Warriors for Peace: Soldiers’ tales from Viet war
In the mid-1960s, while the Vietnam War was raging, then Army Capt. Jose T. Almonte and other Filipino soldiers flew to the war-torn country on a humanitarian mission.
Almonte was posted in Thanh Dien, a forested Viet Cong stronghold in the province of Tay Ninh where the Filipino contingent would build a resettlement project for the refugees.
During a foray into the forest, littered with homemade antipersonnel mines, Almonte was talking with his escort, a black American master sergeant, when a loud explosion occurred.
“I turned to look at him and I saw his headless body, with pieces of his flesh and bones splattered on my face,” he recalled.
Almonte survived to tell the story. Others were not as lucky.
In March 1967, a member of the ordnance unit was killed, while another was wounded while deactivating a land mine. Some had come under sniper fire, shelling an attack by the Viet Cong, ending up dead or wounded.
Perils of war
Such were the perils faced by the Filipino troopers dispatched to Vietnam to build roads and bridges, and care for the war-weary Vietnamese through medical and dental missions.
The soldiers’ tales were chronicled by veteran journalist Ben Cal in the book, “Warriors for Peace,” which was launched Tuesday last week at the AFP Museum in Camp Aguinaldo.
The launch coincided with the 50th anniversary of the departure of the Philippine Civic Action Group (Philcag), composed of soldiers, doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers and laboratory technicians for Vietnam.
“Ben gives a human face of Philcag’s accomplishments during the war as it fulfilled its mission to build and not destroy,” Undersecretary Ernesto Carolina, who commissioned the book as administrator of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, said at the launch.
After the war broke out in the early ‘60s, the South Vietnamese Government appealed to Free World countries, including the Philippines, to send combat troops to fight the communist rebels.
Since Congress opposed the deployment of combat troops, President Macapagal instead sent a 34-man Philippine Contingents (Philcon) to South Vietnam to conduct medical and dental mission in 1964.
Two years later, President Marcos followed suit by dispatching the Philcag contingent to South Vietnam.
And so during their three-year tour of duty, the medical team lived in the hamlets of Tay Ninh province and treated more than 1 million Vietnamese, while the engineers built the resettlement center for refugees in Thanh Dien forest, as well as roads, bridges, schoolhouses and clinics.
“I discovered the great sacrifices that our troopers made during their tour of duty,” recalled Cal, who interviewed Philcag veterans, including former President Fidel V. Ramos, and collated documents to write the book.
“Despite the risks, the Filipinos, who were noncombatants, performed their mission fearlessly, and courageously.”
Everywhere they went, they were called “Philuatan,” meaning Filipinos are No. 1. according to Cal.
“When we arrived there Vietnamese started calling us Philuatan. It turns out that a Filipino contingent had been there ahead of us, composed of three doctors and three nurses who operated a very small hospital. We carried that label until now among Vietnamese,” recalled former Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, who was part of the first Philcag.
When they arrived there, the contingent lost no time in conducting medical and dental services because Tay Ninh had no doctors, he said.
“We had a Filipino doctor who left the Philippines as a general practicing doctor. By the time he left Vietnam after three yeas, he was a surgeon because of the many operations he handled,” he said, referring to the surgeries of wounded soldiers and civilians at the local hospital.
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