Thursday, June 23, 2011

On board the BRP Humabon

By DJ Sta. Ana
Philippine Star, Thursday, June 23, 2011

MANILA, Philippines - The BRP Rajah Humabon (PF–11) is the Philippine Navy’s flagship and its 60 crew members believe they are the strongest expression of Philippine sovereignty even as they acknowledge they may prove no match to other navies, especially that of China.

Though the Rajah Humabon is antiquated and lightly armed, its sailors – whose average age is in the 30s – make up for it through dedication to their duty of protecting Philippine maritime territory.

The Rajah Humabon has been in service for nearly 68 years. This means the ship is as old as the fathers of most of the crew.

News5 junior correspondent Mia Reyes was one of the journalists who went with the Rajah Humabon on a three-day patrol to the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippine Navy had ordered the Rajah Humabon to the area following reports that foreign ships were seen in the area well within Philippine waters.

According to Philippine and US Navy records, the Rajah Humabon is the largest but oldest Philippine Navy warship. It was commissioned in August 1943 as the USS Atherton, a Cannon–class destroyer. As the Atherton (DE–169), it was sent to the North Atlantic, assigned to anti–submarine patrol and was credited with the sinking of a German U-boat in 1945. She was later transferred to the Pacific where she continued to serve until she was decommissioned in 1945.

In 1955, the Atherton was handed over to the newly formed Japanese Maritime Self–Defense Force and renamed the JDS Hatsushi (DE–263). The Hatsushi was retired in 1975.

The Atherton/Hatsushi was then turned over to the Philippines in 1978 but first underwent extensive refurbishment in South Korea. The Philippine Navy commissioned the ship in 1980 as the BRP Rajah Humabon. The ship, along with two other frigates, served as the backbone of the Philippine Navy. The Rajah Humabon was decommissioned in 1993 but was pulled back into service as the Philippine Navy lacked ships. She was re-commissioned in 1996.

According to Reyes, morale among the 60-man crew is high even as they acknowledge they may be no match to the warships of other navies, such as China.

From a naval base in San Fernando, La Union, it takes the Rajah Humabon some 18 hours to reach Scarborough Shoal, located over 200 kilometers west of Luzon. Scarborough Shoal is claimed by the Philippines due to proximity although China is known to have sent patrol ships to the area.

Capt. Celeste Abalayan, Rajah Humabon’s commanding officer, admits they did encounter a Chinese maritime patrol ship some months back well within Philippine waters. Abalayan said the encounter was “friendly” and that the Chinese ship “was just representing China.” For this recent sortie in early June, he said the Rajah Humabon was given the mission to check the presence of foreign vessels in Scarborough Shoal.

Three outriggers

The Philippines and China previously had an “encounter” in Scarborough Shoal when Beijing placed markers.

In this inspection, Abalayan said they found no foreign ships – only three outrigger boats operated by Filipino fishermen. He did admit they have had 87 reported incursions by foreign vessels, although he did not say within what time frame.

When asked what actions they would take if they find a foreign vessel in Philippine waters, Abalayan said: “We usually monitor their movements and if there are some illegal activities, we shoo them away.”

Although it was given a rated top speed of 60 knots, the Rajah Humabon could only manage 10 knots in its patrol due to the age of its engines. And the age is not only evident in its engines, but also throughout the ship’s superstructure.

Reyes recounted that rainwater would seep into the rusted parts of the ships – with the crew doing their best to counter the leaks either with rags stuffed into the gaps or pails to catch the water. The Rajah Humabon has Spartan accommodations but at least it is comfortable, as it has air-conditioning and sleeping areas.

In its wardroom, a portrait of Rajah Humabon is displayed. As for meals, crewmembers bring along their own favorite viands to augment the “spartan” meals served by the ship’s cook. Reyes said it is just one way to add variety to their shipboard meals, which usually consist of seafood.

As for entertainment, Reyes said crewmen cope with the long trips with karaoke and DVD – with crewmembers sharing their own collection. Another source of entertainment are cellphones, where the crewmen play songs.

The Rajah Humabon is armed with a combination of 40 mm and 20 mm cannons as well as .50 caliber machineguns, but when racked up against other Asian navies, the ship is a lightweight when it comes to armaments.

The ship’s executive officer, Commander Oscar Canlas, pointed out they are capable of fulfilling their mission although he admits that having more equipment and capability wouldn’t hurt. “For me, we are trying to provide the necessary requirements to accomplish the mission.”

“Since andun kami, based on our equipment, nagagawa naman yung mission pero maganda kung ma-enhance ito (Since we’re there, based on our equipment we can accomplish the mission but it would be better if there’s an upgrade),” he added.

Among the enhancements they wish for the Rajah Humabon are: Updating its combat information center, its communications center and weapons, which date back to World War 2.

Canlas pointed out one immediate improvement they need is satellite and video capability which allows them to feed real time video back to Navy headquarters, even Malacañang.

“They can really visualize kung ano talagang nakikita namin sa area kung saan kami ma-deploy (They can really visualize what we see in the area where we are deployed),” Canlas explained. “Mas maganda if you can see para ma appreciate nung leadership yung situation sa lugar (Better if the leadership can actually see the situation).”

Canlas cited the importance of the Philippine Navy to continuously patrol the area, not only Scarborough Shoal but the Spratlys. He pointed out countries have been demonstrating their presence in order to solidify their claim on the area – even if these are well within Philippine waters.

He likened these activities to that of squatters or illegal tenants, who just stay there until, over time, you get used to them being there.

“To patrol these areas and make sure nothing is developed and we are trying to show our vessels to let people know we can cover this area,” Canlas stressed.

Canlas put it simply: Presence is everything.

“When you want to occupy something, you have to show presence – mere presence shows interest,” Canlas said.

“Anytime I will be directed to come back, we will come here. If I need to come back, I will come back,” Captain Abalayan vowed.

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