Soldier in the Cold War
A Passage Through Korea
Second Lieutenant Fidel V. Ramos, a US Military Academy (West Point) graduate of 1950, volunteered to the Korean frontlines at the height of the conflict from 1951 to 1952. He had declined an offer of a high position in the government of President Ramon Magsaysay, preferring instead to participate in the military defense of democracy during the Cold War. He returned to the Philippines as a decorated Korean War hero, a recognition given by the US Armed Forces for his masterful conduct of a mission to secure a pivotal military target. He led an Infantry Reconnaissance Platoon in sabotaging a North Korean fortification on Hill Eerie in May 1952. The ensuing battle fought by Filipino volunteer members of the 20th Battalion Combat Team of the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (PEFTOK) was hard won. Half a decade before the Korean War, Filipino soldiers had endured the wages of resistance to Japanese Occupation and were battle-hardened.
For the new graduate Fidel, the Korean War was his first combat experience. The Korean theater had the qualities of anti-insurgency warfare, but more importantly, it was an actual hot war during the Cold War. His sister, Senator Leticia Ramos Shahani, described the Korean War as “the last infantry war of the century.” The freshly minted lieutenant fought in the Korean Peninsula with many of his West Point classmates, over a hundred of whom were assigned to combat duty. The attrition for West Point Batch '51 was high, but these young military men were highly trained and intensely motivated, possessed of the commitment to democracy. (PEFTOK was with the US-Allied army.) Ramos described the battle of Hill Eerie, a US military post about sixteen kilometers west of Ch’ŏrwŏn, in what is now North Korea15:
On 21 May 1952, my platoon was assigned the mission to capture Hill Eerie, a strategic strong point on the CHICOM (Chinese Communist) defense perimeter that was manned by a platoon-sized detachment supported by main force units. I was then twenty-four years old and about to undergo my baptism of fire in a conventional war that was quite different from the guerrilla type of operations against the Huks that I had experienced in Luzon.
The official army history describes the assault as being led by “a young Filipino officer, a 1950 graduate of West Point… Second Lieutenant Fidel V. Ramos…”
Eerie, well-fortified with bunkers and communications trenches, was then defended by an estimated reinforced CCF platoon. Immediately after the planned preparation fires pounded the hill, Filipinos assaulted the crest.… Within ten minutes they reached the barbed wire entanglement.
Hill Eerie repeatedly fell back to Communist forces. For a definitive win, it was necessary for US fighter aircraft to bombard enemy positions. Ramos’ small forty-four-man infantry group, divided into scout, assault, and demolition teams, advanced in the dark one early spring morning, given cover under familiar rice paddies, when a firefight ensued, lasting two hours. Ramos recalled: “It was a life-or-death situation…. Somehow, I was able to keep calm…. We were able to capture Hill Eerie without suffering any casualties….” Allied commanders, including General Douglas MacArthur, praised PEFTOK for their exceptional gallantry in combat. Colonel Alex Lancaster, assistant operations officer of the US Eighth Army said, “[G]ive me the Filipino combat team and I will fight anywhere above the 38th Parallel.” The show of bravery would further the Filipino soldier’s already storied reputation as the Second World War’s beleaguered but unbowed freedom fighters.
For Lieutenant Ramos, Korea would be the pivot from youthful soldier to a commander exercising battle-hardiness and clarity of mission. He was not to remain a Cold War soldier despite a subsequent deployment in Vietnam, principally because he was to later help the Philippines transition to the 21st century and its changed circumstances. Relying on a series of Philippine Constitutions—all framed by Liberal Democracy— the soldier, engineer, and ultimately statesman Ramos consistently battled for democracy from the time he led his battalion up Hill Eerie. He was not to be persuaded by autocracy in any form and at any point in his long life.
His assignments immediately after Korea locked him into this life-long trajectory. He became commanding officer of a company in the 16th BCT in 1957. Following a two-year tour as Senior Assistant Deputy to the Chief of Staff, he was Chairman of the Army’s unconventional warfare committee up to 1961. Soldier Ramos got his “biggest break” in 1963 upon his designation as commanding officer of the Army’s Special Forces Group. It became a three-year assignment which earned him the title of “Father of the Special Forces” in the country. The elite commando group, like similar SAF units in the US and some European armies, was trained to embody the armed services’ polished spear point. Directed at the knottiest military objectives, Ramos’ SFG was quick and precise. It raised high the Philippine military’s expertise bar. In time, General Ramos, as commanding general of the Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police (PC-INP), would institutionalize a SAF unit within the police organization, modeled after the army strike force. What was already clear to him even in the 50s-60s was his personal bottom line: “Whenever necessary, we must fight to protect our freedom and democratic way of life.”
Lt. Ramos gave up an offer of a high government position and opted to be sent to the front during the hot war of the Cold War.
Ramos family archives
Platoon commander Lieutenant Ramos deployed both his engineering and tactical skills to dominate a particularly dangerous buildup of communist forces at the border of North Korea.
Ramos family archives
The Korean War brought Lieutenant Ramos to the battlefield, from academe to actual tactical experience.
Ramos family archives
Action in Vietnam
The Korean War ended with two Koreas of violently contrasting ideologies—the status quo up to the present. The Cold War world order was a dyadic split between communist and capitalist national political philosophies. Soldiers and officers on both sides inevitably saw action in ideologically charged battlefields, the most gruelling of which was the twenty-year Vietnam War fought between that country’s north and south. Either side was armed and otherwise supported by its ideological superpower patron. The Vietnam War was paralleled by border flashpoints along Europe’s Iron Curtain, so called because it also cleaved East and West along the line of difference imposed by hard political dogma.
In this divided world, a small country like the Philippines could not simply take sides. The country already paid dearly for siding with the US during the Second World War. Yet, the Philippines remained committed to democracy. Ferdinand E. Marcos, the incumbent president, decided to send a contingent to the Vietnam War in support of US military forces. However, it was a non-combat engineering battalion, not a fighting unit as was the case in Korea. The Americans also deployed aircraft, aircraft carriers, and submarines to Vietnam from the US Bases in Clark and Subic. Mid-20th century Philippines was embroiled in the Vietnam War by virtue of its proximity, coupled with the highly emotional Philippine-US ties strengthened during the Second World War. Still rebuilding from the immense physical damage wrought by the war, the Philippines was tied to US development aid. It was in this context that the decorated Korean War veteran and newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Fidel V. Ramos was named Chief of Staff of the Philippine Civil Action Group (PHILCAG), a group directed to engineering works in Vietnam during the war.
Lieutenant Colonel Ramos, charged with the performance and safety of the 2,000-man PHILCAG, saw a war markedly differed from Korea. The civil action to which the group was assigned included the responsibility to “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese populations it was active in, and so PHILCAG looked after the welfare of their surrounding communities. But while the battalion’s actions were limited to their camp perimeter, it was nevertheless involved in numerous skirmishes with the Viet Cong, which tried to breach their defenses. Even as the Philippine contribution to the US forces in the Vietnam War was a building mission, PHILCAG took up much more than civil relations duties. During the Tet offensive, it rescued Philippine Ambassador Luis Moreno–Salcedo and his family when the Viet Cong attacked the Philippine Embassy in Saigon.
In the two years Lieutenant Colonel Ramos and his group served in Vietnam, from 1966 to 1968, the brutal war demanded a mixed set of skills: the dexterity to keep out of the main fighting while still engaged in combat situations; and engineering both physical infrastructure and the promotion of the free world through civil relations. Ramos led the advance party to Vietnam in 1966, taking him almost to the Cambodian border, in Tay Ninh province, near the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Viet Cong command center. The PHILCAG camp was within enemy mortar range. Indeed, the Viet Cong attacked the adjacent headquarters of the US 196th Light Infantry Brigade on Ramos’ first night in the area. He responded with engineering works—barbed wire entanglements and sandbags set up around the camp, and bunkers and other bombproof shelters—to secure the safe arrival and encampment of the contingent, scheduled to arrive a month later. Ramos recounted the ironic circumstances:
I was the head of the advance party of the PHILCAG (Philippine Civil Action Group to Vietnam) that went to a tiny province at the Cambodian border—the so-called Alligator Jaw—War Zone Z where even Max Soliven said ‘The Viet-Cong will eat us up.’ Of course, we were physically there as non-combat troops. But you try to be a non-combat troop in a combat area. That is the toughest kind of assignment.17
In the next two years, PHILCAG continued its civil engineering works through some of the most intense battles between the US and the North Vietnamese.
The two years soldier-engineer Ramos served in Vietnam placed him at the intersection of development work and security. He was to work this intersection continuously after his deployment, especially as he returned to a Philippines with full blown insurgencies on two fronts: the Muslim secessionist movements and the bid of communist rebels to overthrow the government. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)16 was established in 1969, the same year of the foundation of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Arm-National Democratic Front17 (CPP-NPA-NDF). The former was to later split to create a much bigger fighting force, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front18 (MILF); while the latter supplanted the much older Leninist Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP). When his PHILCAG duty was done, the returning Lieutenant Colonel Ramos began counter-insurgency work against movements which had caught the imagination of some of the Filipino youth.
The soldier-engineer led the Engineering Battalion that was deployed into the very heart of the fighting in Vietnam.
Ramos family archives
The young Filipino soldiers understood the realities of war and the responsibility of rebuilding in the midst of destruction.
Ramos family archives
Lieutenant Colonel Fidel V. Ramos headed the Philippine Civic Action Group - Vietnam in establishing refugee camps and a central base camp for all soldiers.
Ramos family archives
The Philippine Government gained prestige and assistance for the courage and skills of its soldiers.
Ramos family archive
The Philippine contribution to the Vietnam War helped in the pacification of Vietnam, and assured United States military financial assistance to the Philippines.
Ramos family archives
15 “Battle of Eerie Hill – Korean War,” WorldAtlas, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/battle-of-hill-eerie-korean-war.html; and Cesar P. Pobre, Filipinos in the Korean War (Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, 2012), 265.
16 “Moro National Liberation Front,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Moro-National-Liberation-Front.
17 "Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of the Philippines,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Marxist-Leninist-Communist-Party-of-the-Philippines; also, among others, F.A. Mediansky, “The New People’s Army: A Nation-wide Insurgency in the Philippines,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 8, no. 1 (June 1986): 1-17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25797879.
18 See, among others, Steven Rood, “Islam and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front,” Conflict and Peace Studies Journal (2022), https://so07.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/cpsj_psu/article/download/1360/937/5859.