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Nation

Air Force men recall defection from Marcos

- Ding Cervantes -
CLARK FIELD, Pampanga — Air Force men who "changed the tide of history" exactly 17 years ago yesterday gathered here to commemorate the day they formed the first military group, with five attack and three rescue helicopters, to defect from the Marcos regime.

Over a simple lunch of "sinigang" and "kare-kare" at a small restaurant within the premises of the 600th air base wing here, they reminisced how they risked their lives "for love of country." And they wore yellow T-shirts marked "17 years searching" in front, and "unity, peace, progress" at the back.

The men, led by former Air Force chief retired Lt. Gen. Antonio Sotelo, have been commemorating yearly here the 24th of February 17 years ago when they flew their eight helicopters from Villamor Air Base to Camp Crame where then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and then Armed Forces chief Fidel Ramos had established rebel camp against the Marcos dictatorship.

At about 6 a.m. that day, Sotelo and his men landed at Camp Crame. At about 10 a.m. one of the five Sikorsky helicopters they shanghai’d from Villamor Air Base strafed the grounds in Malacañang where former President Marcos and his family were holding out amid People Power at EDSA. At noon, three of the helicopters attacked Villamor Air Base, destroying six Huey helicopters that were being prepared to hit the rebel camp at Camp Crame.

"It was a move that changed history. Before we decided to move to the camp of Ramos, only ragtag groups of military men were on the side of Crame. When we landed there, the situation changed. It was a turning point in history. It encouraged other military groups to defect one after the other," recalled Sotelo.

"We were ready to fight. Now I know how love for country feels. It was as if fear vanished; we had a feeling of soaring, ready to give up our lives," said Col. Charles Hotchkiss, now commander of the 300th air force wing based here.

The previous day on Feb. 23, Hotchkiss, then a major, had already solicited the support of his colleagues, then mostly either majors or captains: 505th air rescue commander Loreto Suarez, 16th "Tora Tora" 16th attack squadron commander Efren Macasil, 20th air command squadron executive officer Domingo Dimapilis, Villamor operations center commander Fernando Manalo, 22nd supply squadron commander Emmanuel Tabigue, and 505th air rescue squadron commander Alfredo Manalo, among others.

They were all present here yesterday for their annual commemoration, wearing the yellow t-shirts with the same marks.

"The country did not turn out as we had expected," lamented Sotelo. "Nothing has really changed."

His sentiments were expressed in the mark "17 years searching" in front of the t-shirts. And it was a search for "unity, peace, prosperity" that was marked at the t-shirts back.

"But we got the democracy we wanted. I believe that the President is trying her best to make democracy workable for all, but I suppose this would take time," Sotelo added.

Historians have written about how the Air Force men’s defection had triggered a domino effect in the military. "I think that civil war would have ensued had we not made the defection that turned the tide of events," Sotelo said. Still, however, there were details that seemed to have escaped the scrutiny of historians.

Hotchkiss recalled that before he and his men decided to hit the Huey helicopters at Villamor, he sent a radio message to the headquarters urging the Air Force men to abandon the choppers they were preparing to fly to attack Camp Crame.

"The Hueys were still on ground but were being prepared for the attack. Somehow, my warning reached those preparing the aircraft so no one was hurt when we finally hit the Hueys," Hotchkiss recalled.

On the night of Feb. 24, the renegade helicopters were flown here, then a US Air Force base,as Marcos’ forces had trained their mortars on Camp Crame.The helicopters were refused landing by the Americans, until Sotelo decided to declare an "emergency situation".

"Under international laws, no landing can be refused in case of emergencies," Hotchkiss said. By the time the helicopters were allowed to land, they were short of fuel. They also had no firepower which was spent in the attack in Villamor .

Sotelo and his men had asked their colleagues from the 5th fighter wing based at Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga for fuel supply, but were refused. The base, which had f-5 figther jets, had also not yet defected,

"He (Sotelo) wanted to attack Basa the following day, but I went against the idea since my classmate Exequiel Cruz was based there," Hotchkiss said. Later, he was able to get the support of some officials in Basa where the fighter jets were disabled to prevent them from being used by the Marcos camp.

Hotchkiss was also the one to objected to the suggestion of Ramos to hit a communications tower in Malacanang, preferring that only the palace’s grounds be grazed. "It was difficult to hit it, but more than anything else, there was the danger of also hitting civilians," he recalled.

Meawhile, Sotelo recalled that he had already arranged with the Air Force at Sangley Point in Cavite for supply of rockets and caliber 50 armaments. They arms were to be brought to the Abaya resort in Naic, Cavite to be picked up by a helicopter piloted by Suarez from Clark at 4 a.m. the following day.

"We felt boosted. We were again ready to fight," recalled Hotchkiss.

On the night of Feb. 25, Sotelo and his men were again at Clark where US soldiers kept tight watch on them. Little did they know that at about midnight on that day, Marcos, the man they sought to boot out from Malacanang, was also at Clark with his family, to be flown by a US helicopter to Hawaii.

Despite his laments on how the democracy he and his men fought for has progressed, Sotelo has not lost heart. "It’s really up to us to make it work better," he said.

AIR

AIR FORCE

CAMP

CAMP CRAME

FEB

HELICOPTERS

HOTCHKISS

MEN

SOTELO

VILLAMOR AIR BASE

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