Ramon Magsaysay was the third president of the Third Philippine Republic. When his plane “Mt. Pinatubo” crashed on the slopes of Mount Manunggal on March 17, 1957, he became the second Philippine president to die while in office. The first was President Manuel A. Roxas who succumbed to a heart attack after delivering a speech at Clark Air Base in Pampanga.
At that time, we were student officers taking up flying training at the Philippine Air Force Flying School in Fernando Air Base, Lipa City. All flight activities were suddenly suspended as people gathered in small groups awaiting news of the missing presidential plane. When word finally arrived that the aircraft had been found with only one survivor, a pall of deep gloom descended on the base and soon it felt like Holy Thursday and Good Friday. In Baguio City, PMA Class 1957 was preparing for graduation. Instead, the entire cadet corps, led by First Captain Arnulfo Ramirez, proceeded to Manila, spearheading the funeral rites for the President, starting from Luneta to Manila North Cemetery. The class would graduate a month later with most ceremonial activities such as the Ring Hop, canceled in deference to the sad event that shook the nation.
From a military officer’s viewpoint, this was how we saw him.
Ramon Magsaysay was a man of action. He spoke with sincerity and people believed he meant whatever he said. We must keep in mind that before he became defense secretary, the communist forces then commonly known as Huks were on the offensive and beginning to secure the upper hand in their bid to overthrow the government. AFP units suffered frequent ambushes and military camps were being raided with little or no resistance from demoralized military elements.
When Magsaysay stepped in, he provided strong and vigorous leadership to a military organization that was drifting and had no sense of direction. He led by example, visiting troops in remote areas of the country, at times catching unit commanders asleep or neglecting basic security measures. He inspired the men, rewarding those who performed well while punishing those who failed to meet his standards. As an example of emphasizing excellent performance as the basis for promotion, Magsaysay traveled 40 kilometers to the command post of the 7th Battalion Combat Team in a remote Bulacan barrio, just to pin the insignia of “Lt. Colonel” on Maj. Napoleon Valeriano for gallantry in action. How many department secretaries have been known to go out of their normal routine in order to promote on-the-spot a deserving officer or to commend a subordinate for a job well done?
In the first few months as defense secretary, he caused the relief of nine PC officers in Tarlac, and ordered their court martial for various offenses: extortion, trafficking of firearms, and falsification of official documents. He ordered the court martial of a BCT captain in Zambales for his failure to assist a beleaguered garrison only 4 km away. The fear of being discovered followed by swift disciplinary action became an important deterrent to misconduct in the armed forces.
Ramon Magsaysay’s character — his strong personality, action-oriented style of governance, his humility, his ability to sense what people wanted, and to give them a sense of optimism that better times lay ahead — all these traits endeared him to the people especially the “common tao.”
Magsaysay also had his blind side.
The greatest gift the Filipino nation can bestow on one of its citizens is the presidency. He would receive news about this gift while on board the “Marguerite,” a yacht belonging to Rear Adm. Richard Cruzen, commander of US Naval Forces in the Philippines. Surrounded by family members and others including CIA operative Col. Edward Lansdale, word came that President Elpidio Quirino had conceded the election. Time Magazine would say, “The Magsaysay victory was a US victory.”
On a personal note: My father was a strong supporter of President Elpidio Quirino. His wife Doña Alicia Quirino, was my godmother in baptism years before he became president. After Quirino’s loss, the many friends who were usually around, suddenly disappeared or were difficult to contact. A few months later, Magsaysay would appoint him the nation’s first commissioner of tourism, a position that has now been elevated to Cabinet level as tourism secretary. People were flabbergasted that a supporter of Quirino would get such a highly coveted position. Magsaysay’s actions proved that there was never any vindictiveness in the man.
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