By Ben Cal

In the line of fire (1st of 2 parts)

As the defense reporter of the Philippines News Agency (PNA) for four decades, I had the rare privilege to go around the country countless times to cover news events, particularly at the height of the Moro insurgency war in Southern Philippines. I also covered the Visayas region during the ‘70s and ‘80s in the company of military officers, particularly then Maj. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, who was chief of the Philippine Constabulary and Integrated National Police (INP) at that time. Gen. Ramos, who was also the vice chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at that time, regularly visited government troops on the frontline to give them moral support.

 It was during these out of town sorties, especially in critical areas that I found myself in the line of fire four times, and thanked God, I survived unscathed.

 My first coverage on the battlefield was in 1976 on the island of Sulu in Mindanao, together with fellow journalist, Alex Allan of the now defunct Philippine Daily Express. We were the only journalists from Manila who accompanied Gen. Ramos to Sulu where government forces were fighting the rebels of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

 We left Manila very early morning on board a Philippine Air Force Fokker-27 plane for Jolo, the capital of Sulu. The flight took two and a half hours. Earlier, we were briefed by Rear Admiral Romulo Espaldon, commander of the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) of the AFP, about the situation in Sulu, a known MNLF stronghold.

 Upon landing at the Jolo Airport, I saw hordes of government soldiers in full battle gear. “Boy, this is really war,” I said to myself. The formidable display of armour and heavy weapons convinced me that the country was facing a serious rebellion in Mindanao. Casualties on both sides were heavy, not to include civilians caught in the crossfire.

 There was a short briefing at the Army headquarters before we boarded two Air Force “Huey” helicopters armed with M60 machine guns.

 As our helicopters flew just about treetop level, the pilots sped away at more than 100 kilometers per hour. Not only did the daring Air Force pilots fly so dangerously low, but they also zigzagged their way into the vast Sulu sky to deny the rebels a clear target. Feeling helpless, I tightened my seat belt, held my breath and prayed Psalm 23.

 As we were about to land at a military camp in Central Sulu, a battle was raging between the Philippine Marines and MNLF rebels less than a kilometer away.

 But instead of ordering the pilots to abort the flight and fly back to Jolo, Gen. Ramos, told the pilots to proceed to our destination, undaunted by the ongoing firefight. As our choppers landed, Gen. Ramos was the first to jump out from the helicopter and strutted his way toward a group of Marine troopers led by their commander, Maj. Vicente Bacquial, who incidentally was a former schoolmate of mine. After rendering a snappy salute, he was surprised to see me, but when I told him I’m a journalist, we shook hands.

 Gen. Ramos and the rest of us later went inside a room stacked with sandbags.

 About 10 minutes into the briefing, MNLF rebels attacked the Marine camp’s gate, but the troops were able to retaliate. The crackle of gunfire did not distract Ramos a bit as I observed his stoic expression. He continued puffing his cigar and occasionally asked Maj. Bacquial questions about military operations in Sulu.

 Then, the Marine troopers engaging the MNLF radioed, informing Maj. Bacquial that the rebels were closing in fast. At this point, Gen. Ramos calmly told Maj. Bacquial “stop the briefing, attend to your men.”

 Despite being the highest ranking military official, Gen. Ramos, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, did not interfere in any manner with what Maj. Bacquial would do to contain the MNLF attack.

The young officer immediately went into action and ordered his men to reinforce the troops. He also dispatched one V-150 armoured vehicle.

Radio communications between the Marine unit and Maj. Baquial continued as the team leader gave a blow-by-blow account of the fighting. He asked his men if there were any casualties.

“Two dead on the enemy side, sir,” the soldier replied over his two-way radio.

We monitored the ongoing firefight and after 30 minutes the MNLF rebels retreated bringing with them their casualties.

Gen. Ramos calmly ordered Maj. Bacquial to resume the briefing as if nothing happened. After the briefing, we flew to a mountainous area to visit a new Army detachment. We were accompanied by Col. Salvador M. Mison, commander of all military forces in Sulu and nearby Basilan Island.

Shortly after landing, we received an SOS message from an Army patrol asking for the immediate evacuation of a wounded soldier. Upon hearing, Gen. Ramos ordered the pilot to rescue the wounded trooper and bring him to the Army hospital in Jolo.

Since we were perched at a vantage point overlooking the area, we were able to witness in real time the daring helicopter rescue operation. The two choppers flying in precision banked to the right and dived toward the other side of the mountain where the firefight was raging. One of the helicopters plucked the wounded trooper, while the other circled above to provide air cover.

In five minutes, the entire rescue episode inside enemy territory was successfully completed as it unfolded before our eyes. It was like seeing a movie – except that it was for real.




About the Columnist

Image of Ben Cal

He covered the defense and military beat for over 40 years. He had the privileged to have covered the Mindanao War in the 1970s and 1980s when former President Fidel V. Ramos was Constabulary Chief; later as Armed Forces Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and Defense Secretary. Ben is the longest reporter who had the privileged to cover Ramos from October 1974 until July 2023. He wrote three books about Ramos as a military officer, as President and even after his retirement from government service as he remained active in serving the country a private citizen.