Remembering the PEFTOK and the Battle of Yultong (22 – 23 April 1951)

During the Korean War in the 50s, the Philippines sent battalion-sized units to the conflict area in answer to the UN’s call for assistance to the South Korean government. Hostilities had started when North Korea staged a surprise attack in June 25, 1950. This led to the fall of Seoul, South Korea’s capital. South Korean forces were forced to retreat, until they were boxed in, clinging desperately to Busan in the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. By July however, America and its allies had agreed to step in to help the beleaguered South Korean troops. The fortunes of war see-sawed, and Seoul would be liberated. It was overrun once again as China – with the biggest army in the world – cast its lot with the North Koreans, and then liberated once again. Fighting was fierce, and the United Nations made a call for assistance from among allied forces.

Among the first countries to respond – and the first from Asia – was the Philippines. Thus entered the 900-strong 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT). The 10th BCT was the first unit under the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK) to see action in the war. Arriving in then-encircled Busan in Sept 15, 1950, the 10th was immediately hurled into action as beleaguered allied forces struggled to maintain the defensive perimeter. In the counter-offensive in November 1950, the 10th BCT would make its mark initially, fighting off two battalions of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) at the towns of Miudong and Singye in North Korea. 

When the UN Command launched another counterattack in Feb 1951, the 10th BCT was in the thick of the action once again. From March to April, the 10th captured hill after hill in a series of bloody fighting. By Apr 14, the 10th was already at the northernmost tip of all UN units. At times, the unit would be too far ahead of the other units that the UN Command would radio the 10th to wait for the rest of the UN Forces.

But the unit’s claim to fame would finally come on April 22-23, 1951 in the Battle of Yultong. It was here when the 10th BCT displayed its courage, competence and stability under utmost pressure in combat.

At that time, the battalion was attached to the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. Along with two battalions of the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment and a brigade of Turkish soldiers, the Filipinos were assigned to defend the Imjin River. To their north, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army amassed its 12th, 15th, and 60th Armies for what would become known as the Chinese Spring Offensive.

On the evening of April 22, the Chinese commenced their attack with a heavy barrage of artillery fire on the Turkish position to the right of the Americans. This was followed by more heavy artillery and mortar fire that struck the American lines, including the Philippine forces; and the British unit to the left of the American lines. Shortly thereafter, the dreaded Chinese wave after wave of troops would smash into the allied lines. Fierce close-quarter fighting would ensue. What followed was utter chaos as communication between the frontline and the headquarters to the rear was cut off.

As fighting continued, the Turks would withdraw and cross south of the Hantan River to safety. The British force would follow suit, exposing the American line to more enemy fire. The 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”. Meanwhile, due to intense enemy pressure, the US 65th Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion was forced to fall back several hundred yards by the unrelenting Chinese attack. With both their left and right flanks exposed now, the 10th BCT was left alone, surrounded on 3 sides by a Chinese Division composed of thousands of Communist troops.

Faced now with this numerically far superior Chinese Division, every soldier in the battalion was tasked to take up arms. Even drivers, typists, clerks, medics, cooks, including the battalion chaplain were mobilized to beef up the defensive lines. Another Chinese attack would lay havoc on the 10th BCT’s defensive line, isolating its frontline companies. Casualties started to mount, including Able Company’s commander, Lt Tomas Batilo. Baker Company, under Lt Jose Artiaga Jr, was forced to abandon their strategic position on Yultong Hill. The company carried out an effective retrograde operation, but the Chinese waves eventually pushed them back to Charlie Company’s position in the reserve area where Artiaga was killed.

With the unit now absorbing the brunt of the attack, the battalion commander, Lt Col Dionisio Ojeda received a retreat order. While most of the 10th BCT’s companies prepared to retreat, Capt Conrado Yap’s Heavy Weapons Company, with the battalion’s only tanks, would mount an audacious surprise counterattack towards Yultong Hill to rescue the isolated survivors of Baker Company and recover the dead. Yap would expose himself and blaze away with the tank’s mounted machine gun, while his tank crew fired their main gun as quickly as they could. The bold manuever caught the enemy by surprise, forcing the Chinese offensive to an abrupt halt.

Yap’s company made it to Yultong Hill, and they were able to rescue and bring back to friendly lines a squad of grateful survivors. Unfortunately, Yap himself would be struck by machine gun fire and killed while directing the withdrawal. He would be posthumously awarded the Philippine Medal of Valor (equivalent to the Medal of Honor), along with other US and South Korean medals for his bravery under fire.

With the Chinese attack blunted by Yap’s bold counterattack, the 10th BCT was able to reorganize and establish a new defensive line that held on until the early morning. Not only would it stymie the Chinese offensive, it would – more importantly – provide momentary relief and cover for the safe withdrawal of the beleaguered 65th Infantry Regiment and the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division.

With their allied units safe, the 10th would launch a counterattack to recover Yultong Hill. The intense nighttime battle would leave 12 Filipinos killed, 38 wounded, and 6 missing. Of the 12 killed, 3 were officers, which best epitomize true leadership from the front. On the opposite end, over 500 Chinese soldiers were scattered dead on the field. The battle would earn for the 10th BCT the nickname “The Fighting Filipinos.”

I had the rare privilege of knowing one of the these “Fighting Filipinos” when I joined the Scout Rangers back in 1978. MSgt Vic “Fatal Blow” Galvan was then the Sgt Major of the newly-revived Scout Ranger Group (SRG). He was such a stickler for hard training, always stressing that famous line: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat”. He would regale us with stories of the big war in Korea; of the dangers, the difficulties, and the pain of losing close comrades. He recalled how he was captured in one of the Chinese great offensives, and how he was able to escape – naked and barefoot – dashing hard toward friendly lines during one of the bombing runs by American planes that had the Chinese soldiers scampering for cover. And he took much pride in having been part of the Fighting 10th, and in the reputation of courage and grit the unit developed.

Indeed, the 10th BCT played a crucial role in the Battle of Yultong. And this would have significant consequence in the Korean War as a whole. Despite being a small contingent, they fought bravely alongside their UN allies and made important contributions to the war effort. The Battle of Yultong would prompt Gen Douglas MacArthur to state: “Give me 10,000 Filipino soldiers and I shall conquer the world”. A bit overboard perhaps, but a clear salute to the gallantry and dedication of the Filipino soldier.

In all, there were a total of 7,420 Filipino officers and men who served in Korea. Their casualties numbered 116 killed in action (KIA), 299 wounded (WIA) and 57 missing (MIA), of which 41 were later repatriated in POW exchanges. In May 1955, the last of the Fighting Filipinos would finally return home to the Philippines. Their sacrifices and contributions are still remembered and honored. We are truly grateful for their service. (For more on the Korean War, pls read: Pride and Honor in the Korean War Memorial.)

For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of The Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK). Other pics courtesy of, AFP, We are the Mighty, Korea Joong Ang Daily, the PETOK, Wikipedia and Ft Benning US Army.


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