Misadventure at Mt. Pinatubo

We had just left the Naval Education and Training Center (NETC) of the Philippine Navy in San Antonio, Zambales, that afternoon of Tuesday, 5 June 2001, when Lieutenant Don Miraflor’s hand phone rang. From the way the young Navy officer kept saying “Aye, Sir,” we knew the call was from one of his superiors.  From what we were hearing, we knew there was a situation that needed urgent action. After the call, Lieutenant Miraflor told us he had been ordered to proceed immediately to the former Subic Naval Base in Olongapo more than an hour away.

The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

May nawawala daw na US Navy SEAL sa may Mount Pinatubo [A US Navy SEAL is supposed to be missing in Mount Pinatubo],” he said, referring to the volcano east of where we were that just a decade earlier erupted after several centuries of slumber and forced the closure of American military bases in the Philippines.

Based on what was relayed to Lieutenant Miraflor, the American service member, who was among those taking part in ongoing bilateral exercises in Subic, failed to return from a trek to Pinatubo and was presumed missing. The details were still sketchy but it made us wonder if the missing American belonged to the same US Navy SEAL unit that just a few hours earlier was doing live-fire training at the NETC with its counterpart from the Navy Special Warfare Group (SWAG).

The SEALs were in the Philippines for Exercise Flash Piston, a special forces training exercise that was being held alongside the larger Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise between the Philippine and United States navies. We were there as observers from the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACOM), an agency under the Office of the President that was tasked to monitor the conduct of joint military exercises in the country.

Joint SWAG-SEAL training in the Philippines. (US Navy Photo)

With me in the rented Toyota Corolla aside from Lieutenant Miraflor were Major Casiano Monilla of the Department of National Defense (DND) and Eduardo Paraan of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). We were part of a VFACOM team that had been moving around for the past several months to observe military maneuvers at the former Clark Air Base in Pampanga and at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. This week, we were at Subic for Flash Piston and CARAT. Lieutenant Miraflor, who was also with the SWAG, was the Navy liaison officer assigned to assist us.

A little more than an hour after leaving San Antonio, we were in Subic, once the homeport of the US Seventh Fleet and now a thriving special economic zone. We immediately made our way to Alava Pier where Philippine and American naval vessels taking part in the CARAT exercises were berthed. Among the vessels there were the landing ships BRP Bacolod City (LS-550) and the USS Rushmore (LSD-14) and the guided missile frigates USS Curts (FFG-38) and the USS Wadsworth (FFG-9).

Waiting for us at the pier was Commodore Mariano Sontillonosa, commanding officer of the Ready Force of the Philippine Navy and also the CARAT Exercise Co-Director. He was with his deputy Capt. Querico Evangelista. I knew both officers, having worked with them during the previous year’s CARAT exercise. We parked the car near the gangplank and immediately approached the two.

May problema tayo [We have a problem],” Commodore Sontillonosa said.

As they were making their way down later in the afternoon, they were ambushed by what were believed to be guerrillas from the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

He then told us what happened. According to him, several US Navy sailors taking part in the CARAT exercises went on an authorized trek to the 1,445-meter-high volcano earlier in the day. With them were armed escorts from the Philippine Navy. As they were making their way down later in the afternoon, they were ambushed by what were believed to be guerrillas from the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

The Commodore said none of the Americans was hurt in the ambush but the rebels disarmed their security escorts before releasing them. He said all made it back safely except for an American sailor who the other members of the group say may just have been separated from them when the shooting started.

“I thought it was a US Navy SEAL who was missing?” I asked Commodore Sontillonosa.

“No,” he said. “That was the initial report but it turned out he is not.”

I wondered out loud why the Americans were not harmed by the guerrillas considering that the NPA had previously targeted American personnel assigned in US military bases in the Philippines. I knew this because I was a journalist covering the insurgency more than a decade earlier when communist death squads assassinated several US servicemen outside Clark.

“They were most likely mistaken for tourists,” Captain Evangelista said, noting that the Americans were wearing civilian clothes when they went up the world-famous volcano.

The crater lake of Mount Pinatubo. (Elmer G. Cato Photo)

Commodore Sontillonosa then turned to Lieutenant Miraflor and gave orders for him to take the Philippine Navy’s German-made BO-105C helicopter that was waiting on the helideck of the BRP Bacolod City and scour the foothills outside Clark.

“You should go and try to find our missing guest before it gets dark,” he said, adding that a search team from the SWAG was gearing up and will be proceeding to the area by land as soon as it was ready. Lieutenant Miraflor saluted and rushed up the gangplank. A few minutes later, the blue-colored twin-engine helicopter took off from the vessel.

Commodore Sontillonosa was visibly worried about the possible repercussions of the incident. He asked me what my assessment was.

Alam na ba ng media ito [Does media already know about this], Commodore?”

Si FOIC lang [Only the FOIC],” the Commodore said, referring to the Navy’s Flag Officer in Command, Vice Admiral Victorino Hingco.

“We must find the missing American before the media finds out,” I told the Commodore. “If this gets out before we find him, then we will be in trouble.”

The fact that an American serviceman is missing following an ambush in Mount Pinatubo will certainly be in the news not only in the Philippines but also around the globe.

I told the rest of the group that based on the initial information at hand, it was safe to assume the American had not been taken and was just hiding somewhere in the area. However, if the NPA finds out he was with the US Navy, they might try to find him and take him prisoner. And even if they do nothing, I pointed out to the group, the fact that an American serviceman is missing following an ambush on Mount Pinatubo will certainly be in the news not only in the Philippines but also around the globe. And it was not the kind of news that we want to be out there.

“Either way the Philippines will not look good before the rest of the world,” I told the group. In short, I was recommending a news blackout.

As a former journalist, I knew this story had all the elements that would make headlines all over the world. What would make it front page material was the fact that just 10 days earlier, the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group staged a daring raid at the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan and took with them 20 hostages, including three Americans. I could already visualize the headline: “American sailor missing after rebel ambush in Philippine volcano.” There was, of course, no way we could hide the story from media but there was still something we could do to minimize the damage. 

I immediately called Lieutenant Colonel Pedrito Soledad, Commanding Officer of the 620th Air Base Group of the 600th Air Base Wing of the Philippine Air Force, the military unit that was helping secure Clark. I knew him when I was still a journalist covering demonstrations outside the former US air base. He was then with the Clark Air Base Command (CABCOM). I was sure he knew something about the incident.

True enough, Colonel Soledad confirmed what Commodore Sontillonosa told me.  He said the four US Navy sailors and their four Philippine Navy escorts were at his office and were being debriefed. I requested that the eight be secured and that not a word about the incident be leaked to media.

Pakisabi kay Allan wala muna tayong ilalabas [Please tell Allan not to release anything yet],” I told Colonel Soledad, referring to Major Allan Ballesteros, Public Information Officer of the 600th Air Base Wing, a close friend who I came to know in my early years as a journalist when he was still assigned at Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga.

After my phone conversation with Colonel Soledad, I tried to get in touch with the Regional Police Director, Chief Superintendent Enrique Galang, to find out what he knew. A former spokesperson of the Philippine National Police (PNP), Ike Galang should already have received a spot report about the incident. He had to be told we needed to buy time and not disclose any information yet to members of the media. Unfortunately, despite repeated attempts, he could not be reached.

Vice President Teofisto Guingona, Jr.

It was then that I decided to report the incident to Vice President Teofisto T. Guingona, Jr.  who happened to be not only the Secretary of Foreign Affairs but also the Chair of the VFACOM. As one of his Special Assistants, I report directly to him. It was Agnes Huibonhoa, his executive assistant, who answered. She said the Vice President was meeting NGO leaders and could not be disturbed. I told her it was very urgent. She said she would try to give the phone to the Vice President but unfortunately, he was delivering his remarks. I said I will call her back. I did several times but the meeting was still going on.

I then tried Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for American Affairs Minerva Falcon, who was concurrently Executive Director of VFACOM. She took the call. I told her everything I knew about the incident on Mount Pinatubo. The Assistant Secretary thanked me and told me she would be going to the 11th Floor to brief the Vice President.

Within minutes, my mobile phone was ringing. It was my former media colleague Tonette Orejas, Central Luzon correspondent of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

“Meng, can you please confirm reports that five US Navy servicemen were kidnapped by the NPA in Mount Pinatubo?”

Huh? Tutu [Really]? Where did you get that information?”

I was surprised with what she knew. Tonette said she got it from another media colleague, Jess Malabanan, the Manila Times correspondent at the Regional Police Office in Camp Olivas. Right there and then I knew we were in trouble. Media is now aware of the incident and they have their facts wrong.

“Give me time to check. Please call me later,” I told Tonette.

Thinking Camp Olivas had released the spot report, I tried calling Ike Galang again. He was not picking up. I decided to ask Jess Malabanan himself. He said he got it from Manny Mogato, a former colleague at the Manila Chronicle who was now with the Asahi Shimbun.

I asked for Manny’s number and called him immediately. He said he was tipped off by Paulyn Sicam who I also immediately called. I asked who her source was. Paulyn would not tell me but shared what details she knew. According to her, the information she got was that five American servicemen were missing after they were kidnapped by communist guerrillas who ambushed their group in Pinatubo a few hours ago.

“I’ll check on the report, thank you,” I told her while at the same time wondering who could have disclosed the information to her. Whoever did had access to the initial report about the incident. It was now becoming one big problem. First, someone had leaked it to media but media had the angle all wrong. There was some shooting but there were no casualties. There was a disarming but there was no kidnapping.

I then tried calling the Vice President again and this time, I was lucky. Agnes passed the phone to him and I immediately briefed him about the incident. I then asked the Vice President, who as Secretary of Foreign Affairs was also Chair of Cabinet Cluster E on national security matters, for instructions. He told me to proceed to Clark.

“Please update me on developments there,” he said and again thanked me.

While I was on the phone, an M35 military truck carrying members of the same SWAG team who just hours earlier were training in San Antonio arrived. They were in full battle gear and led by Lieutenant Ares Camino of the Special Reaction Unit (SRU) of the Naval Special Warfare Group (NAVSOG) that was previously attached to the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF).

Commodore Sontillanosa gave orders to Lieutenant Camino to proceed to Clark and have his SWAG team spearhead the recovery efforts. The search for Lieutenant Washburn was, after all, the kind of mission the SWAG, one of the elite units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), specializes in.

A SWAG team of the Philippine Navy. (US Air Force Photo)

Lieutenant Camino, who was with us a few days earlier when we did an ocular of Grande Island, approached me and asked about the shortest route to Clark. We knew about a shortcut via the Porac-Floridablanca-Dinalupihan Road but since it would be dusk soon, there was a possibility the unit could encounter some problems along the way. NPA guerrillas were known to operate in certain barangays along the way. It was not safe. We advised them to take the Gapan-San Fernando-Olongapo Highway and take MacArthur Highway or the North Luzon Expressway to Clark.

Before night fell, the Navy’s BO-105C was back on the helideck of the BRP Bacolod City. Lieutenant Miraflor said the helicopter flew over the area several times and even landed near the ambush site but there was sign of the missing American. Not even the Aeta tribesmen he encountered could give him any information. They even said they did not see any armed men nor hear any small arms fire in the area. As it was about to get dark, Lieutenant Miraflor decided to head back to Subic.

A Philippine Navy BO-105-C. (US Marine Corps Photo)

We were preparing to leave for Clark when my my hand phone rang. It was from a Manila-based media person whose name I could not recall.

“Sir, could you confirm news reports about the kidnapping of five US Navy servicemen in Mount Pinatubo?”

“Confirm?” I told myself that if I was being asked to confirm, then someone must have already announced the incident.

“Where did you get that information?” I asked.

“I heard it over DZMM and it quoted police authorities in Central Luzon as saying,” the journalist said.

By then, we had no choice but to clarify the story before it spun out of control. In my concurrent role as VFACOM spokesperson, I confirmed that there was an incident near Mount Pinatubo involving a group of five US Navy personnel and their Philippine Navy security escorts but that all were safe and accounted for except for one American service member who was now the subject of a search effort.

***

Major Monilla and I left for Clark shortly after. Ed Paraan stayed behind so he could continue monitoring the exercises in Subic. We reached Clark shortly past 10 in the evening and immediately went to see Lieutenant Colonel Soledad. He was at his office at the former 13th Air Force headquarters building across the parade grounds. He told us the four US Navy personnel were no longer there and were either brought to the US Embassy in Manila or back to their ships in Subic. Only the four Philippine Navy escorts were still there. We asked to see them.

Pete Soledad gave me the list of the names of the American servicemen who were part of the trek to the mountain. It turned out they were all junior officers.  The missing officer was the highest ranked among them—Lieutenant Junior Grade Scott Alan Washburn, 33, from Celina, Ohio. The others were Ensigns Shaun Bobbit, William Alston, Patrick Harrison, and Jeffrey Bushman. All five were assigned to the US warships docked in Subic.

The escorts, led by Petty Officer 2 Mario Padilla, were brought in. We immediately interviewed them. All throughout, we were waiting for the missing American to show up.

Sapang Bato is also a known lair of communist insurgents due to its proximity to the Zambales mountains. Sometime in the late 1980s, NPA guerrillas penetrated the base perimeter from the village and planted a landmine in an aborted attempt to ambush a busload of US Air Force security personnel.

Based on the account of Padilla, their group of five Americans, four armed Filipino escorts, and a tour guide left Subic early in the morning. They parked their van in Barangay Sapang Bato, one of the jump off points for local and foreign tourists hiking to Mount Pinatubo. Sapang Bato is also a known lair of communist insurgents due to its proximity to the Zambales mountains. Sometime in the late 1980s, NPA guerrillas penetrated the base perimeter from the village and planted a landmine in an aborted attempt to ambush a busload of US Air Force security personnel.

Padilla said all of them were in civilian clothes and could have passed themselves off as ordinary tourists except for the M16 rifles that two of the escorts were carrying. Shortly after their arrival, they started making their way up the mountain but changed their mind four hours into the trek. According to Padilla, the group realized that the trail they took was more difficult than they initially imagined so they just decided to turn back. It was around noontime when they aborted the trek.

Padilla said they were walking along a small river when bursts of automatic weapons fire suddenly rang out. All of them fell on the ground trying to find cover. There was none. They were out there in the open and had nowhere to go. Whoever was shooting at them was on higher ground and could easily cut them down. The gunfire lasted just a few seconds. When it stopped, he heard the attackers identify themselves as rebels.

“Mga NPA kami! Huwag na kayong lumaban! Mga baril niyo lang ang kailangan namin [We are NPAs! Do not fight back! We only want your weapons]!” Padilla said he heard the guerrillas yell out to them. He estimated there were around 30 of them, most were armed with high-powered weapons, including grenade launchers. Some were wearing bonnets.

Guerrillas of the communist New People’s Army.

The guerrillas ordered the Americans and Filipinos on the ground below not to move and kept their weapons pointed them. Five of the rebels then made their way down an embankment to where Padilla’s group was. Two of them were indigenous Aetas while another was a female. They took the two M16s and three handguns of the escorts but missed Padilla’s .45 caliber pistol, which he was able to slip into the water before they came to disarm him.

Padilla and his companions were then told to stay where they were until their attackers have left the area. When they stood up several minutes later, they saw one of the escorts, Ruben Bautista, bleeding from a slight wound in the chest. He was hit by a ricochet. It was also then that they noticed Lieutenant Washburn was not around. He was about a hundred meters behind the group and was washing his feet when the firing started.

Padilla said they went to the spot where he was last seen but only found his rubber slippers. They assumed that he either tried to escape or was taken by the guerrillas. Padilla said the group thought that instead of looking for Lieutenant Washburn, it would be better for them to find their way back to Clark and seek help. They made it after a few hours and immediately reported the incident.

Padilla was convinced the rebels were only after their weapons and that they may have the impression the Americans were just tourists who brought some local security guards with them.   

We asked Padilla if the guerrillas never had an idea the group was made up of American and Filipino military personnel. He said he was convinced the rebels were only after their weapons and that they may have the impression the Americans were just tourists who brought some local security guards with them.   

“Malamang, Sir, may nakakita sa mga baril namin noong umaga bago kami umakyat at napaabot ito sa mga NPA na nagabang na lang sa amin noong kami ay pabalik na [Most likely, Sir, some people saw our weapons before we went up and relayed this to the NPA who waited for us on our way back],” Padilla said.

We thanked Pete Soledad and the Navy escorts. Major Monilla and I then decided to call it a day.

***

The next morning, the major Philippine dailies carried the story as expected with the wires hinting of a possible kidnapping. At least it was just one American missing and not five as initially reported. I was taken by surprise when I saw some of the news reports identify the five American service members. Despite our initial efforts at containment, somebody had leaked more than enough information to the media.

Sonny Lopez

Major Monilla and I returned to Clark to monitor the situation. We visited my former media colleague Sonny Lopez, Manager for Media and Community Affairs of the Clark Development Corporation (CDC), who was also the VFACOM Coordinator for Clark and the surrounding area. We discussed the situation and the need to find Washburn as soon as possible.

Pekisabyan kunala reng abe tamung kulut na sumaup kng pamanintun [I will talk to our curly-haired friends and ask them to help in the search],” Sonny told us, referring to members of the Aeta tribe, the original inhabitants of the Philippines. Sonny had been working with some of the Aetas in Sapang Bato and surrounding communities in several CDC-sponsored projects in the Clark reservation. He said we can definitely count on their help in finding the missing American.

Aeta tribesmen outside Clark. (Rhonie C. Dela Cruz Photo)

While having coffee at Sonny’s office, the search for Lieutenant Washburn had expanded and now involved all the major services of the AFP. The Navy had two teams from the SWAG while the Army had deployed the 69th Infantry Battalion based in the nearby town of Bamban in Tarlac. The Air Force also sent a UH-1H Huey to provide aerial support. The PNP was also helping in the search effort.

In the afternoon, the Americans decided to give a helping hand by sending an SH-60 Seahawk from the USS Curts. By coincidence, it was the same warship that just a decade earlier participated in Operation Fiery Vigil that transported hundreds of American dependents from Subic to Cebu following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Now, it was involved in another rescue mission on the same volcano.  

A US Navy SH-60B Seahawk. (US Navy Photo)

The Seahawk, the US Navy’s version of the Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk being used by the US Army, landed across the Haribon terminal where Major Monilla and I were waiting with other military officials involved in the search. It was piloted by Commander Mike Smith who we got to meet on board the USS Curts just a few days earlier. On board were members of the same SEAL team we met at the NETC in San Miguel the day before.

The SEAL team leader, Lieutenant Chris Volk, a veteran of the Gulf War, went down the helicopter and approached us. He was in full battle gear and armed with an M4 carbine. He asked for Major Allan Fidellaga, Intelligence Officer of the 600th Air Base Wing, who was there waiting with us. Arrangements had been made earlier for Major Fidellaga to join them on the Seahawk. As he was familiar with the terrain around Clark, he was designated to serve as their guide.

I will be joining Major Ballesteros and other officials on the Huey. Major Monilla opted to stay behind to monitor the ground search efforts by the 69th Infantry Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Gerardo Layug.  We boarded the UH-1H and took off towards the direction of the Zambales mountains a few minutes after.

Our search was confined to a 10-square-kilometer area west of Clark. The Seahawk was flying low at about 150 meters above the ground. The Huey was flying about 50 meters above it.

Our search was confined to a 10-square-kilometer area west of Clark. The Seahawk was flying low at about 150 meters above the ground. The Huey was flying about 50 meters above it. We flew back and forth scouring the foothills of Sapang Bato and the lahar canyons along the Sacobia River. I was hoping to find Lieutenant Washburn waving from down below.

The lahar canyons leading to Mount Pinatubo. (Elmer G. Cato Photo)

The two helicopters combed the area for almost an hour before we decided to head back to Clark. It was getting dark and the UH-1H had no night flying capability. The Seahawk, which was configured to fly at night, continued the search on its own. After an hour, it landed at the Haribon terminal to drop Major Fidellaga before heading back to Subic. We were hoping Lieutenant Washburn was with them. He was not.

Major Fidellaga told Major Ballesteros he initially thought they had found the missing American while they were flying over an area in the neighboring town of Porac. He said they were searching the hills near the Pasig Potrero River when he saw the heat signatures of several individuals using a thermal scanner that the SEALs let him use. The individuals were inside a solitary hut along one of the trails leading to the mountains.

Major Fidellaga then watched the SEALs rappel their way down like they do in the movies and upon hitting the ground, slowly made their way to the hut.

Major Fidellaga said he alerted the pilot and the Seahawk flew in low and hovered not far from where the hut was. He watched the SEALs rappel their way down like they do in the movies and upon hitting the ground, slowly made their way to the hut. The Americans had to approach the hut carefully as they do not know who the people inside were. They cannot discount the possibility that those inside belonged to the same guerrilla band that carried out the ambush the day before. They also cannot rule out the possibility that Lieutenant Washburn was there with them.

Major Fidellega said that when the SEALS entered the hut, they only found members of an Aeta family inside. The missing American was not there. Just to be sure the tribesmen were not communist rebels, the Philippine Air Force officer was asked to come to the hut to talk to the occupants. The Seahawk found a nearby clearing where it could land and Major Fidellaga joined the SEALs a few minutes later. He asked the Aetas, who turned out to be kaingin farmers, if they saw any American walking around. They said they did not.

An SH-60B Seahawk (US Navy Photo)

With that the SEALs made their way to the clearing where they boarded the Seahawk and headed back to Clark. The search for Lieutenant Washburn will continue in the morning.

***

That evening, Major Monilla and I proceeded from Clark to the Marlim Mansions Hotel in Angeles City. Regional Director Ronaldo Tiotuico of the Department of Tourism (DOT) was there waiting for us. Over dinner, Ronnie shared his concerns over how media coverage of the incident would affect his pet project—the Mount Pinatubo Tour.

Ronnie Tiotuico

Since Ronnie launched the project a few years back, hundreds of Filipino and foreign tourists have flocked to the volcano that devastated most of the western part of Central Luzon, including the American bases at Clark and Subic, when it blew its top in 1991.

Tourists took 4×4 off road vehicles in the town of Capas also in Tarlac and navigate their way through the lahar canyons. Upon reaching a certain point, they proceed on foot to the crater of the volcano. Ronnie’s project was so successful that it even won for his office an award from the Philippine Association of Travel Agencies (PATA). The Washburn incident, according to him, will definitely affect tourism in the area.

Nanu kaya ing malyari kanyan [What could happen next]?” Ronnie wondered while shaking his head.

He then discussed with us the possible repercussions of the incident on the local tourism industry. “It would certainly drive tourists away and as a consequence, there will be a significant drop in the revenues that have helped provide jobs and other livelihood to Aetas and the other communities around Pinatubo.”

After dinner with Ronnie, we checked in at the Marlim. I was so exhausted that I just fell flat on the bed. I woke up a few hours later to urgent knocks on my door. It was Major Monilla.

“We have to go. They found him,” he said.

Without showering, we left for Clark. That was around six in the morning.

***

Lieutenant Washburn was no longer there when we arrived. We were told that he was taken to the US Embassy in Manila immediately after he was debriefed by the 620th Air Base Group.

“Where did you find him?” I asked Pete Soledad.

“We didn’t. He somehow found his way back to Clark and just walked in a few hours ago,” he told me.

Washburn with Clark officials. (Jojo Due Photo)

Pete said Washburn showed himself up to Philippine Air Force sentries at the Sapang Bato gate of Clark following a thunderstorm late Wednesday evening. He was accompanied by two Aeta tribesmen.

Washburn confirmed what the security escorts had said the previous day. He was at the tail end of their group, which was then headed downstream, when he heard several gunshots.

In his debriefing, Washburn confirmed what the security escorts had said the previous day. He was at the tail end of their group, which was then headed downstream, when he heard several gunshots. He initially thought that one of the weapons of their escorts accidentally went off until a bullet struck the sand near him and saw his companions hit the ground.

Washburn narrated how he made a dash towards the opposite direction and took cover in a thick patch of cogon grass some 200 meters away. He said he stayed hidden there even after he saw a blue-colored helicopter land nearby a few hours later. He spent the night there and decided to leave his hiding place only after almost 24 hours because it started to rain.

Tired, hungry, drenched, and not knowing there were search parties that included US Navy SEALS out there looking for him, Washburn said he tried to find his way back to their staging area in Sapang Bato. He walked for three hours in the rain and followed the river that was part of the route they took on their way up the mountain. He eventually stumbled upon a hut in the outskirts of a village and asked its occupants—two Aeta tribesmen—for help.

An Aeta hut outside Clark. (Rhonie C. Dela Cruz Photo)

“My friends, can you help me?” he recalled asking Patricio Gutierrez and Rafael Pan, who worked as construction workers inside Clark. The two knew about the missing American, having been among those Sonny Lopez had earlier approached for help. Without hesitation, the two agreed to take him to Clark where he was turned over to authorities.

“Did he not see the Philippine Navy helicopter land near the ambush site?” I asked Pete.

“He did but he was not sure it was a rescue helicopter,” Pete told us. “He thought it belonged to the NPA.”

Washburn with 600th Air Base Wing Commander Col. Charles Hotchkiss. (Jojo Due Photo)

After hearing the highlights of the debriefing, Major Monilla and I thanked Pete and proceeded to Sonny Lopez’s house inside Clark. We woke him up and told him what happened. We then asked him to make arrangements for us to be able to talk to the two Aetas. He said he would take care of it. A few hours later, Gutierrez and Pan were with us.

Dakal a salamat kekayu sinopan ye itang mawawalang Amerikanu [Thank you to both of you for the help you extended to the missing American],” I told them. We then asked what exactly happened the night before.

The two tribesmen said they were inside their hut keeping themselves dry from the rain when a tall American in dirty clothes suddenly showed up at their doorstep. “Tourist or US Navy,” Gutierrez recalled asking the officer.

The two tribesmen said they were inside their hut keeping themselves dry from the rain when a tall American in dirty clothes suddenly showed up at their doorstep. “Tourist or US Navy,” Gutierrez recalled asking the officer.

The two said they decided to escort him to Clark to make sure he makes it there safely. Both were aware the same guerrillas who staged the ambush the day before were staying in some of the huts in the villages along the way. With all the media coverage, the NPA already knew who the American was and local guerrillas supposedly issued a statement that they intend to find Lieutenant Washburn and make him a prisoner of war.

After hearing their story, I called Vice President Guingona and conveyed to him what happened. He told me to bring Pan and Gutterrez to the DFA so he could personally thank the two men. That very afternoon, the two tribesmen, along with Sonny Lopez, were received by the Vice President who expressed his gratitude for their role in leading Lieutenant Washburn to safety.

A few days later, Vice President Guingona flew to Subic to reunite Lieutenant Washburn with his two Aeta rescuers. The reunion took place on board the USS Rushmore just as the CARAT exercises were to end. We watched the three shake hands and hug each other before saying goodbye.

Lt. Scott Allan Washburn in Pearl Harbor in 2005. (US Navy Photo)

2 thoughts on “Misadventure at Mt. Pinatubo

  1. Absolutely fantastic blow by blow narrative with excellent insights on security, political (global diplomacy), economic (tourism) repercussions had the misadventure took a wrong turn for the worse. Well done Elmer!!! By the way General Yahweh Monilla is now an Assistant Secretary at the Office of Civil Defense . I feel safer in the hands of competent official such as Yahweh in the midst of this horrendous pandemic.

    Like

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