Pablo Obra Fenix, a small tribute for a big man

TODAY, May 2, is my father’s birth anniversary.

Pablo Obra Fenix of Bauang, La Union. He would have been 94 years old today. When he passed away in 1991 we found comfort in the fact that the Lord had actually doubled his lifespan which allowed the second half of his eight children, to be born.

In the 1950s he had some form of aplastic anemia –  a deficiency of all types of blood cells caused by failure of bone marrow development – which at that time was basically unknown. He was given months to live. But he was given a grant to join an experimental procedure in the United States which ended up successful. When he and my mother left for his treatment the youngest of his four daughters then was an infant. When they returned this girl was a toddler. From then, they had four more children, including me, the youngest.

As part of his treatment he underwent massive blood transfusions. We would joke that the first daughter they had after their return from the US had predominantly Caucasian blood, for how would you explain here very fair skin and light brown hair or the fact that she would be the only one among the siblings who wouldn’t get a bronze sun tan in the beach, but instead break out in freckles?

Pablo Obra Fenix with half the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1944, taken from the display of the PMA museum in Fort Del Pilar, Baguio City.

Pablo Obra Fenix with half the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1944, taken from the display of the PMA museum in Fort Del Pilar, Baguio City.

A math wizard, my father was a civil engineer who specialized in earth moving and cost estimation. He served as the City Engineer of Olongapo City, an official title given to him although he was actually under the US military (he was with the Essayons, the US Army Corps of Engineers that trained in Fort Belvoir) and answered directly to the base commander. Olongapo was actually a part of the Subic Naval Base and he undertook its urban planning and redesign, often requiring moving whole houses and structures to the new city grid. When the city was fully turned over to the Philippines the mayor, James Gordon, asked him to stay on as City Engineer which he reluctantly accepted at first,  the pay was way lower that what he got under the American military. But more important than that was the friendship between them.

Mayor Gordon was assassinated during his term in office. It was actually the third try that killed him. My father was with him during the first two attempts, one of which involved jumping out of their car when a grenade was lobbed into it.

In 1978 my father was among the first Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Saudi Arabia. They were called Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs) then and even had a different passport from other Filipino travelers. He opened the doors for contractors and workers there, successfully negotiating projects for the first five years of that new movement.

I guess among the proudest moments of his life was his being with the Class of 1944 of the Philippine Military Academy. It was a unique class because the war with the Japanese had finally broken in their time. They were called “The Yearlings” because they were sent to war instantly.

I am reprinting here a story about PMA Class ’44, written during their 60th Anniversary in 2004 by Frank Quesada and published by Sol Vanzi in her Philippine Headline News Online.

NEVADA, USA, April 14, 2004  By Col. (Ret) Frank B. Quesada, Associate PMA ‘44 – Old soldiers never die – they honorably fade away with attributes such as courage, loyalty and integrity.

The Philippine Military Academy (PMA) ( the West Point of the Philippines ) has been the training ground for professional soldiers, more particularly Class ’44 that was said as molded by fire like gold – before World War II.

When some 73 young men entered the hallowed grounds of the Academy ( then was in the Teacher’s Camp, in Baguio City) in 1940, little did they know that their commissioning in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) would come before their graduation. It sounds odd – but true.

Class ’44 had no sword to show, nor a graduation yearbook until their 50th anniversary. Graduation for this class was in the battlefields of Bataan, Corregidor, the Philippine Defense Campaign in 1941 until the Liberation of the Philippines in 1945.. This was a class with hard and bitter sweet memories of the cadet corps, as yearlings who had their baptism of fire in World War II in 1941, in the Philippine Commonwealth Army, as a U.S. military force that were inducted and incorporated into the United States Army in the Far East (USAFFE).

They fought a war inherently not of Filipinos, but of the United States against Japan. They fought gallantly for both the Commonwealth and the U.S. flag as members of the U.S. Army under Gen. D. McArthur.

They were vanquished by an obdurate enemy in 1942, however, never took defeat from the invaders, organized a ragtag irregular and unconventional resistance movement, named as the Hunters PMA-ROTC Guerrilla (Hunters for short).

They learned the art of beg, borrow and steal logistic operation, and harassed the occupation troops, inflicted heavy damage against the enemy from the rear, with the least casualties on their part, celebrated the glory of victory after 4 years in the mountain vastness of the Sierras up to the liberation of the Philippines in 1945.

They fiercely fought singing the guerrilla cavalier’s song “ Marching along, fifty-score, great-hearted men,” (BR. Browning, in Cavalier’s tune)

It was a close-knit Class with a distinct and renown history of its own who wrote it with blood an sweat, earned a reputation of excellence in the field of battle, respected by its counterpart academy graduate officers in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Some of them, like this author were taken prisoners-of-war in the enemy’s hamletting (zona) operation, by the dreaded Japanese Kempei Tai (military police), were tortured and beaten to the pulp, rendered disabled, however, were rescued by their cavaliers to freedom during the enemy occupation, recuperated and again joined their fightingest cavaliers in the Philippine Liberation Campaign in 1945.

“Ils ne passeront pas !” (The enemy shall not pass) said General Petain, 1916. These men remembered our own history when the young Gen. Del Pilar said the same in Tirad Pass, before he was felled by an American bullet.

The brotherhood of strong hearts, this class was unique because from the Academy in 1940, to the soggy foxholes of Bataan and the humid tunnels of Corregidor in 1942, the guerrilla resistance movement from 1942 to 1945, and in the Liberation of the Philippines, they were intact as one family that looked after each other. A few were WW-II casualties, but obstinately opposed the enemy until 1945.

It can be said that camaraderie of this class was exceptional. They stuck together through thick and thin – likewise, their families that went through years of privation.

It was part and parcel of their career to go to war when necessary. They learn and knew that war was a science of destruction And that there was never a good war, or a bad peace. (B. Franklin).

Those who were brutally tortured by the enemy during the enemy occupation – had only to thank their former upperclassmen who unfeelingly hazed them in a year of “beast barracks” which eventually served as their preparatory entrance to the brutal world of prisoners-of-war’s torment by a savage enemy who ignored the Geneva Convention.

They gruffly survived the ordeal in war’s hell to tell the unbelievable horrors of war. With bloodied heads but unbowed, still tart and pungent, with a strong heart, had an infallible faith that death was a stranger to them. No one was ever a coward among them. “For only cowards die many times before their own demise. The valiant never taste of death but once.” (Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, II,2)

After liberation in 1945-46, it was also a class selected by the AFP to all go to top Command and Staff Schools in the United States, and majority of this particular class were trained in (Artillery Course) in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with some exceptions who went to Fort Benning Georgia, (in Infantry course) a handful in San Antonio, Texas ( in the Air Corps). A small minority in U.S. and foreign Naval Schools,( in the Navy). They strive for perfection because they know that perfection has no trifles.

Only to find out later that avid politics was just as wicked as bad peace which was worst than war. Disillusioned by “ inequality which materializes the elite-class, vulgarizes the middle-class, and brutalizes the lower-class of a fragile society.”

This class was a suspect of, and by avid politicians for being idealistic, and seen as a threat to expedient political demagoguery. They were watched by politico-jaundiced eyes as the heat was heaped upon them

Albeit, this class strived to make progress from scaffold to scaffold. And learned how to deal with politics which they saw that it can not safely leave politics to ,politicians, in the same token can not also leave economics to college professors. And that politicians can not be politicians and remain honest under logistical deficit.

They returned to the country from foreign studies with their hearts and minds unconcealed. If there was one who could tell their story, is this author, from the time they boarded the special couch of the Philippine National Railways in Tutuban Station in Manila that brought them to Damortis, La Union to Polo field (tent city) in Baguio City in April 1940 – where they first tasted cadet discipline from welcoming squads of upperclassmen.

We rode in the train from Manila, and were transferred to buses from Damortis to Baguio, where my late father, Capt, R. N. Quesada, (PA), who was among the organizers and instructor of the Reserve Service School (ROSS), was waiting for me.

Members of this Class came from various levels of Philippine society like any other bunch of eager-beaver plebes – of modest means (sons of farmers, fishermen, government employees, and civilian workers. And top military generals)

As plebes they shared just one common aspiration – to study, graduate from the Academy and serve the country as gentlemen officers of the armed services. The Academy offered them that unique golden opportunity to achieve their goals and ambitions. And inculcated in them tenets of unvarnished nationalism.

Such opportunity was said as a tide in the affairs of ambitious men which lead them to the flood of fame. It is only once in a man’s lifetime, at least such opportunity knocks unbidden at one’s door. These cavaliers grabbed that witting guest to be masters of their destinies and captains of their ships

As they innocently entered the gate of the Academy, they readily got the taste of the stern “reception, and eagle-eyed attention and commands from the uppies who did not lose time to mold new men out of them. Through “constructive” hazing that would last for a year’s “beast barracks” designed to transform them into a brand new cadets that would shape them up to snappy officers, which they would carry the newly acquired personal demeanor the rest of their lives – in war and in peace.

On to war, they went. “And he shall smell the stench of battle, thunders of Captains and the shouting.” ( Old Testaments, Job, XXXI,X,25)

The challenging plebe year, at the Academy, they are always moving in a great haste (doubletime) pace, as they are integrated into the cadet corps – unceasingly, adjusting to the rigors and trauma of being “ducrots” and “dumb-johns” as novices. In summer, they go into maneuvers at Poro Point in San Fernando, La Union.

As summer ends, they return to the Teacher’s Camp ( their home base) for academics, and unending pressure from the uppies who make plebes conform strictly with Corps’ standards.

In this class were noted cadets, one by virtue of his father’s reputation who earlier graduated at West Point, USA. They were: Vicente Lim Jr., who went to the USMA at West Point, and Fidel Segundo Jr. However, they had no extra privileges as plebes. They were hazed not with scorpions, but also with the same verbal whips, with justifiable punishment from the upperclassmen.

Sergio Molano, went to USNA in Annapolis. Members of this famed Class – that produced several Generals, Flag Officers in Command were: the class roster is listed hereunder (in alphabetical order)

Fernando A. Avendano, Galileo C. Acosta, Daniel B. Adea, Eleuterio L. Adevoso, Florentino B. Aguila, Domingo A. Alcasid, Jose M. Artiaga, Beinvenido V. Baquiren, Eduardo A. Baumann, Leandro C. Bermejo, Felix F. Bernal, Geronimo M Cabal, Percival P. Caceres, Laureto E. Caluya, Godoredo E. Carreon, Lauro M. Castillo, Jimeno A Cleofe, Teodoro J. Concepcion, Marcelino R. Corpus, Benito P. Dacanay, Patrocinio T. Dacanay, Nicanor C. David, Rufino C. Dizon, Emilio A. Domingo, Rafael F. Dumlao, Marcelino F. Erfe-Mejia, Hilarion L. Estrera, Alfredo Fawcett. Waldomero E. Federis, Pablo O. Fenix, Leonilo O Flor, Juanito N. Ferrer, Mauricio S. Flores, Pablo M. Francisco, Gil G. Genguyon, Jose B. Gutierrez, Guillermo G. Guzman, Saturnino S .Indiongco. Cristobal C. Irlanda, Cesar C. Jazmin, Pacifico V Jose, Melanio P .Lara, Bernardo L. La Madrid, Vicente H. Lim Jr, Patrocinio Lim (A), Bartolome S. Macalinao, Pablo A. Magaro, Vicente E, Raul S. Manglapus (A), Vicente E. Maristela, Sergio C. Molano, Guillermo S. Moreno, Godiardo G. Nonato, Pedro O. Paat, Anselmo Q. Paje, Juan B. Panopio, Pablo G. Paredes, Gregorio R. Perez, Jose Z. Perlas, Victor M. Punzalan, Francisco B. Quesada (A), Julio C. Radam, Ramiro F. Regalado, Jose L Reyes, Jose Rodriguez, Armando G. Romero, .Antenor B. Roque, Benitez C. Roque, Severino R. Ruaro, Samson T. Sabalones, Felipito C. Sandico, Frisco F. San Juan, Hermogenes V. Santiago, Fidel V. Segundo Jr., Elias G Sevilla, Mario O Signacion, Vivencio a. Valdez, Erusto P. Valencia, Jesus L. Ver, Vicente A. De Vera, William Veto, Aurelio S. Ugalde, Damaso Torralba. Lorenzo A. Tan, Paciano Tangco (A), Eufracio C. Villanueva, and Mariano Villasanta.

Of the original 73, plus 4 associates – only less than half are still around, retired from the military – most of them are engaged in business, and/or residing abroad.

They were aboard in their 50th anniversary in the hallowed grounds of the Academy in Fort Del Pilar, Baguio City like always one big happy family where finally their much vaunted annual souvenir year-book was finally published. Those marked (A) above were associates, as accomplished professionals and outstanding military officers who were their wartime foxhole buddies, and/or fellow cadets.

Special Note: Members of the group who reported to PMA on April 1940 as Class 1944 were:: Felix R.Bernal, (FNU) Briosos, Marcelino Escalona, Pablo Ignacio, Vicente H. Lim Jr., (FNU)Loren, Sergio C. Molano,Vicente O.Orat, (FNU) Rapista, Edmundo DeLos Reyes, Jose Rodriguez, Samson T. Sabalones, Santos G. Dizon, (FNU) Santos, Rafael Tadeo, William Veto.

Reasons for their departure and return were: they either had formerly resigned, or were turned back, or was in USMA, or USNA, or suffered injury as a cadet, or left for personal reasons or was disabled, and was a POW in WW-II.

This class, however, did not just fade away quietly. It left an indelible mark in history, not only etched in the marble monuments of pantheons of heroes, but in the stout hearts of free men who believe that patriotism is never enough unless everyone no longer have ridden hate or bitterness in their hearts.

They learned that in World War II, where their fellow cavaliers offered themselves in the altar of freedom, and in the Korean War where one of them, Cavalier Jose M. Artiaga, during lonely winter battle bravely stood against overwhelming numbers in the face of the surging ( fanatical Chinese affiliates) of the North Korea with unparalleled valor and gallantry.

This class – composed of seasoned war veterans have learned to strive for peace with honor. They relentlessly demanded from the U.S. government what was due them for their active and honorable military service to Uncle Sam.

To them, it was not the value of dollars and cents, but a question of dignity and honor denied. Many of them perished bare and naked of their rightful compensation and benefits from the U.S. that misled and deceived them. Albeit, they persevered. They know that justice and fairness would prevail in the end.

They prayed and hoped to see relief from distress in God’s peaceful ways. “In la sua voluntade e’ nostra pace” (In His will is peace comformable with divine law.)

In the late 1980s the US rejected my father’s immigration application as veteran. I don’t recall what it is now. It wasn’t the money or benefits. But what visibly bothered him was that it didn’t allow him to get a visa to attend the first vows of my sister as a Maryknoll nun in New York.

Shortly after he passed away in 1991, we received a letter from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service for him to report to the Embassy in Manila for the processing of his citizenship papers. The letter came complete with a reviewer with questions and answers about American history, culture and society that may be asked during the interview.

Many considered it a missed opportunity. But I’m sure he’s in a infinitely better place than the US of A.

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