Since 1999, a World War II-era navy ship lay aground off Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), an uninhabited atoll near the Kalayaan group of islands in the Spratly archipelago. The ship, BRP Sierra Madre, was purposely grounded by the Philippine Navy to serve as an outpost in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) after China had grabbed and occupied the Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in 1995. Since then, China had progressively fortified Panganiban Reef with permanent buildings, naval guns, and a detachment of military personnel.
A few years ago, China unilaterally imposed a 60-mile restricted “no entry” zone around Panganiban Reef, which is within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). That places Ayungin Shoal, which is only 25 miles southeast of Panganiban Reef, inside the restricted “no entry” zone. Since Ayungin Shoal is only 105 miles from Palawan, and within the Philippines’ EEZ, it would give China a geostrategic foothold on Philippine territory if China took possession of Ayungin. And because of its strategic location, Ayungin is considered the gateway to Recto (Reed) Bank, a proven oil- and gas-rich region coveted by energy-hungry China. And if China had taken Ayungin, her next logical step would be to take full control of Recto Bank.
To protect Ayungin, the Philippines deployed a small detachment of marines (less than a dozen) rotated every five months. The grounded – and rusting — Sierra Madre is used as their makeshift garrison. With no landing strip on Ayungin, the only way to bring troops to Sierra Madre is by sea.
Recently, China started blockading Ayungin to put pressure on the Philippines to abandon the Sierra Madre. On March 9, 2014, Chinese Coast Guard ships blocked two attempts by the Philippines to resupply the garrison. Three days later, the supplies were airdropped.
On March 13, China held a media briefing in Beijing to further her claim on Ayungin. According to spokesperson Hong Lei, then incoming President Joseph “Erap” Estrada made an “unequivocal commitment” to China in 1999 that the Philippines would tow away the grounded ship. Hong also said that Estrada’s successor, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, reiterated Erap’s “solemn commitment” in 2003.
The following day, March 14, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released the following statement in response to China’s charges: “The BRP Sierra Madre, a commissioned Philippine naval vessel, was placed in Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to serve as a permanent Philippine government installation in response to China’s illegal occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995. This was prior to the signing of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.”
Last March 29, a Philippine supply ship was able to evade the Chinese Coast Guard blockade by sailing through shallow waters, embarrassing China to no end. The Philippine ship brought a fresh batch of marines to replace the detachment that was scheduled to head back home after a five-month deployment.
Life on the Sierra Madre
The marines keep themselves busy by diving, fishing, and watching DVDs. Their only communication with the outside is through a radio communication system and satellite phones. Occasionally, they have contact with Filipino fishermen who would swap DVDs with them.
What these marines are doing is over and above their normal duties and responsibilities. Under constant threat of Chinese invasion, they’re prepared to fight to death. They’re also aware that if they were attacked, they would surely perish defending their garrison.
Indeed, they’re like the Texans who defended the Alamo in 1836 in a fiercely fought 13-day battle against Mexican President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s army. Outnumbered and outgunned, the approximately 250 Texans fought the 1,500 Mexicans to the last man. Their brutal defeat inspired and rallied the Texans under Sam Houston, who went on to defeat Santa Anna a month later.
Day of Valor
Last April 9, President Benigno Aquino, spoke during the commemoration of Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) in Mt. Samat in Bataan. He paid tribute to the brave marines of the Sierra Madre who are defending their nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity just like the American and Filipino soldiers who made a heroic stand in Bataan to defend the Philippines from Japanese invasion in World War II.
“Day and night, on board the stranded BRP Sierra Madre, their dedication was anchored on keeping watch over and safeguarding our territory. This is why, together with our veterans, soldiers like them are among those we honor today. The Filipino nation salutes all of you,” Aquino told the marines.
If Gen. Douglas MacArthur were alive today, he would be smiling listening to Aquino’s praise for the marines. After all, it was MacArthur himself who immortalized the bravery of Filipino soldiers during the Korean War when he declared: “Give me ten thousand Filipino soldiers and I will conquer the world.”
A few brave marines
But for Aquino, the nine marines are all he needs to stand guard in a remote and lonely garrison in the middle of West Philippine Sea surrounded by marauding Chinese naval vessels.
But just like the 300 Spartans who defended Thermopylae in 480 BC against the invading 150,000 Persians, the nine Filipino marines wouldn’t have a chance of surviving a Chinese assault. But like the 250 Texan volunteers who gave their lives to defend the Alamo, and the 300 Spartan warriors who died defending Thermopylae, the nine Filipino marines defending Ayungin are ready to lay down their lives for their country. These are the heroes of Sierra Madre.