Photo from the Malacañang Museum Presidential Library
Style Watches

On the trail of President Ramon Magsaysay’s long-forgotten watch

It intrigued us, the disappearance of an artifact that survived a searing chapter of history. It was a mystery begging to be solved.
Aurelio Icasiano III | Sep 11 2018

I first heard the story a few months ago. Ramon Magsaysay, the seventh president of the Philippines, was on his way back from Cebu when his plane crashed. The date was March 17, 1957. Of his personal belongings, only a few were found. One of these was his watch.

“What was it?” I asked Anna, Magsaysay’s grandniece and Vault managing editor. She had brought up the story during an editorial meeting. It was an old family story, she said, something that usually came up in conversations over dinner. But there wasn’t more she could add to it, having been born long after her uncle had died. She had never seen the watch herself. Nobody had for many years.

It intrigued us, the disappearance of an artifact that survived a searing chapter of history. It was a mystery begging to be solved.

And that is how it all began, when we all decided we needed to find the watch.

The Hunt Begins

In the middle of October, I make my way up to the third floor of the P&S building, an old, hulking slab of concrete along Aurora Boulevard. I wait for Exequiel Magsaysay to finish going through his papers, so I can listen to what he may know about the missing watch.

Exequiel is the president’s nephew, the son of Magsaysay’s younger brother, Jesus del Fiero Magsaysay.  He is currently serving as treasurer of an agricultural company.  Outside, the MRT rumbles through from time to time, breaking the afternoon silence. I watch Exequiel sign the last of the checks before him.

“Do you remember the things that were found at the crash?” I get to the point after we exchange pleasantries.

“The watch, the shoes, the overnight bag, I think,” he tells me.

Just one shoe of the pair of Magsaysay's Florsheim wingtips was found. Paola Aseron Dacanay

He says that everything that was found was turned over to the president’s children Jun, Mila and Teresita, who kept the sad souvenirs in the family home in Wack Wack in San Juan. Later on, when the house was sold, most of the president’s things were donated to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF). The RMAF is often called the Nobel Prize of Asia. Every year, the foundation awards representatives from many fields for contributions that transform their societies for the better. The awards come with a certificate, a medallion, and a cash prize. Established in 1957, the year Magsaysay died, the award remains one of the most prestigious in Asia.

But the foundation’s work is to seek out and reward exemplary people, not curate memorabilia. And what Exequiel tells me next is something the foundation couldn’t.

The watch, he says, was a Rolex, an Oyster. It was not gold, he says, but can’t be certain if it was white gold.

“Was he always on time?” I ask him.

“He (was) relatively prompt,” he replies. He pauses before telling me a little conspiratorially, “He likes to keep people surprised.”

Magsaysay often flew around the country to meet citizens in person. Malacañang Museum Presidential Library

 Magsaysay liked to board his plane without telling anyone where he was off to, Exequiel says. The presidential aircraft was a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, and it was called the Mount Pinatubo, after the volcano in Zambales, which was where he was from. Sometimes, Exequiel tells me, the president would take one of his unannounced trips and fly to Zambales. To let his family know he was dropping in on one of his unannounced visits, Magsaysay would ask the pilot to fly the plane at a low altitude so it could circle above their house once, sometimes twice. Then Exequiel and his brother, Vicente, would meet him on the airfield and pick up the president on the family jeep.

This was how he liked doing things during his presidency—fly to any point in the country and meet with  regular people. He didn’t like telling them in advance. He liked to see them the way they were, when they weren’t expecting anyone important.

The wreckage of Magsaysay’s presidential aircraft, was found on top of Mt. Manunggal in Cebu. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation

So Magsaysay was a bit of an adventurer. He was also beloved by the so-called common man for his ability to do away with protocol and make people feel as if he were one of them. Which he was.

Sadly, this memory is fading, and this is because of Magsaysay’s curious place in history. He isn’t studied as heavily as Emilio Aguinaldo or Manuel Quezon or even others before him. Yet his presidency happened more than 50 years ago, too long ago to be remembered quite as vividly as Ferdinand Marcos or Corazon Aquino.

When we end our little chat, Exequiel gives me the number of his cousin, Ramon Magsaysay, Jr., the president’s son. He tells me to call the RMAF. He’s certain the watch is there.

In Honor of the Father

October is just about to end when I meet Ramon “Jun” Magsaysay, Jr. It’s late in the afternoon when I see him at his office in Makati. In here, there’s an Amorsolo portrait of the president riding a horse and old family photos on small coffee tables. There are shelves full of books, a few about the president and his life.

I had made an appointment with him the previous week, and his office told me that he had a watch that was also owned by the president. It was a gold Rolex. Not the one we were looking for, but one we had to see nonetheless. Days before this meeting, I had called the RMAF to ask if they had the watch that was recovered from the mountaintop crash site. I wanted to take a picture of it, I told them. But the foundation wasn’t sure if they actually had the watch. They said they would look for it, and if it was in their archives, I was free to come by and bring a photographer with me. So far, there had been no call, and everyone is starting to get a little worried.

Meanwhile, Jun Magsaysay, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt that looked like some of what I’d seen in the president’s old photos, was ready to show me another of Magsaysay’s old watches.

Ramon “Jun” Magsaysay, Jr, the president’s son and former Senator, now owns one of the watches left by his father. Photo by Pat Mateo

Today, I am with Anna, who is the niece of the former congressman and senator. I think that together, Anna and her uncle might have a better go at piecing something that would help us find the missing watch.

But we talk about the old days too, about people driving Fords and patrolmen riding Harleys. It’s a subject he likes. Finally, he brings out what I came for: the gold Rolex. It was a gift, he says, from Daniel Aguinaldo, a good friend who was part of the Magsaysay for President Movement, an organization that got the guy elected into office in 1953. Daniel had given it to him for his birthday on August 31, weeks before the election.

I ask him the same thing I asked his cousin a few weeks ago: “Was he always on time?”

He answers in almost the exact same way as Exequiel:  “He tried to be on time.”

Now I was really curious.

One of Magsaysay’s watches, a gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual that was a gift from a good friend. Photo by Pat Mateo

Jun explains that, no matter how much his father wanted to get somewhere, there was always something that delayed him. Meetings with his cabinet, the senate, phone calls from friends, requests for help from regular people. He tells me of how, one time, when his father was on the way to a Fourth of July celebration in Luneta, he had to stop on the road because a patrolman had been hit by a car while escorting the presidential vehicle. The officer lay on the street with his leg broken. Magsaysay made sure that he got to the hospital before heading to Luneta. It delayed him for a good 30 minutes.

“Catarroja,” Jun says. That was the patrolman’s name.

If anything needed his attention, if anyone needed his help, he always had the time.

“When he lived in Malacañang he opened up the gates to the people.”

It wasn’t a palace, Jun says, it was for the people. Everyone who wanted to could come and see him. And everyone did. Every day, Magsaysay would meet them personally, and if these people needed a little money, he gave them some of his own. Five, sometimes 20 pesos. It was a lot during the time.

The media had criticized him for it, said that what he was doing didn’t leave much time for other things like foreign policy or national issues. But Magsaysay loved being with the people and so he kept doing it. Later, he would limit visitors in the palace to twice a week, but he trusted some of his people to do it in his place.

Magsaysay rarely wore this watch. Photo by Pat Mateo

This is why he was known as “the Guy”. “Magsaysay is my guy” was his slogan from the election period in 1953. It came with a song called Mambo Magsaysay, which was a catchy, brassdriven tune that told people how “our democracy would die kung wala si Magsaysay” (“Our democracy will die if we don’t have Magsaysay”). If you want any hope for the future, it seemed to say, Magsaysay was the guy who had your back.

I turn the conversation back to the watches. Jun tells me that the president had several. One of them was a JaegerLeCoultre, but he doesn’t remember the model. Another was the gold Rolex he brought with him today. It’s an Oyster Perpetual with sword-shaped hands, gilt hour markers, and clean lines to track the minutes against a white dial. The date display window is at the 3 o’clock position. The crystal has long since been replaced, though not by Rolex, making the date seem a little distorted.

I pick it up and look at it. Flipping it over, I see that there is an inscription in the back reading:

To Monching
Birthday Greetings
and best Wishes
8-31-53 from Dan

It is a handsome piece, but Jun tells me that his father hardly wore it. It was given to his mother, Luz, for her to keep in storage. The president never liked ostentatious things, and a gold watch was too much.

An engraving on the Oyster Perpetual dates it to 1953. Photo by Pat Mateo

What he wore, Jun says, was a Rolex, but with the case in stainless steel. I ask him what he remembers of it.

“Not much. Not much. But that was the one he wore every day.”

He says that Magsaysay never really switched watches, even on special occasions.  He walks out of his office and has his secretary calls the RMAF. They tell him that they know what we’re after but their luck hasn’t changed.

We thank him for his trouble and make our way down to the street. The entire point of this hunt was to track down a long-lost historical piece. The gold Rolex had a story to tell, yes, but not the most important one.

Anna tells me that we could try the ancestral-house-turned-museum in Zambales, but it seems an unlikely prospect. With our leads mostly dead, we stand outside Jun’s office building. Finding the watch is the one thing that matters now, and all our hopes rested with the RMAF.

Finding the Watch

On the 6th of November I wake up to a message on my phone:

Sir we found the watch.
When do you plan to visit us?
... Cita from RMAF

I ring her up immediately, but I remember little of the conversation. All I know is I tell her we would meet as soon as possible and call the team together.

By the 12th I make my way to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, a graying building with massive pillars located across the Diamond Hotel on Roxas Boulevard. Anna is with me, along with a photographer. This, I think, will mean more to her than me. I had been intrigued by the watch for a few months. She had known about it since childhood.

We enter the building and go to the library, where Cita meets us. We make our introductions quickly, anxious to see what we’ve been chasing the past weeks. The last six days have done nothing to dull our excitement. Cita calls one of her staff, Ardien, and tells him to take us to the storage room.

“Where did you find it?” I ask Ardien as we walk to the elevators.

The storage room of the RMAF. Photo by Paola Aseron Dacanay

He says that they looked for it everywhere. Finally, they saw it in a chest of the president’s personal effects, the ones that were recovered from the crash, the first place where they looked, but hadn’t found it on first try. He tells me that the spirits in the room might have kept him from finding it. There are spirits there, he explains. It was full of old things, after all. Once, he remembers, he had slept on the president’s leather chair, the one he used for his haircuts. Perhaps, he says, they had been angry with him for that.

Perhaps, I answer him, not entirely convinced. But if the spirits had something to do with finding the timepiece, I was all for believing in them.

It was difficult to keep track of such a small thing, I suppose. The watch had been recovered more than half a century ago, and was passed on a couple of times. With the president dead and the country left leaderless and mourning, it wasn’t the most important thing that needed attention.

Ardien leads us up to the fourth floor, to a room full of glass display cases, and opens the chest when we enter. Inside is a bottle of Bayer aspirin, a folded barong wrapped in transparent plastic, boxes of adhesive, and a jar of Salvitae — damaged by the fire but more or less intact.

The chest of Magsaysay’s personal belongings, recovered from the crash site at Mt. Manunggal. Photo by Paola Aseron Dacanay

The watch had not been as fortunate. I learn this as Ardien pulls it out from the bag and hands it over.

It’s an Oyster Perpetual, though it looks nothing like the gold Rolex from before. At least not now. Burnt and withered, the distinctive pattern of the Rolex bezel is still intact, along with the hands. The hour markers are still there, though some are melted to a small degree. There is no date display, and the lines that mark the minutes around the dial are barely readable. The crystal and the bracelet (or was it a leather strap?) are nowhere to be found.

Even before the crash, it must not have been so grand. Simple, clean, it was plain as Rolexes go, but this is the watch Magsaysay chose to wear. This is the watch that was on his wrist for most of his time as the president of the Philippines. It had been with him when he opened the palace to the people, on his random trips around the country, and stayed with him till his death. It is the last surviving thing that watched it all happen. One of the pieces that confirmed to Jesus, his brother, on his expedition up Mt. Manunggal to identify the president’s remains, that indeed, Ramon Magsaysay had perished in the crash. A historical artifact.

Magsaysay’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual, the one he wore on the day of his death. Photo by Paola Aseron Dacanay

All around the room are rifles, sculpted clocks, a brass cane, old photographs, a row of dolls in kimonos—relics of the past, catching dust in the afternoon sun. Near the entrance is a glass display case holding a wingtip Florsheim, only the left half of what used to be a pair. Beside it are the bits and pieces of the plane Mount Pinatubo when it crashed in 1957.

Magsaysay’s time ended after that flight from Cebu. It was one of those occasions when he actually told people where he was going. He had delivered a speech about the future before students at the University of San Carlos. By the time he left, the future that awaited him was to be short lived.

Twenty-seven people were aboard the plane when it crashed. Only one survived, the reporter Nestor Mata from the Philippine Herald, who came along to write about how Magsaysay was inspiring people from around the country. What he wrote afterwards was a book called, One Came Back: the Magsaysay Tragedy. And all that was left of that day is now scattered across this room.

I look at the watch again.  And I remember Exequiel telling me that the watch had stopped at the moment of the explosion. That was how they knew the time of his death. It reads 1:53. The last hour of the Golden Age.


This story first appeared in Vault issue #22, 2015.