In marking the 75th anniversary of Philippine-Australia diplomatic ties, we should remember the 70th anniversary of three battles of the Korea War, one involving Filipinos, one involving Australians and the other involving both. Fought against a single enemy offensive over a 48-hour period leading up to Anzac Day on 25 April 1951, the first two battles are commemorated annually in our respective countries and reflect the ‘Mateship and Bayanihan’ spirit of our nations working together for world peace.
During his first visit to Melbourne in 1950, Judge Roberto Regala, who would become the first Philippine Ambassador to Australia, laid a wreath at the Shrine of Remembrance. Previously noting “Australia and the Philippines were the only Pacific countries with ground troops in Korea”, he declared “he would do everything possible to see that Philippine troops, particularly those who fought side by side with the Australians, visited Australia” in 1951 for Australia’s Federation “Jubilee and to take part in Melbourne’s Anzac Day march”.
Little did anyone know that in the 48 hours leading up to Anzac Day, the Filipino and Australian soldiers would actually be in the ‘fights of their lives’; in battles on which the very survival of South Korea’s independence rested.
Answering the first call of the United Nations for such a force, Australians and Filipinos deployed to Korea in late 1950. When the Chinese launched their spring offensive on the night of 22 April 1951, the Filipinos held the right flank and forward-most position of a US sector along the Imjin River, on the western side of the most direct route to Seoul from the north.
The central prong of the Chinese onslaught fell heavily on the Filipinos, forcing one company back. In what became known as the Battle of Yuldong, another company soon regained the lost ground. Their position soon became exposed with heavy attacks on the British unit to their left and the Turks on the other side of the road to their right, falling back. Their US regimental commander recalled; “the main enemy attack bounced off us, spilled over on both sides of us, and then concentrated on the British and the Turks”. The Filipinos were soon ordered to fall back and by the afternoon of 23 April were in reserve 15 kilometres behind the frontline.
By that time, 30 kilometres further east, the Australians had moved into a defensive position north of the town of Kapyong located on a strategic east-west road behind the frontline. Having penetrated the frontline, the left prong of the Chinese offensive was charging down the Kapyong Valley towards the town where the Australians soon came under heavy attack in the early hours of 24 April. Heavy fighting continued throughout the day which stopped the Chinese advance in that sector on the eve of Anzac Day.
Meanwhile, an Australian officer attached to a British tank regiment was fighting with the British on the Imjin River sector where a battalion on their left flank had become isolated by the right and central prongs of the Chinese attack. Early on 24 April, 10 Centurion tanks including the Australian’s troop, three Filipino Chaffee tanks of the type on display in Lingayen and a company of Filipino infantry were sent forward to link up with the isolated battalion, ‘The Glorious Glosters’. They were soon forced to withdraw after the lead Filipino tank was knocked out, blocking the road.
The Chinese offensive had been blunted by significant losses in no small part due to the efforts of the Filipinos and Australians and stopped short of Seoul on 30 April. A UN advance soon forced the frontline back to where it had been in April and where the border remains today. Armistice talks began soon after.
Instead of marching down St Kilda Road on Anzac Day 1951 as was hoped, Filipinos and Australians remained in the field, reflecting on their experiences of the previous 48 hours which had been instrumental in stopping the Chinese offensive, displaying incredible valour in the face of adversity. Reg Saunders, a veteran of North Africa, Greece, Crete and New Guinea and the first Australian Aboriginal to be commissioned recalled “at last I felt like an ANZAC and I imagine there were 600 others like me”.