Koreans turn Filipino vet's funeral into celebration and thanksgiving

South Korean soldiers.

PALO, Leyte - The death of a Korean War veteran here offered a rare chance for South Korean soldiers who are helping in post -"Yolanda" reconstruction, to honour a Filipino comrade-in-arms who fought for their country in the 1950s conflict.

The moving and emotional funeral service for Technical Sgt. Pedro Pedrosa at Palo Cathedral here last week became an impromptu celebration of his life as his family and soldiers from both countries traded speeches and anecdotes, a reflection of the close relationship between the two wartime allies.

The 89-year-old Pedrosa, who died on April 15 of respiratory failure, was a member of the 19th Battalion Combat Team of the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (Peftok), the Philippine Army contingent of the United Nations forces that came to the aid of South Korea when it was invaded by communist North Korea, supported by China and the Soviet Union, in 1950.

The war ended in 1953 in a permanently divided Korea, a democratic south and communist north.

"If my father were alive today, he would be happy to see his Korean comrades present here today," said Anastacia Petra P. Esquilona, the late veteran's 50-year-old daughter.

Veterans' sacrifice

"My country would not have reached its present state of development if not for the sacrifice of Mr. Pedrosa and the other brave Filipino Korean War veterans," said Col. Lee Chulwon, commander of the Republic of Korea Joint Support Group, known as Araw.

Lee and his group of more than 200 soldiers in the Araw group, which arrived here in December last year, are the only ones remaining of the many foreign military groups that came to help in the reconstruction of the communities that were destroyed by Super Typhoon Yolanda.

The young Korean conscripts made up of engineers and carpenters this week took time out from repairing damaged schoolhouses to build Pedrosa's final resting place at Palo Cemetery, a concrete tomb of brick, mortar and granite.

But while the visiting Korean military pulled out all the stops in honoring Pedrosa, not one local government official showed up during his wake and funeral.

"It is all lip service. They say they care for our veterans, but they do nothing," said Rolando, Pedrosa's eldest son who came home empty-handed after he went to the office of Palo Mayor Remedios Petilla to ask for a Philippine flag to use in his father's wake.

"Although I am sad, I feel very honoured and fortunate to have witnessed Mr. Pedrosa's funeral," said Sgt. Hwang Jaekyun, a 22-year-old South Korean soldier who acts as the group's interpreter.

Hwang is an Economics major at Stanford University in the United States. His stint in Leyte is part of the mandatory military service required of all able-bodied males in South Korea.

"I was really touched by their generous gesture of support," said Pedrosa's 84-year-old widow, Elisea, a retired public schoolteacher. With Elisea, her 10 children and 28 grandchildren listening intently in the front pews, several speakers took turns recalling Pedrosa's sterling military career.

"Even when the enemy was out of sight, we just kept on firing our guns," said 1st Lt. Domingo C. Teves, Pedrosa's best friend from Tacloban City who fought in the same battalion with him.

The 85-year-old veteran's remarks provided some comic relief in the otherwise somber gathering, sending people in the pews rolling with laughter.

The Korean visitors, most of whom spoke little English, gamely joined in the laughter.

Teves was joined by 2nd Lt. Domingo Raagas, 88, of Tacloban City; 2nd Lt. Domingo Gresola, 84, of Carigara, Leyte; and 2nd Lt. Sofio Lobrigo, 86, of Dagami, Leyte. The four are the only surviving veterans from Leyte province who saw action during the Korean War.

Their typhoon-damaged houses, with the exception of that of Raagas, have been repaired by the Korean group.

Freak accident

An expert marksman, Pedrosa suffered a freak accident in 1958. Part of his skull was blown off after the guns in a Camp Crame armory misfired.

"They said my father was going to live for only a year and that he was going to go insane because of the accident," said Rolando, 58, a retired policeman.

Pedrosa went on to live for 56 more years and sire eight more children after the accident. Military doctors reconstructed his skull and placed a piece of metal to protect it.

Following the funeral gun salute that concluded the Philippine Army's burial honors for Pedrosa at Palo Cemetery, two Korean soldiers draped Pedrosa's coffin with the Korean flag, which was later folded and handed over to his family.

"My father was always bragging about his deployment in Korea, which we his children sometimes found embarrassing," said Esquilona.

"But to him, it was his badge of honour," she said.