep as pretty as they could when they were her crew.

“I went to my old cabin. I felt really sad. I could hardly look at the ship because of how old she has grown,” Gato said in Filipino.


He remembered the time when Navy men could still jog around the Sierra Madre. Now, one has to carefully tread its floors as one wrong step could send one crashing down its dirty hull.

Military workhorse

Gato told reporters that in the ’70s, the Sierra Madre was among the workhorses of the military while fighting the secessionist movement of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

When Gato was assigned to the ship, they transported as many as 2,000 soldiers from two battalions to Mindanao at the height of the war with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Gato also said it was the Sierra Madre that brought hundreds of Vietnamese refugees to Palawan province from Bataan province.

Gato graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and had applied for work at the Philippine Navy’s shipyard. Instead, his papers found their way to the Naval Officers Qualification Course Charlie. He became part of Class 127 and became an officer in 1992.

Ten years later, Gato left the military service to concentrate on his family. At some point, he dabbled in local politics in Puerto Princesa City but realized he didn’t have a future in it.

He returned to the service in 2011, as a reservist officer in active duty. Had he not resigned from the Armed Forces, he would have been a commander (lieutenant colonel) or even a captain (full colonel) by now.

Last-minute assignment

Gato’s assignment as the March 29 mission head was given to him at the last minute. But as the logistics officer of the Naval Forces West, he has monitored several missions to Ayungin Shoal. Simply put, he has been part of the team that studies all the missions, whether they failed or succeeded.

There have been several lessons learned, certainly. And Gato put them to good use by devising several strategies and tactics if and when the Chinese Coast Guard blocks the Philippine vessels on a resupply and rotational troop mission to Ayungin Shoal.

Gato, along with AM700 captain Lt. (j.g.) Sherwin Bulahan and his crew, outsmarted the huge Chinese Coast Guard vessel that declared we were in the “sea area under the jurisdiction of China” and that we were “conducting an illegal activity.”


Gato was unfazed by those statements. Firmly, he told the Chinese Coast Guard that we would proceed to resupply LT 57. At one point, he faced the Chinese ship and gestured toward the Sierra Madre, indicating we definitely would not be turning back.

Up close, the Sierra Madre still projects a certain kind of pride despite her sorry state, slightly listing to her portside.

She is one of the most important ships in the Philippine Navy fleet today, perhaps as important as the recently acquired warships, BRP Gregorio del Pilar and BRP Ramon Alcaraz.

Crucial mission

Old as she is, the Sierra Madre is performing perhaps the most important mission of her lifetime.

She was home to the Marine platoon led by 1st Lt. Mike Pelatora for a punishing 138 days.

When the AM700 slipped past the Chinese Coast Guard ship, Pelatora and his men jumped 40 feet into the waters of Ayungin Shoal from the Sierra Madre’s free board. They were just too happy.

They were supposed to have been picked up a week earlier, but the Chinese Coast Guard chased away the civilian Philippine vessel as it neared the shoal.

Two nights before the AM700 arrived, Pelotera and his men had been monitoring the vicinity, forgoing any decent sleep.

The Sierra Madre was on red alert on the eve of our arrival after they monitored seven Chinese Coast Guard vessels surrounding LT 57.

Pelotera admitted he and his men kept their expectations in check from the resupply mission headed by Gato. They did not want to be disappointed again, following the failed mission a week before.

Survival tricks

The trick to survive a five-month deployment in the middle of the West Philippine Sea was to keep everyone busy, Pelotera said. “We had to keep ourselves physically and mentally fit,” he said.

They fixed any part of the ship that they could, such as the all-important improvised hanging ladder by the ship’s fantail, especially so that the Sierra Madre’s entire lifeline had already been lost.

“We really worked on every room to make it habitable,” Pelotera, 30, said.

They couldn’t, however, have a haircut or shave their beards because their razors and scissors easily rusted in the salty air.

They put up a small chapel beside the entertainment area after some ghostly encounters on the Sierra Madre. It was, after all, a hospital ship where not a few people had died.

Pelotera said the eerie presence they felt on the ship lessened after they put the altar and had Bible studies at least twice a week.


Daily sightings

Every day, Pelotera and his men would report any sightings they had surrounding the Sierra Madre—from the different aircraft flying by to the ships that appear in the horizon.

They had to report every four hours.

Of course, there was time for rest as well. They have the ubiquitous “videoke” and a number of DVDs. They also had books and old newspapers to read. Well, over and over again.

Their entertainment area is on top of what used to be the cargo hatch of the ship.

Swimming is a pastime, but fishing is a routine to have something fresh to eat in place of the customary canned goods.

Part of the Sierra Madre’s main deck has been converted into the galley.

They sleep in the officers’ cabin where the toilet is located.

The important radio room, the only part of the Sierra Madre that the media were not allowed to take pictures of, is located in the 01 deck.

Gato explained that the 01 deck used to accommodate the commanding officer’s quarters. Atop was the Sierra Madre’s combat information center, the command center where “all the action happened,” Gato said.

It had the pilothouse, which has been converted into another sleeping quarters, the radar room and the sonar room, one of which is now the exercise area.

“The command center was also compartmentalized. Personnel in the radio room and the sonar room were not able to listen to each other so that no one would be rattled during combat,” Gato said.

The Sierra Madre is equipped with a twin barrel 40 millimeters in its bow and fantail.

‘Sacred’ rooster

When Pelotera and his men arrived at the Sierra Madre on Nov. 12 last year, one of them brought along a rooster they named “Sagrado” (sacred).

“Sagrado is the rooster’s name because it will remind us that we could never touch it no matter how much we were craving a chicken dish,” Pelotera said, chuckling.

On a serious note, Pelotera said Sagrado was their clock, crowing and waking them up at sunrise.

“We never missed a sunrise at Ayungin. Even the sunset. We just loved looking at them every single day. The sea, the sun, it’s so beautiful at Ayungin, we were like in paradise,” Pelotera said.

Almost a week after he returned on land, Pelotera told the Inquirer on the phone that there were moments when he actually missed the Sierra Madre. He repeated what he had said days before, that he and his men would always be willing to be deployed to Ayungin Shoal because of the importance of the mission.

But nothing compares, too, to the joy brought by being with his wife, Jevelyn, and their 3-year-old son, Mike Jr.

Pelotera and his men are now on a two-week rest before their return to their Marine battalions.

As for Gato, it’s back to planning for the next mission to Ayungin Shoal. The fresh batch of Marines on the Sierra Madre is facing a tough time, with China expressing extreme disappointment with that incident on March 29 as well as the Philippines’ filing its memorial, or summary of arguments, on its protest before the International Tribunal of the Laws of the Seas (Itlos).

“China has been very assertive. They are very confident that Ayungin is theirs, that you are entering their territory,” Gato said.

But Gato and all the other officers and men tasked to guard the country’s territory are just as assertive and confident.

Just remember that day on the Philippine sea when a David outwitted a Goliath.



Ayungin Shoal standoff: At sunset, I’ll jump into the water to enjoy what’s ours


Sleepless on Ayungin Shoal


US: We stand by our allies

China warned: Don’t try to tow away BRP Sierra Madre

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