In his book 'Crossings,' Rolando Peña recounted the mission that had him navigating the MV Karagatan from China to Isabela. Photograph from Francis Karem Elazegui Neri
Culture Spotlight

From China to Plaza Miranda—a detailed account of a rebel mission at the cusp of Martial Law

The 1972 arms landing by the communist party of the Philippines had an almost cinematic sheen to its narrative, and included gunfire, surprise attacks, an escape into the jungle, and a wave of political tension. Here is a late rebel’s full account.
Barbara Mae Naredo Dacanay | Feb 23 2020

The late geologist and rebel Rolando Pena revealed, for the first time, the uncensored story of the audacious 1972 arms landing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), from China to northern Luzon. Pena’s account is printed in full in his tell-all book Crossings: Portrait of a Revolutionary, which was published by the Association of Filipinos for the Advancement of Geoscience, Inc. and launched a few months ago.  

In a 16-page chapter of the book entitled “The Karagatan Debacle,” Pena identified his companions in the 1972 mission, some of whom underwent training in China ahead of that year. Peña also narrated details about China’s participation in the project from May to August 1972, and hinted at who could be responsible for its failure.

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Peña narrated an interesting time of his one-month long escape from the military after the mission was found out. This revolved around the execution of one comrade who was charged of making fun of CPP leaders. He heard about it at CPP’s northern camp in Isabela in late July 1972.

His diary, however, did not include the stories of several writers who named the executed CPP member as the one who allegedly threw one of two grenades that killed nine and injured 95 others at the now infamous incident in Plaza Miranda on August 21, 1971. Denying this allegation, the CPP has maintained that President Ferdinand Marcos was responsible for the bombing incident. It was one of the reasons for his declaration of Martial Law in 1972.   

In December 2018, ANCX published Pena’s shorter, less detailed, but more poetic version of “Karagatan.” It was one of several stories published in “Ordinary Heroes and Discovered Icons of the UP High Class ’57, and was read during a memorial for Pena who was fatally hit by a motorcycle along Quezon Avenue on November 30, 2018.

 

Seafaring mission

The chapter started in May 1972, when Peña and his companions left their safehouse in Parang, Marikina. He was with eight other CPP members, seven of whom were New People’s Army (NPA) fighters from norther Luzon. Peña and his group went to a pier in Batangas where they boarded MV Meraley, a 15-ton, eight-meter long and 4-meter wide inter-island cargo boat.

The young and fearless leftist companions with Peña included boat captain Edwin Alcid, mechanics Jimmy and Edgardo Pilapil, Bong Salas, Duarding, and PM. The CPP was barely four-years old then. UP graduates Jose Maria Sison and other like-minded young members of the old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas-1930 (PKP-1930) established the CPP as the new leftist group in December 1968.

Unveiling geographic details, Peña wrote that they sailed on the country’s western seaboard. The ship, one of three that Peña navigate during this mission, hit a rock off Zambales. It reached Cape Bojeader, Aparri, and Diviniusa Point, which was chosen by the CPP from a map as a rendezvous point in Isabela in October 1971.

The rendezvous point was a deserted rocky promontory. A scouting team was supposed to check the place, but failed to do so. After some minutes, they saw the group of Lt. Victor Corpus, who became an instant celebrity after he left his teaching post at the Philippine Military Academy and defected to the NPA on December 29, 1970. The rocky promotory was not a good place to stay so they chose to transfer to nearer the mouth of Digoyo River. After clearing the area, Peña’s team unloaded Meraley’s camouflaged cargo of food supplies, ponchos, toothbrushes, and toothpaste there.

Victor Corpus, now retired, led the group that met with Peńa at Digoyo river.” Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

On their second day at Digoyo,  MV Karagatan arrived. (Pena’s diary did not mention when and how MV Karagatan entered Digoyo Point.) Formerly named Kishi Maru, the 91-ton, 90-foot steel hulled fishing trawler that the CPP bought in Japan for the arms landing. As crewmen unloaded sacks of rice from the boat, Peña received a note from Sison, saying he and his team must board the boat to get arms from China.

On the third day, on MV Karagatan and en route to China, Peña and his team met a Chinese patrol vessel. “Bong Salas signaled with our lights. The (Chinese) vessel answered back with pre-arranged signals. The vessel turned back, then we followed until we reached a pier where it docked. There were people at the pier. When we docked, many hands helped to secure our boat to the pier. Then we got off, and we were treated to a big welcome by our hosts. We had reached a Chinese naval based on an island,” wrote Pena. Other sources said it was an island off Fukien.

“There was much hugging especially among Edwin, our captain, Bong, Jimmy and Edgardo Pilapil (MV Karagatan’s mechanics) from our side and some responsible comrades and officers of the Chinese vessel… They had known each other before, when our navigators and mechanics underwent training here,” explained Pena. “We were immediately fed a sumptuous mean, the first after a long time (of sailing). Then we were billeted in the barracks.”

“The game was up, we thought, and we should expect the enemy any time soon. I decided to bring the ship into the mouth of Digoyo River. When no alternative plan was offered, we put my plan into operation.”

Pickup and ship off

At the base, they met with their comrade Ibarra Tubianosa, a Filipino submarine hunter, who took showed them the cargo list bound for the Philippines. “To be able to ship everything listed in the manifest, it would take three trips. So we had to decide on the priority shipment for the first trips. I proposed that we transport mainly rifles (1,200), a few B-40s and ammunition and accessories (night vision binoculars, telephone wires). We agreed on this shipment,” narrated Pena. His diary also mentioned units of M-2 Korean World War vintage that would replace NPA’s arms such as carbines, Springfields, Garands, and M-16s.

Peña’s group were to leave on MV Karagatan by the third day, but waited for a storm to leave  northern Luzon.They sailed back from the South China Sea to Cape Bojeador, and reached Digoyo Point on July 3, 1972.  “After we anchored the ship, we flickered pre-arranged light signals, but we received no response. We stayed put until morning. It was the Fourth of July and I thought that it being a holiday, there shouldn’t be any military patrols on land, air, and sea. In the meantime, the group headed by Victor Corpus commandeered two boats to get our cargo and bring them to shore,” wrote Pena, adding that MV Meraley was nowhere to be found at Digoyo. It was abandoned after it docked farther north.

 “On our part, we opened the hold and threw away rotting espada fish which we used to camouflage our cargo,” narrated Peña. “It was a time-consuming operation to empty the boxes of rifles and transfer the rifles and ammunition boxes to the (two) boats. In the process many rifles even sank down to the sea bottom.”

 

Confrontation at the water

In the midst of the arms landing, a small plane suddenly came into view. Its passengers saw Peña’s team, and the plane circled to take another look.

“The game was up, we thought, and we should expect the enemy any time soon. I decided to bring the ship into the mouth of Digoyo River. When no alternative plan was offered, we put my plan into operation,” Peña wrote. “The mouth of the river was narrow; the area was underlain by limestone. When we got into position, we were able to just throw the boxes on the port side, down into the water, and the retrievers could easily get them since they floated.”

The cargo were placed in a clearing, and, in the afternoon, many of the NPA fighters began cleaning the new rifles for their use. They finished unloading by about 5 P.M. with no untoward incident. Before leaving, the group discussed how Corpus’ group will bring the cargo to the main camp while Peña’s team will head back to China to get the remaining cargo and perhaps some comrades stranded there.

But suddenly, a PAF saber jet plane swooshed down at a very low altitude and just as suddenly disappeared.

Anticipating the arrival of the military, the men moved quickly. Salas started the engine, but MV Karagatan moved in circles. Apparently, according to their engine man Pilapil, its hydraulic engine that ran a rudder was damaged. “(Then) Edwin (Alcid), the captain, opened the radar and saw that that a vessel was approaching us. But when we looked out, we could not see anything so it could mean a sneak attack or sneak look-see. We figured it was the enemy, but we didn’t know how many they were or if the vessel was armed,” Peña recounted. “Edwin ordered, ‘Abandon ship!’ Everybody rushed off to get a life vest, then jumped into the water to swim to shore.”

As they were swimming toward shore, the men in the unidentified vessel boarded MV Karagatan, then turned on the searchlights and began skimming the waters. They called out with a megaphone, “Kayo ba’y mga smuggler?” “When we got to shore, we were helped to the command post. VC’s (Corpus’) men were in position with rifles trained on the ship,” Peña wrote.

In the chaos, Pena sustained a deep wound in his right foot, and was allowed by Corpus to go back to Manila through CPP-NPA’s main camp and several relay stations in Sierra Madre. Alcid and Duarding accompanied him. The other crewmen of MV Karagatan remained by the shore to help defend their cache.

After sustaining a gash on his foot, Peña escaped through the Sierra Madre with his team. 

Before entering Sierra Madre’s deep terrain to escape, Peña recalled that the arms and ammunition were sitting in a clearing in one part of the area by the river. “We were told to carry a rifle each. Many of the rifles that the Red fighters carried when they came had been discarded and left in a pile as they had begun to clean and appropriate the new rifles with plenty of ammunition,” Peña wrote. “These were powerful M-14 assault rifles that fired with a booming sound. Edwin took an M-14 with several magazines of ammunition. I chose a carbine (M-2 Korean War vintage) and two magazines of ammo.”

 

The long escape

On his way down, Peña was surprised to see that Corpus’ men started firing at MV Karagatan, and even made use of the newly-aquired B-40 rockets.  “There seemed to be a small war going on, and the men were not stinting on ammunition. A few Dumagat families, women, and children scampered around, not knowing what was happening, fearing that their domiciles would be shot,” he said.

Looking back, Peña wondered why Corpus’s group wasn’t able to reconnoiter the Isabel coast and find the best place to make arms transfer.  “We had to rely on a determination on the map without the benefit of finding out the exact condition, including habitation, and so forth in the area.” Pena did not reveal CPP’s assessment of its first arms-landing mission.

The military said the NPA failed to bring majority of the arms to their camp in Isabela.

On July 8, 1972, the fourth day of the mission, Peña’s group came upon a relay station which was to be a temporary depository of their deliveries from the seaside. “On the fifth day (July 9, 1972), we went up to cross the Sierra Madre divide. On the sixth day (July 10, 1972), we ate the last of our provisions. Our Dumagat guide shot a monkey which we boiled and ate for lunch. In the evening, the same guide caught milkfish from the river. No rice. The following (seventh) day (July 11, 1972), I found a packaged instant soup at the bottom of my rucksack. It was not enough, but better than nothing,” he detailed.

When they emerged into a valley, they encountered a Dumagat community that had a surfeit of wild boar. “They readily offered boar meat to us. Delicious! Further upstream, we came upon another relay station. The NPA fighters said they were the ones who provided the Dumagats with the wild boar, but they retained the choice cuts and they also had venison which they were making into tapa,” Peña wrote. The following day, July 12, they came upon another relay station, under the command of Nory who used to be a worker at Stonehill’s US Tobacco Corp. They had just used a dynamite to catch fish in the river.” (After he was arrested, Nory named Peña as one of Karagatan’s crew.)

“Cordero could not accept the charge that he betrayed the Party and the Revolution and up to the end, he expressed his loyalty to the Party, the Revolution, and the people.”

 

Trial and execution 

Peña’s exciting story, revealed also for the first time, the execution of Danny Cordero (also known as George) in a CPP-NPA camp in mid-July.

Near the CPP-NPA’s main camp, Peña and companions met Ka Melchor (Juanito) Canlas, secretary of the Regional Party Committee (RPC) most likely on probably on July 13, 1972. “His group was late in leaving the camp because he had to attend to the trial of George (Danny Cordero),” Peña recalled. “When we reached the main camp, I was met by Bining (Elizabeth or Beth) Principe who related to me that they had just executed George (Cordero) after the trial.” Principe was head of RPC’s medical group, a former member of the Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan (SDK established in 1969), and a UP medical student in the mid-60s.

At the main camp, Peña was billeted with Ruth Firmeza of the KKD, who was among those meted disciplinary action for being part of Cordero’s group. “They were charged with conspiracy to undermine the Party leadership. They had dished up songs critical of the national Party leadership (AG, Amado Guerrero, or Sison and his group as well as of the RPC leadership). Ruben Guevarra, head of the Party Committee by virtue of being the representative of the Central Committee in the RPC was called ‘Ilong’ and known as a womanizer and dictator of sorts,” Peña shared.

Because of the distrust against them, Cordero was not informed about the arms landing project, but was told not to engage in any armed activities against the enemy. This was the command for all armed units so as not to unduly attract the attention of the enemy, which might forestall the operation.

“Being ignorant of the project, George could only surmise that the organization had become passive and retreatist. Because of their attitude, they were disarmed and a kangaroo court (headed by Guevarra) sentenced George to be executed. He could not accept the charge that he betrayed the Party and the Revolution and up to the end, he expressed his loyalty to the Party, the Revolution, and the people,” Peña wrote in his diary. He did not reveal other stories about Cordero’s trial which were written about by several authors in the late 80s, after the ouster of Marcos in 1986.

Washington Post correspondent Gregg Jones, author of 1989 book  Red Revolution, said in Chapters V (The Ghost of Plaza Miranda) and VI (Prisoners in a Gilded Cage) that an unnamed, high-ranking CPP-NPA singled out Sison as the mastermind of the Plaza Miranda bombing.

Sison ordered Peńa and his team to take MV Karagatan on the arms landing mission from China to Isabela. ABS-CBN News

Former Senate President Jovito Salonga, in his 1990 book A Struggle of Journey and Hope, made the same allegation. He based this on the testimonies of Guevarra, NPA members Ariel Almendral and Pablo Araneta (one of Cordero’s allies at the CPP-NPA camp) before the Senate justice and blue ribbon committees from September to November 1989. Cordero supposedly volunteered the information that he was the Plaza Miranda bomber, to prove his loyalty to the CPP after being accused of undermining it. Almendral said he was Cordero’s lawyer at the time.

Salonga said that Corpus made the same revelation in 1986. “It was Jose Ma. Sison, with the knowledge of a few trusted members of the CPP Central Committee, who masterminded the Plaza Miranda bombing and entrusted its implementation to Danny Cordero and his two accomplices,” Salonga wrote. In his book, Jones identified them as Cecil Apostol and a certain “Danny.” Corpus said the same thing in his biography, Silent War, published in 1989.

Mario Miclat’s Secrets of the 18 Mansions (in China), published by Anvil in 2010, says that more than 30 Filipino students and activists who were stranded in China in the 70s were divided as they critiqued Sison’s leadership. The first wave of Filipino students went to China in 1972. Peña and his 11 companions in MV Andrea which sank near Hong Kong, a failed arms landing mission again, were brought to China in 1974.

 

Sison’s response

In a statement about the Cordero testimony published by Bulatlat.com, Sison says that according to reliable reports, “just before his execution, he retracted his story.” This was “deliberately” excluded by Corpus and Almendral, he adds.

Sison claimed as his best defense, Jones’ quotation of Corpus, that “Sison never spelled out how he planned to provoke Marcos. Only later, after the Plaza Miranda bombing, did the rebel leaders in the Isabela camp understand that Sison had proposed an act of “mass violence.”

“How could Corpus be present in any top level planning (to allegedly bomb Plaza Miranda) by the CPP Central Committee or any smaller organ of the CC about something outside of his jurisdiction?” Sison points out. “In early 1971 he had just come from the enemy side and had only recently tried to prove himself with the raid on the PMA armory.”             

Jones built his story “on a series of hearsay and Almendral tried “to speak for the dead,” according to Sison.

“When I was presented to Marcos by my military captors in 1977, he insinuated that I could get out of prison by cooperating with him and denouncing (Sen) Benigno S. Aquino Jr. and a Tarlac unit of the NPA (in central Luzon) as responsible for the Plaza Miranda bombing,” Sison writes in his defense. “When I was under torture and in protracted solitary confinement, the most repeated questions and suggestions of my military interrogators were those calculated to make me and the CPP own the blame for the atrocity.”

 

Crossings: Portrait of a Revolutionary may be ordered through this link. It is also available in Artbooks.ph, Gourmet Gypsy Art Café, and Central Books.