By Ben Cal

The guns of August (4th of 4 parts)

Another unforgettable experience I had as a journalist was when I covered the failed coup d’etat staged by rebel soldiers against the government of President Corazon C. Aquino on August 28, 1987, eighteen months after she assumed the presidency following a four-day People Power revolution that toppled the 20-year regime of President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

The rebel soldiers who called themselves Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) led by charismatic Army Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan attacked Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in suburban Quezon City, Metro Manila, and partially occupied some strategic areas.

The RAM was the same faction of rebel soldiers that participated in the People Power uprising way back on Feb. 22-25, 1986.

The violent uprising on August 28, 1987 nearly toppled the fledgling government of President Aquino were it not for the timely counteraction by loyal military troops led by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fidel V. Ramos. Previous coup attempts were also nipped in the bud.

On the third week of August 1987, reports of yet another coup intensified in the military camps, but the intelligence could not pinpoint the exact date on which the plotters would hit.

A day or two before the coup, Maj. Gen. Renato S. De Villa, Constabulary chief, also received an intelligence report that military rebels would come from Fort Magsaysay, the largest military reservation of the Armed Forces based in Nueva Ecija and some 200 kilometers north of Metro Manila.

Gen. De Villa immediately relayed the information to Gen. Ramos, who quickly planned a pre-emptive counteraction. He alerted the 5th Army Division to verify the report of a coup. He also told Brig. Gen. Ramon E, Montano, deputy AFP chief of staff for operations (J3), to go with him to Fort Magsaysay early morning of August 28 to check the situation themselves.

But on the evening of the 27th, Gen. Montano confirmed reports that more than 2,000 heavily armed soldiers were spotted by government forces that have passed Sta. Maria, Bulacan, taking the North Diversion Highway going towards Manila. The soldiers were on board dozens of 6X6 trucks and three tanks. President Aquino’s visit to Central Luzon on that day was aborted because of the unauthorized movement of troops.

Gen. Montano figured out that the rebel soldiers would strike in half an hour. “They will hit tonight,” he told his colleagues in Camp Aguinaldo.

Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla, Sr., Army chief, immediately dispatched five tanks to reinforce the AFP headquarters.

The rebel soldiers first tried to enter Gate 1 of Camp Aguinaldo, but Col. Emiliano Templo, who was backed up by a squad of soldiers and a V-150 armored vehicle, tried to convince the rebel troops to move out. However, with more men and superior firepower, the rebels forced their way and successfully took over a few areas.

Numbering about two battalions, including 600 Army Scout Rangers led by Col. Gringo Honasan, they had occupied some portions of Camp Aguinaldo through the South Gate. By 11:30 pm, military rebels had occupied several tall buildings, including the Department of National Defense.

I remembered knocking off from my beat at Camp Aguinaldo earlier that night of August 27. I passed by Gate 1 and exchanged a smile of recognition with two sentries on duty whose relaxed mood never gave away a hint of a coup in the offing.

However, at 6 a.m. on August 28, I woke up to a blaring coverage over radio station DZRH of an ongoing coup by rebel soldiers. The frantic voice of my colleague Bing Formento was describing the attack on the General Headquarters.

At that point, I called up our news desk in the Philippines News Agency about the ongoing coup. I was told they were monitoring the incident. I hurriedly dressed up and proceeded to Camp Aguinaldo which is about eight kilometers away from my residence.

As I stepped out of our house, I saw the sound of aircraft flying from a distance – three “Tora-Tora” or T-28 planes and a couple of helicopters which I figured out were over Camp Aguinaldo.

I found out that all vehicles going toward the besieged camp were re-routed upon reaching Cubao, the business district of Quezon City. I had to walk more than a kilometer to reach Camp Aguinaldo. But I could not enter because all gates were padlocked.

I waited and loitered around and through my contacts I learned that several top military officials were holed out at the AFP Headquarters. They were Brig. Gen. Montano, Lt. Gen. Eduardo R. Ermita, AFP vice chief of staff, and Brig. Gen. Orlando Antonio, deputy chief of staff for civil military operations.

By dawn the rebels had surrounded the GHQ building, triggering a fierce gun battle with government forces. On the other hand, government troops had consolidated their forces and clashed with the rebel soldiers.

During the fighting, Montano observed that rebel troops had established their stronghold at the DND building just 100 meters away from GHQ.

Gen. Ramos whose command post was in Camp Crame just across Camp Aguinaldo was continually updated of the fighting. He ordered Gen. Ermita and Gen. Montano to hold their positions as intense fighting between government forces and rebel soldiers raged when the right wing of the four-storey GHQ building caught fire.

Compounding the situation was that rebel snipers had taken strategic positions that “we had to crawl towards the left side of the building, otherwise we would have been roasted alive,” Montano said.

Fortunately for the government forces, rebel soldiers forgot to cut off the telephone lines when they entered the camp. Gen. Ramos took the opportunity and immediately called up Gen. Montano to inform the latter that the planned counter-attack that night was moved the following day from 11 a.m. to 12 noon as consolidation of troops continued.

In the meantime, the security at Malacaňang, the presidential palace, was assured by prompt actions of the Presidential Security Group under Col. Voltaire Gazmin, supported by GHQ reserve forces under Marine Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Biazon.

The whole morning I was at the intersection of Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue (EDSA) and Col. Bonnie Serrano Avenue waiting for the massive counter-attack when I saw Col. Cesar Nazareno of the PC-INP, supervising the deployment of his troops. I took the occasion to interview him inquiring about the time of the counter-attack.

“We are just waiting for the order to move in,” he told me.

Then at about 11:45 a.m., Col. Nazareno received the order from Gen. Ramos to launch the counter-attack. He ordered a soldier armed with a 90 Recoiless Rifle (90RR) to fire at Gate 2. The first salvo missed and hit a coconut tree nearby.

“Fire another round,” Col. Nazareno said. The trooper fired and this time it was bull’s eye.

But before government forces could move in, rebel troops who were holed up in the three-storey AFPSLAI building beside Gate 2 undetected overlooking where government forces were deployed, opened fire with their automatic rifles.

Immediately, an exchange of gunfire ensued as pandemonium broke loose in the street where civilians, including myself and fellow reporter Roy Sinfuego of the Manila Bulletin, were caught in the crossfire.

There were explosions from M79 grenades as we ran for our lives! Just behind me a civilian shouted for help. I continued running when I saw a man who fell to the ground with blood oozing from his right leg.

“Please help me,” he said. Instinctively, disregarding the gunfire and grenade explosions all over, some civilians and I picked up the wounded man and carried him to a house nearby where he was given first aid after which we called an ambulance.

The rebel soldiers adamantly held their ground as fierce fighting raged. “Tora-Tora” planes were called in and strafed rebel positions, dislodging them.

It was the turning point of the military’s counter-offensive, crushing the coup.


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.