Earlier Mariano Tolentino, a pre-war radio inspector of Iloilo had been assembling odds and ends to make a radio transmitter. Now the fruits of his ingenuity and patience were being tested: "WPM calling KFS... ” the deft fingers of the operator repeatedly pressed buttons, and after an interlude of silence, the makeshift radio transmitter came alive with "KFS calling WPM..." weak, but it was contact from the outside world; after all, the first radio communications were cut off by the Japanese following the fall of Corregidor on May 6, 1942. It was about 10:00 o'clock in the evening of October 20, 1942.
Peralta's radio breakthrough, and the subsequent messages from other makeshift stations in various parts of the Philippines that flooded Gen. MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) headquarters, were critical developments in the war. The bits of information received were incoherent and sometimes even contradictory due to the absence of trained operatives to evaluate data. Moreover, the absence of secure cipher raised the possibility of divulging sensitive information to the enemy. There also was a prevailing fear in SWPA that if these messages–which desperately needed recognition and aid–were ignored, Filipinos might lose hope and become more susceptible to Japanese propaganda. Worse, there was yet no credible evidence that these messages actually came from loyal guerrillas, and not from the Japanese.
Send Planet Party
Thus, towards the end of October 1942, Gen. MacArthur decided to send trained operatives to the Philippines whose primary mission included the establishment of a nationwide intelligence network to report to him the strength and disposition of Japanese military, air and naval power. To accomplish these objectives, the operatives had to blend with the local population and, behind enemy lines, pose as native farmers. It was for this reason that the first Allied espionage mission to the Philippines code named "Planet Party" was all-Filipino. (Planet Party was so called because each major Philippine island was named after the various planets in our solar system specifically for this mission. Negros Island, for instance, was referred to as Neptune).
Captain (later promoted Major) Jesus A. Villamor, the first Filipino fighter pilot personally awarded a medal for valor by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was designated to organize and lead this six-man espionage mission.** After his interviews with several prospects, Villamor eventually narrowed down his choices to five. Rodolfo O. Ignacio, Emilio F. Quinto and Patricio Jorge were crewmembers of the ill-fated SS Don Isidro when it was bombed and sunk by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Australia while en route to deliver supplies and ammunitions to Corregidor early in the war. Lt. Delfin YuHuico and Dominador Malic were aboard the SS Mactan when it was strafed and destroyed by Japanese zeros on Pasig River. After their harrowing experiences, these veterans somehow escaped to Australia and were now selected for this trailblazing espionage mission. .
As soon as the team was organized, the "Planet Men" including three alternates underwent rigorous physical conditioning and training at a special camp near Brisbane, Australia, under the strict supervision of Capt. Allan Davison, a drillmaster in the Australian army. They were made to chop wood, walk barefoot for long distances to make their feet callous; their nails must be cracked and broken so they could pass off as hardworking Filipino peasants. They were given crash courses in espionage techniques, codes, ciphers, sabotage, celestial navigation, judo and wrestling and were even made to "attack" a real cadaver so they could learn the quickest way to kill a person. To attain jungle survival skills, they were at times left continuously for three days without rations in some densely forested mountains with only a knife, so they could learn to live off the land. At night, especially during inclement weather, they practiced unloading their equipment and other cargoes from a simulated submarine and loading them in rubber rafts.
In a little less than two months of rigorous daily training, the "planet men" were ready for the job ahead. So, late in the afternoon of December 27, 1942, disguised as mess boys, they were ordered to walk single file on a ramp and into a waiting submarine moored on Brisbane River. It was the USS Gudgeon, about to embark on a 2,000-mile journey into the unknown, deep in enemy territory.
Journey in the Dark
They ate, slept, read, played cards in cramped submarine quarters throughout the journey. The sub surfaced and recharged its batteries every 12 hours and only under cover of darkness. They did calisthenics regularly to keep physically fit and practiced landing procedures. To Villamor, whose love for the motherland was described as "intense and almost fanatical," the mission became an obsession. It must not fail! He genuinely believed that the liberation of his country from a ruthless enemy depended so much on the success of this mission. Yet, he did not know for certain if there were loyal guerrillas whose support he must depend on. This uncertainty and his gnawing fear of failure made him restless and many times robbed him of sleep.
In the early morning of January 14, 1943, the Gudgeon was about 12 miles from the coast of southern Negros. Hovering at periscope depth, Villamor and the sub skipper, Lt. William F. Stovall, Jr.*** took turns surveying Catmon Point in Tolong Bay as a possible landing site. The night before in Cansilan Point, the landing was called off at the last minute when several lights (possibly on fishermen's boats) were observed moving about near the beach area. Now, in the dawn light, they saw a wide shoreline of sand and coconut trees and a jungle a little farther inland. The area appeared largely uninhabited except for a solitary two-story house near the beach. Villamor decided it was the right place to land. Stovall agreed. The Gudgeon then withdrew into deeper water to wait for nightfall.
It was around 9:00 o'clock in the evening of the same day when the monotonous whir of the diesel motor finally stopped and the sub was on "neutral buoyancy" at least a hundred yards from the beach off Catmon Point. Then, the much-awaited order crackled through the sub's loudspeaker: "Landing Party on deck!" In a few minutes, the "Planet men" were on topside, feeling the cool evening breeze of the tropics and the salty mists each time a wave splashed on the submarine. One by one each of the 40 water-sealed tin cans measuring 2 x 2 feet wrapped in burlap that contained their cargo was unloaded with methodical efficiency through the sub's hatch and lined up for loading in three rubber rafts. The intensive training that they went through had paid off, Villamor thought, as the hissing sound of oxygen inflating the rubber boats broke the stillness of the night.
"We're south of the western tip of Catmon Point. You should be able to take advantage of the current to reach the beach," the skipper assured him.
But just then Ignacio came running to report that one of the lifeboats was useless as it could "only hold air on one side." Putting aside his surge of frustrations of the moment, Villamor surveyed their precious cargoes: There were the two powerful radios; generators and spare parts; dynamite and blasting caps; 350,000 Philippine pesos and gems worth P400,000; extra medical supplies including insect repellent, quinine, wonder drugs and a month supply of canned rations; and even morale-boosting magazine publications showing pictures of dead Japanese soldiers in some Pacific battlegrounds. They could not use the sub's 18-foot wooden wherry because it could not be deflated and was difficult to hide once they hit the beach. Villamor was left with no other choice but to leave some of these vital materials behind, including the eight boxes of. 30 caliber bullets that Stovall offered for the mission. The two rubber boats, which were tied together with a long rope, were enough for the radios, the codes and the Planet Party.
After a brief goodbye to Lt. Stovall and his crew, Villamor, cradling a Thompson submachine gun joined Quinto and Malic in the lead raft; Ignacio, Jorge and YuHuico were in the other. Silently, they shoved off. In the dark, moonless night, the silhouette of the submarine vanished quickly from their sight. Now they were completely on their own as they paddled furiously to their destination about a hundred yards away.
They were about halfway to the shore when suddenly Malic broke the silence. "Four o'clock," he whispered. Instinctively, Villamor turned and, through his binocular, saw a shadowy outline of an outrigger and a solitary figure under a triangular sail. The small boat appeared to be drifting and the man on it was seemingly unaware of their presence.
"Keep paddling, just as if we belong here," Villamor ordered.
They finally reached the beach. They jumped into neck-deep water and dragged their raft ashore. It was then they noticed the outrigger gliding toward them. The temptation to shoot the intruder was overwhelming, but they feared the gunfire might alert whoever was lurking in the darkness and jeopardize the whole mission.
The man was about 30 feet from them when he shouted, "Ano ang ginaobra mo dira?" In a confident voice, Malic, who spoke Hilonggo, the local dialect, answered that they needed his help as a shark had bitten one of them.
"But there are already three of you," the stranger answered back and then, without waiting for any response, he suddenly swerved his boat and disappeared into the night. The force and the haste with which he left the scene could only mean he suspected something sinister.****
After hurriedly deflating and burying one of the rafts and hiding their equipment in the dense foliage, Villamor had to make one more painful decision. The intruder mentioned only three persons so, Villamor figured, it was possible he did not see the other raft. With this assumption, if the stranger came back with a detachment of guerrillas, three of them must be conveniently found in order to prevent a further search of the area. Bitter though it was, Villamor picked out who would accompany him to fulfill the mission: Malic, because he spoke the local dialect, and Quinto, the radio operator; Ignacio, YuHuico and Jorge made up the sacrifice party.
At first they heard faint sounds of voices, which became more distinct with every passing minute. Shortly, they saw a group of armed men with flickering torches emerging from a distance moving towards their direction. Now Villamor was speaking rapidly for his last-minute instructions: If the approaching group turned out to be Japanese, they would ambush them. The sound of coordinated fire would be a signal for the Gudgeon to open fire from its deck according to a prearranged plan. In the ensuing melee, it was hoped that the enemy would scatter or at least wait for reinforcement, thereby, giving them ample time to escape to the interior. On the other hand, if they turned out to be Filipinos, then they should stick to their cover story that they were guerrillas from Mindanao attempting to consolidate with those in Negros.
In a few minutes, the group of armed men surrounded the sacrifice party. While they appeared hostile, Villamor felt relieved that they were not Japanese, and the possibility of convincing them of their cover story was not entirely remote. From where they were hiding, they could hear the interrogation clearly enough.
Captured By Friends
"Who is leader?" the head of the group asked. "I am" answered Ignacio with YuHuico and Jorge at his side. "What are your names? Where you came from?"
"I am Lt. Noble and we came from Mindanao" said Ignacio. And the two others did likewise using their fictitious names. But it was obvious right from the start that Ignacio did not sound convincing enough.
"Spies," someone said. "We kill them all," shouted another. Then, one inspected and kicked the rubber boat demanding an explanation how they could have traveled all the way from Mindanao in such a puny raft. Ignacio calmly explained that they were on a motorboat going to Panay and that "our Col. Turner was in a hurry and let us off here with this" referring to the rubber boat.
Villamor could only watch helplessly as his men were led off into the night, leaving behind two guerrillas ostensibly to secure the area. Meanwhile, retreating a little farther into the jungle, he flashed the letter "E" 3 times to the submarine in accordance to their prearranged code that the landing was successful and that Lt. Stovall was now released of his responsibility to the Planet Party.
They were all awake by the early streaks of dawn the following day. At the same time the two guards started taking up the faint trail they took the night before. Keeping to the fringes of the jungle and under cover of thick underbrush, the trio followed the guards from a distance. They desperately needed to know where the sacrifice party was taken. In their training, they were warned that Filipino guerrillas very rarely took prisoners and mostly were so trigger-happy that they tended to shoot first and ask questions later. The safety of the sacrifice party was foremost in Villamor's mind.
"Halt–who goes!" a loud commanding voice shattered the early morning silence. They were totally caught by surprise, unable to bring their weapons into play. From the corner of his eyes, Villamor caught a glimpse of a menacing rifle among giant ferns aimed at him. They were quickly surrounded by four guerrillas who emerged from the shadows and disarmed them.
"Mga guerrilleros kami nga halin pa sa Mindanao," Malic managed to reply in the local dialect when asked who they were, adhering to their original cover story.
"Maybe yes, maybe no," was the quick response as the guerrillas appraised them more closely as if they were carabaos being examined for sale. Then, they were prodded to walk with their hands behind their heads through the trail leading deeper into the jungle. After almost two hours of walking in the sweltering heat through monotonous tangles of mildewed green, they finally arrived at a clearing with a cluster of nipa huts. Pushed into one of them, they were made to wait as other guerrillas, brandishing an assortment of weapons, emerged from nowhere and surrounded the hut.
The main interrogator who appeared to be the leader of the group took his seat behind a small table. He was a bespectacled, dignified-looking, elderly gentleman in whom Villamor saw a glimmer of hope for sobriety. Yet, as the interrogations progressed, he felt their story did not impress him. The guerrillas, he thought, had seen so many tortures, so many sufferings and deaths at the hands of collaborators that with just as much as a nod from their leader, they would be facing a firing squad.
Then, one guerrilla with a puzzled look on his face approached Villamor and ran his finger through the scar on his left cheek as if to find out for himself if it was real. It was an injury he incurred in a car accident some years back. The man then stepped back and whispered something into the interrogator's ear. Was he mistaking him for someone else? Did the sacrifice party give contradictory details about their cover story? These thoughts crossed Villamor's mind as he stood there helplessly awaiting their fate.
The interrogator stiffened, his eyes fixed on his scar as he approached Villamor and, after a brief moment, his grim expression softened, his lips breaking into a smile. He then stepped back and bringing his heels together he executed a smart salute saying it was his pleasure and privilege "to welcome back to the Philippines, in her darkest hour, Captain Jesus Villamor." He introduced himself as Capt. Jorge Madamba and his assistant, Sgt. Florentino Estillore. The next moment brought shouts of joy, warm embraces and handshakes even tears in an orgy of euphoric jubilation.
And, in the midst of that joyous moment, the three-member sacrifice party was ushered in. "They were getting ready to kill us. We had already dug our graves," Ignacio shamelessly cried as he hugged his captain.
For the Negros guerrillas, the arrival of the Planet Party was the turning point of the war. Here at last are actual signs of deliverance in the form of modern weapons, bullets and medicine. Southern Negros, particularly in the general area of present-day Hinoba-an, served as the conduit for vitally needed weapons and supplies delivered by U. S. submarines, which evacuated American personnel on the return trip. Moreover, to the people of Negros, Villamor became a symbol of freedom. "My presence has a psychological impact on the people," Villamor wrote in his autobiography The Never Surrendered (Manila: Vera-Reyes, Inc., 1982). "They had been living with nothing but hope, now had something real to believe in."*****
Prelude to Return
For Gen. MacArthur, the Planet Party was the first step in redeeming his promised return to the Philippines. Based in Negros, the network of intelligence operatives that Villamor established would provide SWPA with accurate and current information on the enemy. MacArthur's return to the Philippines was moved two months earlier–instead of December 20, 1944 in Davao as originally planned, Allied forces landed in Palo, Leyte on October 20, 1944. It is possible that the change of plan may have been triggered by the success of these intrepid and courageous underground agents. Their accurate information caused the destruction by the allied air forces of enemy ammunition dumps, supply depots, shipping and other military targets.
And, for the Planet Party, the first and the most dangerous phase of their mission had been accomplished. Deep behind enemy lines they found themselves among loyal guerrillas.
Putting his hand on Ignacio's shoulder, Villamor said, "It's all over now. We are home, home among friends."
**Villamor was awarded 13 medals during his military career. One of these was the U. S. Distinguished Service Cross personally awarded to him by Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his heroism in aerial combat against the superior Japanese zeroes on December 10 and 12, 1941 "at a great risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty." He was the only Filipino included in the Roll of Honor published in Life Magazine, February 16, 1942.
***In his book, Allied Intelligence Bureau (New York: Modern Literary Edition Publishing Co., 1958), Col. Allison Ind mentioned that the skipper of the Gudgeon was Lt Commander W. S. Post. However, in his autobiography, Villamor wrote that Lt. Commander William F. Stovall, Jr. who became his personal friend, was the commander of the submarine that took them to Southern Negros with Lt. Commander Robert E. Dornin as his executive officer.
****The stranger was Regino Semillano, a resident of barrio Bacuyangan, Hinoba-an, Negros Occidental, who was fishing in the vicinity when he stumbled on the Planet Party. In a postwar affidavit he executed and deposited at the Governor's Office, Negros Occidental, Semillano said he thought they were Japanese and hurried to flash the alarm to the guerrillas manning an outpost inland.
*****With authorization from SWPA, Villamor assumed over-all command of Negros guerrillas effective May 1, 1943 and succeeded in eliminating petty jealousies and rivalries among the leaders. He was instrumental in providing a united front against the Japanese in both Negros provinces. In due time, he relinquished his command to Major Salvador Abcede.
Virgil N de la Victoria is a former history professor and chairman of the Department of History, University of San Carlos, Cebu City. A Fulbright scholar, he has done extensive research on the resistance movement against the Japanese imperial forces in Negros Island during World War II. He retired as Eligibility Supervisor of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.