By Rodney J. Jaleco
WASHINGTON D.C. – Retired Navy Capt. Domingo Tucay’s eyes light up as he talks about those heady days when the Philippines send ships and men uncontested to claim parts of the Spratly Islands.
Capt. Tucay, former naval attache in the Philippine embassy in Washington, D.C. in the early 80s who now resides with his family in Virginia, recounts how he participated in the “secret mission” in 1970 to the Spratly islands.
Tucay was a young lieutenant assigned to the intelligence section of a top secret task force dispatched by then President Ferdinand Marcos sometime in 1970 to lay claim on 7 islands in the South China Sea.
“We had a Marine contingent, a naval construction battalion and of course the Navy task force unit,” Tucay related in an interview with the Manila Mail. The task force was led by Capt. Ernesto Ogbinar, who would later become Flag Officer in Command (FOIC).
“It was so secret that the ship commanders were not allowed to open their mission orders until we reached point x-ray,” he recalled. He revealed that their flagship was the US-built destroyer “Quezon” and among the junior officers aboard is current Paranaque Congressman Roilo Golez, an Annapolis graduate.
Just 15 years earlier, self-styled “Admiral” Tomas Cloma, a fishing magnate who also owned one of the nation’s top maritime schools, claimed to have occupied 53 islands, islets and reefs comprising the Spratly Islands . He named them the Kalayaan (Freedom) Island Group.
China, Vietnam, France and most especially Taiwan protested Cloma’s claims. Tucay confirmed that at the time, Taiwan was the most assertive of the claimant-nations in the area, aside of course from the Philippines.
“Masaya pagdating namin doon, as expected walang tao; panay pagong, mga ibon at pugad lang,” Tucay remembered. “We landed our troops unopposed and it was more of an administrative landing. We landed the troops on the northeast cay that we now call Parola because that’s where we built a light house.”
“Initially it was just a tower then we installed the light and batteries. That was the northern-most part of the islands, doon dumadaan ang mga barko, mga commercial vessels,” he explained.
He added it was then Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor’s idea to place a lighthouse and register it in the book of aids of navigation, thereby advertising to the world that that corner at least of the Spratly Islands is held by the Philippines.
“It was unopposed but on another island about 2 miles away may dumating na lang bigla na 3 destroyers. Sabi ni Roilo (Golez) ‘wow, they look menacing’,” Tucay said. He added they were relieved upon noting the warships were also US-built, they turned out to be Taiwanese.
“We intentionally did not land in that island because we wanted to make it a nature sanctuary so we just put a marker. Yun lang ang isla na may coconut trees. I even counted them. There were 43. Pinasabog ng mga Taiwanese yung marker,” Tucay revealed.
“We asked for guidance from headquarters which asked Malacanang. Sabi nila they’re not menacing so why not invite them to a breakfast conference,” he laughs. “Itong commander namin palabiro, so sabi niya magdala sila ng siopao.”
He said they communicated the invitation through flashing lights and were pleasantly surprised the Taiwanese used the same ciphers that Tucay said, on hindsight, was logical since they both used American equipment and operating systems. He confessed that after the Taiwanese ships left, they went back and erected the Philippine marker all over again.
Tucay would join another mission in 1978. He had risen through the ranks by then, a lieutenant commander and skipper of the corvette “Sultan Kudarat”. The flotilla included a Landing Ship Tank (LST) laden with coconut trees and building materials. They were ordered to proceed to a cay that Tucay said he was sure, wasn’t there.
“Luma ang mapa pinadala sa amin. I said I didn’t think there was a cay in that area so as expected it was an awashed rock,” he related. “Sabi ko I know of a place about 5 miles away where there’s a cay so sabi ng commander, sige puntahan ninyo.”
“Maliit lang yung lugar, naikot ko yata in 15 minutes pero flat at walang puno pero ang daming pagong,” Tucay tells the Manila Mail.
“So unopposed kami, walang enemy. I landed the troops, the construction battalion built their barracks, gun emplacements and bunkers.”
Perhaps an indication of how free-wheeling the Spratlys were at the time, Tucay joked that he sought permission to name the place “Tu-cay”. “Negative” his headquarters shot back, and was told then Western Command chief Commodore Proceso “Tiger” Fernandez was already speaking with AFP, UPI and AP about their ongoing activities in the Spratlys.
That cay was named Panata that Tucay averred was the last land feature claimed by the Philippines .
On July 17, 1978, Marcos signed Presidential Decree 1599 proclaiming the Kalayaan Island Group ( Pag-Asa Island , Likas Island , Parola Island , Kota Island , Panata Island , Lawak Island and Patag Island ) as part of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Group also encompassed Commodore or Rizal Reef. With a total area of just a third of a square mile, it is nonetheless a registered 5th class municipality of Palawan with its own mayor.
We asked Capt. Tucay why Marcos had decided to formalize the country’s hold on the Spratlys in 1978. That was the year, he tells Manila Mail, when the Southeast Asia Mineral Company (SEAMICO) finished its oceanographic survey and rendered a report to Malacanang concluding that the area “possessed great promise”.
The recent spat with China started when her ships harassed a Philippine research ship searching for oil and natural gas. It appears the cycle has begun again but this time, it’s not the Philippine Navy that’s pushing its weight around.
The 1960s marked the peak of the Philippine Navy. Although most of its warships were handed down from the United States, it was the envy of the region. Southeast Asian neighbors were only beginning to form their own navies and looked to the Philippines for inspiration and lessons on maritime defense.