Benjamin “Bening” Tesoro, current vice-mayor of San Manuel, Tarlac is already in his golden years. But the events that happened on July 4, 1975 when he was a young soldier remain fresh in his memory.
Second Lieutenant Tesoro was then 21 years old, a fresh graduate of the Philippine Military Academy. He had no combat experience to speak of. He was a young soldier trying to find his place in the army. He recalls that he requested from his superiors if he could lead an operation against the rebels in Paguengan (Basilan). There was an intelligence report that the enemies were nesting and had a major training camp in the area.
Tesoro had yet to earn his battalion commander’s full trust and confidence then, so it took a while for him to get the green light for the mission. When he finally got the go-signal, he led his men to the mountains to undergo training. “Inorient ko na yung mga tao ko,” he recalls. “This is war,” he remembers telling them. “But before we could claim victory, we have to defeat the enemy. Ang indoctrination ko sa mga tao ko, kapag sumabak ka sa ganoong gyera, we should consider ourselves dead.”
The battle was part of the Mindanao Pacification Campaign in the mid-70s, which was the height of the Muslim Separatist Rebellion in southern Philippines.
Before going to the war zone, the soldiers prayed fervently—like it was going to be their last battle. “Yung dasal na ramdam hanggang sa kaluluwa,” describes Tesoro, who is turning 70 in August. “Kasi iniisip namin na baka hindi na kami makakabalik e.”
The young lieutenant brought 37 of his valiant men to war that rainy day in July 4, 1975. The target area was a rugged terrain located south of Mount Siningcapan. Everyone was ready for whatever eventuality the encounter might bring. They brought only light ammunitions so they could move fast. The battle of Paguengan commenced around 9 in the morning. Gunshots were fired from both sides, but they were drowned by the roaring thunder.
The events turned bloody. “Napasobra ata ang turo ko sa mga bata ko. Yung iba nag-aala-Fernando Poe Jr. Sugod nang sugod,” Tesoro recalls. On hindsight, he realized he might have taught his men to become war-hungry. At that point, he felt remorse. “Yung unang sagupa pa lang, namatayan ako ng tatlo. Demoralizing na yun,” he tells ANCX. “Makikita mo yung isang tao mo na nangingisay. Napakasaklap. It was a harrowing experience.”
Initially, they were met by 50 armed men. But the fight dragged on until the afternoon. The enemies called for reinforcement, and they were coming from all directions. Tesoro called for reinforcement too but the nearest base was 20 kilometers away from where the battle was taking place. “Yung maghapong gyerang yon, di ko na mawari kung inabot ng libo yung nakapaligid sa amin,” recalls the then young lieutenant.
Since his troop was already pinned down by the enemy, Tesoro had to find ways, as leader of his platoon, to save his men. “As part of our tactics, we stayed mobile,” he says. “We ran from one place to another para linlangin ang mga kaaway,”— which was a struggle to do as the terrain was unfamiliar to them.
By late afternoon, the 2nd lieutenant’s men were running out of bullets. Half a dozen of them had already died and 13 were wounded. They fired three grenades, which shocked the enemies. “I told my men to prepare for retreat, pero hindi namin iiwanan yung mga bangkay, sabi ko. Yun ang nagpahirap sa amin, pagretrieve sa mga bangkay at sugatan. But we had to move, otherwise we will be annihilated.”
When reinforcement came, it was already getting dark. “Ang lakas ng ulan, zero visibility,” Tesoro remembers. He thought it was sheer courage and presence of mind—and mere stroke of luck—that he and 31 of his men survived that harrowing encounter.
For saving majority of his men and overcoming extraordinary circumstances, Tesoro received a Gold Cross medal. In a recent Facebook post remembering that event, Tesoro shared the honor with the soldiers who died and were wounded in the bloody battle. “Many more soldiers in different war fronts in our history may deserve the prestigious honor more, but were not as lucky to be publicly recognized,” he wrote. “Sadly, they did not even live to have a glimpse of the fruit of their patriotic sacrifice—the freedom that we all enjoy today.”
That bloody encounter in Paguengan, Basilan was only one of the many major battles Tesoro fought in his lifetime—as a soldier and as citizen. He fought a total of 36 wars in Mindanao as a soldier, some of which also earned him medals. A staunch supporter of Ninoy Aquino and one of the founders of the August Twenty-One Movement, the military man decided to leave the army for the same reason he committed himself to it—his love of country. His ideologies, he says, were incompatible with the dictatorship.
Tesoro later on found himself leaning towards politics and government service. He ran for public office in 2003 and served as mayor of San Manuel, Tarlac for three consecutive terms—this time waging wars for poor farmers.
From his first war, the ex soldier learned to stand by his convictions, to be confident in what he can do for the country, and to never lose hope no matter how seemingly insurmountable the odds.
In an essay he wrote after his 14th battle in Mindanao, published in his book “My First War and Some Related Memories,” the former military man says his baptism of fire as a young soldier was a defining moment that profoundly changed him forever, “a one-in-a-million experience that shall always live in my heart to inspire me to love my motherland next to God.”
Photos from the book "My First War and Some Related Memories" authored by Benjamin Tesoro