CAPTAIN REMO: THE YOUNG HERO
Anatomy of Abelardo Remoquillo, the pride of San Pedro Tunasán, La Laguna
¿Dónde está la juventud que ha de consagrar sus rosadas horas, sus ilusiones y entusiasmo al bien de su patria?
On 8 December 1941, nine hours after the fall of Pearl Harbor, the Commonwealth of the Philippines was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). The Filipinos, confident as they were, were caught in surprise at the swift entry of Japanese troops in many parts of the country. Despite the practice brownouts that were done in preparation for an impending attack, many of them were still caught in shock at the brazen display of Japanese aggression towards what was then deemed unconquerable — the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).
It is fortunate that the whole country did not suffer the wrath of Japanese aggression. As can be gleaned throughout World History, wars were usually fought in capital cities and other major areas. In the old town of San Pedro Tunasán in the province of La Laguna, it was relatively peaceful throughout the three years of Japanese occupation. Even during that one bloody month in 1945 (February 3 to March 3) when both Japanese and US artillery flattened Intramuros into rubble, San Pedro Tunasán was spared despite the scary fact that it stood only 29 kilometers away from the country’s capital.
One might think it odd why a promising young man from San Pedro Tunasán joined the painful resistance against the Japanese invaders. As a bright student taking up law, Abelardo Remoquillo had an exciting life ahead of him. He could have declined the conscription (such cases happen in real life), made excuses, or simply escaped with his family away from the frightening violence of war. But he didn’t. And when his military commanders sent him and other young men home because resisting the Japanese offensive was already hopeless, he took a different road: he joined the guerrillas instead, much to the puzzlement and surprise of those who had been observing his life, a life that was, from childhood, reared in a loving, peaceful home. From that daring decision of his alone to continue taking up arms against the Japanese can we trace the first few glints of heroism. We can, furthermore, assess the assertiveness of education into the lives of the studentry during those times. It must be emphasized that Abeling did not take up military science as a college course. His military training was merely a subject, a school requirement. Nevertheless, when the country needed its young men to take up arms against foreign invasion, those conscripted were already geared up for battle even without formal training in a bona fide military school such as the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).
Abeling, as how he was called by those who knew him personally, was a true blue San Pedrense. He first saw the light of day on 27 December 1922, at a time when the country was occupied by the United States of America, during the unpopular regime of Governor General Leonard Wood. He was the eldest in a brood of ten (eight boys, two girls). His father, José Remoquillo, was then the municipal treasurer (agent-collector) while his mother, Valeriana Hermosilla, was a full-time housewife who oversaw the upbringing of all their children. The Remoquillo brood were as follows (from eldest to youngest): Abelardo, Vicente, Felicitas, Jaime, Benjamín, Angustia, Manolo, Galileo, Frolín, and José. As was the custom during those days, all the children were born through a comadrona (midwife).
The San Pedro Tunasán of young Abeling’s time was still rustic: farmlands were a familiar scene while thick pockets of forests were aplenty especially in the upland areas; the San Isidro River was still deep, wide, and crystalline, with plenty of fish to catch. The roads were unpaved. There was no electricity yet. Commercial, administrative, and socio-religious activities were concentrated mainly at the población or town center. The rest of the barangays, then known as barrios, were still distinguishably detached from the matrix, and many of them were known for their characteristic identities: Cuyab for its duck-raising industry, San Roque for its healthy farm produce and fresh catch from Laguna de Bay, and San Vicente for its fragrant sampaguita farms. Flame trees were aplenty especially on the road that connects San Pedro Tunasán to Muntinlupà, beautifully littering the highway with orange-yellow colored flowers every summer. The town was already witnessing the beginnings of the Santo Sepulcro cult in Landayan, while jazz music was capturing the youth’s interest. The mayor back then was Tiburcio Morando while the provincial governor was revolutionary veteran Juan Cailles (hero of the Battle of Mabitac). And although the town’s name had been shortened to simply San Pedro on 28 February 1914 (via Republic Act 2390 of the third Philippine Legislature), or eight years before Abeling was born, the townsfolk didn’t care. They still called their home by its original nomenclature: San Pedro Tunasán, its name since 1725.
It was in Barrio San Vicente where a young Abeling spent his growing up years. The Remoquillo residence was a simple house made up of light materials (mostly bamboo), facing the railway near the boundary of San Vicente and the town proper (during those days, the town’s old public cemetery was just a few meters away from the Remoquillo home in what is now known as Sitio Laguerta near the banks of the San Isidro). It was there along the rail tracks of the Manila Railroad Company, still enveloped in sampaguita shrubs and greenery, where the Remoquillo siblings along with their playmates frolicked about. They used to see railway workers during playtime, among them Rodolfo Catáquiz, then an employ of legislator and sugar baron José Yulo. Catáquiz later on became one of the architects of the town’s economic progress. He sired Calixto Catáquiz, the father of San Pedro’s cityhood in 2013.
The Remoquillo household grew up tightly knit. Both parents were very health conscious, especially the father. However, they resorted to naturopathy (alternative medicine), as was usually the practice of many provincial folk then till now. Whenever the children fell ill, the parents made them drink castor oil (Ricinus communis), fish oil, or am (rice milk). Somehow, those proved to be effective because the children rarely visited a doctor. Both mother and father did the laundry for the family, and this was done at the San Isidro River. Laundry time at the river was considered as an event of sorts by the townsfolk because it was bonding time for them; the elders exchanged gossips and stories during laundry while the children picnicked and swam.
The Remoquillo patriarch was also very much into sports, teaching his two eldest sons self-defense, particularly boxing, at an early age — from such activity Abeling may have gotten his courageousness and discipline. Every Sunday, the whole family trooped to the church of San Pedro Apóstol to attend Mass. The church was just less than three minutes away from their home by foot.
From both parents the Remoquillo brood learned the values of honesty, valor, and the importance of protecting the Remoquillo name. Among the boys, chivalry played an important part; the father taught the boys never to maltreat women. They were also taught to love one another. If a sibling is in need of help, any kind of help, the rest of the brood should always be there for him or her no matter what, and that they should expect nothing in return.
Abeling grew up to be a handsome young man. His wide brow, thick eyebrows, well-defined nose, and steady mouth made some people say that he had a bit of resemblance to then Senator Manuel L. Quezon who later became the first president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935. His good built matched his good looks. But the stern look on his eyes betrayed a demeanor that suggests a serious outlook in life. He was popular among friends and was earlier seen to have qualities of leadership and responsibility. During his teenage years, he volunteered as a ronda (watchman) in his barrio, drinking salabat (ginger ale) to keep awake during rounds.
Abeling studied in San Pedro Central Elementary School where he was recognized as a “Special Boy Scout.” Later on, he enrolled and graduated in Arellano High School in Manila. Afterwards, he entered the University of the Philippines (UP) and took up law. It was in UP where he became a model student and was given given numerous awards and recognition during his stint as a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet.
While Abeling seemed to have led a normal life during his youth, events surrounding his early days on earth can already be deemed fortuitous. For one, he shares the same birthdate as the Japanese aircraft carrier Hōshō (Japanese for “phoenix in flight”) which had a minor participation in the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the catalyst of the Pacific War whose ramifications eventually took his life. He was also baptized by Fr. Telesforo José, the elderly parish priest of San Pedro Tunasán who, in his youth, was accused by former Spanish Governor-General Eulogio Despujol of collecting funds for La Solidaridad, the Masonic lodge founded by Filipino liberals whose newspaper was edited by well-known propagandistas Graciano López Jaena and Marcelo H. del Pilar.
But Abeling’s dream of becoming a lawyer was put to a halt with the outbreak of World War II. Immediately after the shocking Pearl Harbor debacle, Japan turned its guns on the Commonwealth of the Philippines, attacking all military installations in almost calculated precision. They first bombed Camp John Hay in Baguio City a few hours after attacking Pearl Harbor, then Clark Air Base in Ángeles, Pampanga. The next day (9 December 1941), Nichols Field in Parañaque/Pásay was attacked. Many other parts of the archipelago fell one by one.
It was undoubtedly the darkest Christmas Season in our country’s history.
New Year’s Day of 1942 would prove to be no reason for celebration as well for the Imperial Japanese Army reached San Pedro Tunasán. No armed conflict was reported. A local puppet government called the Support Company of People’s Peace was immediately established. Although not much physical violence happened during the three years of enemy occupation, the town nevertheless suffered difficulty in food distribution because the Japanese forcibly purchased the people’s agricultural produce at their dictated price.
Abeling was one of those drafted in the military to join the fight against the invaders. The first mission given to him and his group was to block the entry of the enemy in the province of Tayabas (now Quezon). The plan did not materialize when their unit’s Military High Command decided to withdraw due to an extremely strong enemy force. The commanders eventually ordered their retreat and disbandment, telling them to go home to their families instead.
Further demoralization followed when President Manuel Quezon, the country’s highest elected official, and General Douglas MacArthur, Field Marshal of the Commonwealth Army, escaped the country, leaving the Filipino people to fend for themselves against the ruthless IJA.
With the disbandment of the ROTC cadets, Abeling had no more group to turn to. He could have easily avoided further harm by simply going home, as was advised to him and his fellow young cadets. The battle at Bataán and Corregidor was raging, but to the rest of the world, it wasn’t a battle. It was an unstoppable, one-sided massacre. The final spasm was right around the corner, and many military observers were sure of it. But fueled, perhaps, by youth’s adventurous spirit, Abeling’s zeal towards the fight against the Japanese invaders didn’t falter.
On April 9 and May 6, Bataán and Corregidor fell respectively to the IJA. More than a thousand Filipino and US soldiers perished while hundreds of thousands more were captured. The downfall of these last two bastions of Filipino defense officially signified the end of Filipino resistance against Japanese invasion. Because of this, many Filipino fighters lost heart in the fight against the IJA. The outlook was bleak. The country was in peril, and not even its highest leaders could do very little about it. But Abeling and a few young Filipinos who were still left in the open didn’t feel the same way. His passion brought him to as far as Malabón and Morong, Rizal to join other recalcitrants who, like him, felt an impulse to resume the fight against the Japanese through guerrilla warfare. He joined the Hunters ROTC under the leadership of Colonel Eleuterio “Terry” Adevoso (PMA Class of 1944).
Organized by Adevoso and Miguel Ver (PMA Class of 1943) as early as 15 January 1942, the Hunters ROTC should not be considered as a ragtag crew of angry guerrillas. Unlike the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapones (Hukbalahap) which was composed mainly of Communist-leaning agrarian peasants from Central Luzón, the Hunters ROTC was the first purely volunteer anti-Japanese force in the country. They operated mainly from within the unforgiving forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range. By recruiting solely from PMA and ROTC cadets into its officer corps, the group was able to draw only the best in military leadership and training. They didn’t have to start from scratch when it came to training new recruits. And since Abeling had ample ROTC training when he was still in UP, it can be easily surmised that he encountered less difficulty during his early days as a Hunter. This, of course, can be gleaned by his eventual promotion to the rank of captain later on.
Throughout the Japanese occupation, the Hunters ROTC eventually evolved into a well-trained, highly disciplined military organization, doing hit and run operations against the IJA in various parts of Luzón. One of Abeling’s assignments was to conduct perilous surveillance activities on the enemy, particularly as a prison guard inside the Japanese-controlled New Bilíbid Prison in Muntinlupà.
The name Abelardo Remoquillo became well-known to the IJA forces in Southern Luzón when, on 24 June 1944, he actively participated in a daredevil rescue of prisoners of war (POW) who were incarcerated inside the New Bilíbid Prison. The following political and military prisoners were rescued: Enrique Albert, León Pabico, Roger Moskaira, Ernesto Bascón, Silvestre Pascual, José Carungcong, Gustavo Inglés (he was to lead Filipino troops eight months later in the successful raid of Los Baños), Jimmy Mauricio, Felixberto Damián, and Raymundo Gozon. They were also able to get a huge number of weapons from the Bureau of Prisons as they fled towards the provinces of Cavite and Rizal. Since then, Abeling was branded by an enraged IJA as San Pedro Tunasán’s “most wanted resident”. He was only 21.
Captain Remo also featured prominently in the famous liberation of Allied prisoners who were held in a camp in Los Baños. It was a joint effort between Filipino guerrillas and the US Allied forces. On the night of 22 February 1945 (while Intramuros and the rest of Manila were being razed to the ground by both Yank and Jap), Filipino guerrillas composed of Hunters ROTC, Hukbalahap, and President Quezon’s Own Guerrillas surreptitiously convened with some US troops along the banks of Laguna de Bay in Barrio San Antonio, Bay. It was there where they finalized their plans of attacking a Japanese camp in Los Baños in order to free thousands of Allied civilian and military internees who have been incarcerated there for the past two or three years. The group of Filipinos coming from Bay were led by Lt. José “Dondoy” del Rosario and Captain Remo (under the auspices of Inglés). The plan was to march towards the Los Baños camp on foot and to reach the gates of the camp at the crack of dawn. There they would have to wait for the air raid as a signal for them to launch their ground attack.
A few minutes before seven in the morning, several fighter aircrafts broke from the clouds, surprising the Japanese troops who were still doing their morning rituals. In an instant, the sleepless and weary guerrillas who were hiding in bushes and trees suddenly raced towards the camp — the battle was on! In the midst of the firefight, Captain Remo’s voice was heard rallying his men to continue marching on.
The battle was short but intense. Around 80 IJA troops were killed, and only five perished on the side of the Allies (three US soldiers, two Filipinos). The rest of the IJA troops who were not captured were sent fleeing in panic. The successful raid of this Japanese internment camp in Los Baños, resulting in the liberation of 2,147 POWs, is said to be one of the most successful rescue operations in modern military history.
With the kind of life that Abeling had led, a fateful death was only a matter of time. But Abeling himself didn’t foresee a hero’s death. In fact, and inspite of his dangerous situation, he never planned on dying at all. For him, he was merely fulfilling a mission; he was still raring to come home. But it was Fate that willed his untimely death. His first and last letter to his father, written in matter-of-factly English, reveals this:
March 1, 1945
Please receive two hundred tablets of sulpatiazole (sic) from Lt. (José) del Rosario. This medicine is part of our loot from the Los Baños Interment Camp.
Itay, please secure some chicos for him so he could take it to Manila for his mother. This fellow is a very good friend of mine and he has helped me all the days in my stay here in Pila so it is time for me to pay him back thru you. Extend to him all the facilities — accommodations and food. The medicine he is giving you is from him — he gave it to me.
Itay, tell Inay and others that I am well and fine here — so do not worry about me. I didn’t even get a scratch. I hope to go home when Calamba and Los Baños are completely liberated then these places will be cleared of Japanese. Somehow I have to stay here, our work is still unfinished.
So long and sweet kisses to everybody there.
I am also sending you some of my clothes. Two sharkskin pant (sic), one poloshirt (sic) and two camesetas (sic) and also one woolen jacket.
There was no hint of sadness. There was simply the compulsion for him to continue performing his duty to his Motherland. Somehow, he had to stay.
It was unfortunate that Captain Remo’s young life was cut short. Looking back at his exploits and daring accomplishments, he could’ve done so much for himself and for his country. On 8 March 1945, exactly a week after writing to his father, the Hunters ROTC once again attacked another Japanese garrison, this time in Bay. Captain Remo and his men provided rear guard action. During that scorching assault, the young hero from San Pedro Tunasán was felled by enemy bullets. He was barely 23 years of age when he gave up the ghost.
Captain Remo never had the opportunity to see his country free — fighting still continued in many places until the Empire of Japan’s formal surrender on September 2 of that year on account of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a month earlier. But it can never be denied the support the Hunters ROTC provided to the Philippine Commonwealth Army and the USAFFE was invaluable. Not only did they supplant the number of Allied troops on the ground but, with their prowess and skill, they also assisted in improving the timetable of military advance against the Japanese. All this success was realized because of the courage and discipline of troops as instilled by their superiors, one of whom was young Captain Remo. The phoenix has taken its flight to eternity.
In recognition of his patriotism, valor, and sacrifice, a monument was built at the town plaza of his beloved hometown as a constant reminder that heroism knows no age.