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The story of the 55th Special Action Company

(Tingting Cojuangco, a doctor of history and criminology and a master’s degree holder in history and national security, was appointed by former President Gloria M. Arroyo undersecretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government assigned to the Philippine Public Safety College, where she remained for eight years. The Philippine National Police Academy for Fire and Jail Cadets and Basic Recruits fell under her supervision through directors. “Those killed in Mamasapano were my sons and students,” she said. The information in this article, she said, came from interviews and the Philippine National Police Board of Inquiry. She is the author of six books. The seventh will be on the SAF 44 killed on Jan. 25, 2015.)

Police Senior Inspector John Garry Erana shouted over the radio… “MAUUBOS NA KAMI DITO.” Then there was radio silence.

This is how the radio operator at the Tactical Command Post, Police Office 3 Lloyd Tano Ensoy recalled the last words relayed over the radio by the leader of the 55th Special Action Company. It was at 13:00H that Police Senior Inspector Getulio P. Napeñas heard Police Senior Inspector John Garry Erana relaying over the radio communications system that 55th SAC was already overwhelmed by gunfire.

Forty-four Special Action Force troopers heroically faced death. All perished. Except one.

The following is based on the eye-witness narrative of Police Officer 2 Christopher Lalan, the lone surviving member of the 55th Special Action Company.

“Pwede ba ako magbakasyon sa imo saTarlac kahit one week lang?

Police Senior Inspector John Garry Erana had called this writer on January 23, 2015, or 2 days before that ill-fated day.

My secretary Tony Avelino to whom he made the request answered in the affirmative.“No problem. Kelan ka pupunta, at bakit maingay, parang nasa truck ka nakasakay.”

Erana replied: “May pupuntahan lang. Sabihin ko sayo kuya kung pupunta na ako sa Tarlac.”

It turned out Erana and the 55th Special Action Company were already on a lengthy trip, leaving Zamboanga City on January 22, 2015. Including a series of vehicle breakdowns, it would take them 8 hours to get to Parang, Maguindanao.

They spent the night in Cotabato City on January 23. The next day they drove to Sultan Kudarat and then another two and a half hours to General Santos City where they arrived at 1800H.

They ate dinner, changed attire, and prepared their equipment. They departed at 2100H for Surallah to join the 84th SAF. After a brief stopover, they proceeded to the Vehicle Drop-Off Point (VDOP) in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.

From their staging point in Surallah, South Cotabato, the 55th SAC would start moving towards its designated position at Waypoint 17 to 19, three hours after the departure of Seaborne (the assault team) from the VDOP.

special action force sealOn January 25 at round 02:00H, the 55th SAC left for its designated objective following infra red chemical lights purposely left by the 84th SAC along the route.

55th SAC, using their GPS were to occupy Waypoint 19 to support Main Effort 1 during the extraction of the assault team where they would link up with Seaborne and together withdraw to the VDOP.

Dispatch of other support units towards their respective objectives was to be determined by the Tactical Command Post. However, the departure of these units was delayed because of the need to synchronize their movements with those of the Seaborne. As a result, the operating units were not able to reach their designated objectives at the appointed times.

At the time Seaborne reached its target area at around 04:00H, the 55th SAC was on its way to Waypoint 12. After crossing a bamboo bridge at around 04:05H, an explosion and exchange of gunfire were heard coming from the target area, prompting the 55th to stop and position themselves in a cornfield. Meantime their presence had already been noticed, which is why it was decided that they would return to the other side of the footbridge.

As they were crossing the bridge, a man shouted at them in a dialect they did not understand. Also at around 04:15H, bursts of gunfire were heard coming from the location of Seaborne, indicating that the latter was already engaged in a firefight. Senior Inspector Ryan Pabalinas then ordered PO2 Christopher Lalan, navigator and lead scout of Team 551, to go back to the other side of the river to be in time for the arrival of Seaborne.

While re-crossing the bridge, Lalan noted the presence of armed men at the other side of the river prompting them to go back to their original position. This was when Senior Inspector Pabalinas ordered his men to establish a box-type defensive position inside the cornfield.

The number of armed men was progressively growing across the river. And this was duly reported by radio to the Tactical Command post. Despite having night-fighting capabilities, the 55th did not engage the armed men.

“Walang mag papaputok hangga’t di tayo pinuputukan.”

“Atras sa loob ng maisan at mag box formation.”

This were the orders given by Police Senior Inspector Pabalinas and Police Senior Inspect Erana. Police Senior Inspector Cyrus P. Anniban (PNPA 2010) instructed his team to establish line formation. Through their night vision goggles, they could see that the armed men were growing in numbers and were maneuvering to surround them.

There was a stand-off lasting about an hour. Meantime, the sounds of motorcycles would be heard and the armed men were closing in on the cornfield. The officers divided the troops to form a box-type defensive position to cover 360 degrees. The men were instructed to be alert and not engage unless the armed men fired first. All these were reported to the Tactical Command Post.

“Pag na-identify na kalaban at may dalang baril, ‘wag na palapitin at i-engage na.”

This was the order given by SAF Director Getulio Napenas and relayed by radio operator PO3 Lloyd Tano Ensoy. The order was given upon reports from the field, saying that the number of armed men was growing and they were moving towards the 55th.

MB file photo

MB file photo

At 05:30H the armed men fired the first shots at the 55th. All hell broke loose. The 55th were barraged by gunfire from all directions. The officers gave explicit instructions to their men: “Observe fire discipline. Fire only if there is a clear shot to conserve ammunition.”

Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” filled the air as the savage attack continued and intensified.

Continuing reports were being relayed by 55th SAC radioman PO2 Romeo V. Senin II to radioman PO3 Ensoy at the Tactical Command Post who in turn relayed the same to the Tactical Command Group who were PDIR Getulio P. Napenas, Director, SAF; PCSUPT Noli G. Talino, Deputy Director, SAF; PSSUPT Richard F. dela Rosa, Chief FIID SAF; PSUPT Abraham Abayari, RDB commander; PSINSP Lyndon Espe, 84th SAC; PO3 Joenel Belmes and six American Nationals operating intelligence recon equipment.

“Reinforcement, maraming kalaban at may sugatan nasa tropa.”

“Hold the line… hold the line tayo dito hangga’t hindi dumarating at maka-linkup sa atin yung Seaborne.”

“Conserve ammo! Conserve ammo! Huwag kayong puputok if hindi kailangan at kung wala kayo nakikita.”

From 06:00H to 0800H, these were Razor’s report and orders to Tactical Command Post and his men. Razor was the call sign and alias of PSINP Erana during his Academy days.

The 55th was in an intense firefight with the now identified MILF who were engaging them with heavy gunfire using mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and M203 grenades, from various directions.

55th SAC kept requesting for artillery support after forwarding grid coordinates of their location to the Tactical Command Post.

At 06:30H, PO2 Noble Kiangan shouted, “May tama sa leeg si Sir Anniban.” After a few minutes, PO2 Kiangan again shouted, “Wala na si Sir Anniban. Patay na si Sir Anniban.”

PO2 Lalan asked PO2 Kiangan to retrieve the remaining ammo magazines of Police Senior Inspector Anniban. Meantime, the enemy’s volume of fire lessened and was replace by selective and sniper fire.

By 07:00H, PO2 Lalan overheard his officers requesting reinforcement or artillery support from the command post. PDIR Getulio Napenas ordered the troops to use maximum firepower and “Bumutas kayo to extricate.”

At 08:00H the sounds of arriving motorcycles and shouts of “Allahu Akbar” signaled the arrival of more and more enemy reinforcements. Intense fighting resumed.

At 09:00H, Police Senior Inspector Erana wanting to account for his men asked them to shout out their individual code names. Some no longer responded.

The enemies peppered the 55th troopers with overwhelming firepower, including mortars, RPGs, rifle grenades, and 40-millimeter high explosives from M203 grenade launchers.

Injuries and casualties among the 55th were mounting. PO3 Golocan was hit by a sniper. PO2 Lalan was shouting for medics as he continued to return fire. PO1 Windell Cadano and PO2 Ephraim Mejia had their hands full attending to all the wounded from all sides of the box formation.

At 09:17H, a recorded text message was sent by Police Director Getulio Napenas to Lt. General Guerrero:

“Sir good am. Ito locations marami kalaban GC 688662 at 160 meter 365 degree from SAF location GC 6823365058. Di maka-move SAF troops kasi open terrain. Request indirect fire. Wala mga civilian doon kanina pa sir. Nandoon na MechBde APC pero di makalabas tao natin, kasi nasa loob sila na-trap.”

The same text message from Police Director Napenas to PNP Chief Espina was forwarded to Gen. Guerrero at 09:21H

“Sir saan na reinforcement natin? Pinabayaan na ba tayo?

At about 10:00H, the volume of enemy fire was growing and coming from the southwest. These were trimming down the corn plants which were providing concealment for the 55th troopers.

PO2 Lalan was returning fire with his 40mm HE. PO2 Richelle Baluga shouted “Iputok ang 90RR. PO2 Baluga responded, “Balang 90 RR dito na!

It was like David vs Goliath all over again. It was PO2 Lalan and Kiangan left on the left side of the box providing cover for the recoiless rifle shooters against the joint forces of the MILF, BIFF, and PAGS. A 40-millimeter high explosive exploded in the direction, causing the death of PO2 Rodel Ramacula and shattering the right eardrum of PO2 Lalan even as his right hip and shoulder were bleeding from blast wound.

Police Senior Inspector Erana again called on his men to shout out their code names so that he could account for them. Almost half did not respond. That was when one of the wounded asked the question: “Sir, saan na ang reinforcement natin? Pinabayaan na ba tayo dito?”

The 55th continued to defend their position from the advancing enemies. PO2 Lalan continued to fire his M203 grenade launcher. However, 10 of the remaining 40-millimeter high explosives did not explode. Until finally, when PO2 Lalan asked for more ammunition from his wounded comrades, they replied: “Wala, naubos na.”

“Sgt kumusta ang reinforcement?”

“Huwag ka na umasa, Lalan.”

This was the exchange between PO2 Lalan and PO3 Golocan when at 11:00H, the volume of enemy fire seemed to lessen although mortar and 40-millimeter high explosives continued to rain on the 55th’s location. Then this was replaced by selective and sniper fire. Most of the 55th were either dead or wounded. The troop’s defense was decimated. They were running out of ammunition.

Police Inspector Erana tried to contact 84th SAC but got no response. Neither could they reach the other SAF units.

At 12:00H the remaining troopers were exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry. PO2 Lalan brought out his last bottle of water and 6 bars of Cloud 9 chocolates and shared these with Golocan, Mejia, and Kiangan.

At 12:30H, heavy gunfire once again resumed. As they were advancing towards the remaining troopers, the enemy was shouting, “Sumuko na kayo!”

PO2 Lalan saw that his wounded companions had already stopped firing because they had run out of ammunition. PO2 Danao was looking at his cellphone.

PO2 Lalan searched for a grenade from his dead and wounded comrades but found nothing.

He inserted his last magazine, prayed, then shouted, “ANO NA ANG GAGAWIN NATIN”?

They waited for the Army to fire three rounds of white phosphorus to disperse the enemy troops. SAC pleaded for help. 78 SAF troopers faced the enemy numbering over a thousand as their reinforcements came by water and by land. They were a combined force of MILF, BIFF, and PAGs.

It appears on records that at around 13:00H, Police Senior Inspector John Garry Erana, Razor, gave his last call to the Tactical Command Post, saying “MAUUBOS NA KAMI.”

Then the radio went silent.

All the men of the 55th Special Action Company were killed in action.

Except one, PO2 Christopher Lalan, who survived.

So that the story of the 55th could be told. (TINGTING COJUANGCO)

  • helicopter

    What the SAF needs:
    1. Their very own dedicated mobile artillery battalion preferably in a form of a mortar carrier vehicle (so ammunition capacity will not become an issue plus it can be move tactically across the operation area rapidly and easily).
    2. An easy way to identify themselves and their operation to the locals. (a multi-dialect operator/specialist armed with a megaphone)

    What the army needs:
    1. A rounda clock artillery readiness protocol located at strategic position across the country that can be called at anytime in any moment to provide prompt and rapid artillery fire support that can be access by any high ranking officials of any defense and law enforcement related government agency (5-10 mins response time at the very minimum even without prior coordination).

  • meenymineymo

    Thank you Madame Tingting for sharing this narrative straight from the lone survivor. May the gallantry and sacrifice of the SAF44 and the survivors live in our hearts and the generations to come. May God bless you all!