Mateship and Bayanihan: In pursuit of peace

AUSSIE DIPLOMACY MATTERS - Steven J. Robinson - The Philippine Star

Regular readers of this column will know that this year Australia and the Philippines are celebrating 75 years of formal relations – significant not just due to the number, but because of all we have done together since the first Australian consulate was opened in Manila in 1946.

However, it was an action on this very week 77 years ago, where Australia and the Philippines forged the bonds of “mateship and bayanihan,” reflecting the common values and deep friendships which continue to characterize our close engagement today.

From 23 to 26 October 1944, the bulk of the Royal Australian Navy battle force – including our two largest heavy cruisers, along with destroyers, frigates and landing ships – fought alongside Philippine, US and Allied forces for the liberation of the Philippines in the largest naval battle ever fought, the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Having visited the site of the battle myself, I found it hard to imagine that the calm waters between Surigao and Tacloban was the scene where hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors fought in a decisive action that secured the liberation of the Philippines and paved the way to end the war. It was costly on all sides, including for Australia.

At the beginning of the battle, while supporting the liberation landings at Leyte, Australia´s flagship HMAS Australia was struck by an enemy aircraft. Thirty-two sailors were killed and 64 injured, forcing the ship to retire for repairs. Several days later, Australian ships again entered action when the cruiser HMAS Shropshire and destroyer HMAS Arunta defended the landings against enemy battleships and cruisers in Surigao Strait as part of the joint Australian and US force.

HMAS Shropshire, Australia, Arunta and several other Australian warships would go on to support the landings at Lingayen and the bombardment of Corregidor, but not before suffering many losses. Overall, 4,000 Australian servicemen fought in the liberation of the Philippines, 92 were killed and many hundreds more were wounded.

It is important for Australia to reflect on these events and remember the courage and sacrifice of all who fought here and across the Philippines in the seas, skies and land in the cause of peace. The wise words of one of those veterans, David Mattiske, a sailor aboard the HMAS Shropshire, are now fittingly engraved upon the wall of the Battle of Surigao Strait Memorial: “Let us pray: that we never have another world war.”

Indeed, I would like to extend a special thank you to the people and authorities of Surigao del Norte, for the continued remembrance service given annually to your nation’s heroes and veterans, and to those who fought alongside you, to liberate the Philippines at Leyte Gulf.

In remembering these events, it is also important to celebrate that the common values which Australia and the Philippines demonstrated at Leyte 77 years ago continue to endure today and have been demonstrated many times in recent years.

Whether through Australia’s emergency support following Typhoon Yolanda where over Australian 500 sailors, soldiers and aviators answered the call to work alongside their Filipino friends, or during the siege of Marawi, where Australia provided direct support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the liberation of the city, our shared values of mateship and bayanihan continue to bind our nations.

Of course, more recently, we have also seen this spirit in the response to the COVID pandemic – where Australia has contributed substantial support, including through vaccines, medical equipment and logistics support to assist the Philippines.

Less than a month ago, I was pleased to hand over P54 million in emergency medical equipment to the Philippine Armed Forces during the port visit to Manila of the Australian navy’s largest ship, HMAS Canberra. The ship was part of an Australian maritime task group which was in the Philippines to conduct training with the Philippines during the three-month Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2021 (IPE21).

Notably, three members of the Philippine Armed Forces were fully integrated with the Royal Australian Navy as part of IPE21, including the task group’s overall Deputy Commander, Philippine Navy Captain Constantino Reyes. It was an honor for Australia to have Captain Reyes serve in this role.

Last week, I also visited Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, where Australian soldiers and their Filipino counterparts are training together to build expertise and capacity to respond to the myriad of challenges facing us today – including from threats such as terrorism and insurgency.

Seeing the HMAS Canberra in Manila and visiting Fort Magsaysay was a poignant reminder that while much has changed over the past 77 years – from the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 through to the modern day, Australia´s commitment as a friend to the Philippines’ peace, security and prosperity and the stability of an ASEAN-led region, is ongoing, and will remain rock solid.

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Steven J. Robinson AO is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. Follow him on Twitter @AusAmbPH.

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