The Early Philippine Military Aviation (1917-1945)
The Philippine Air Force of today was defined by events and circumstances in the early years of its existence. It was a clear struggle of inclinations – one is to stay dependent on an ally of our colonial past and the other is to boldly develop as a force on our own. Whichever side is correct, this “unique” relationship began at the turn of the century and continued for nearly nine decades and has been the biggest shaping influence on the birth and development of the Philippine Air Force.
Military aviation took wings when then Senate President Manuel L. Quezon’s bill for the creation of the Philippine Militia, otherwise known as the Philippine National Guard (PNG) was approved on March 17, 1917. The bill mandates the complement of an aviation unit composed of 15 officers and 135 enlisted men. The Militia Act 2715, the name it was given after its passage, was enacted in anticipation of the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Germany.
The end of World War I saw the U.S. Army and Navy trading aircraft and equipment to the Philippine Militia Commission, which at that time still had no pilots and aircraft maintenance personnel to speak of.
Despite the setback, the Militia Commission seized the opportunity to begin building a Filipino air unit by accepting the U.S. offer. The Commission then hired the services of the Curtiss School of Aviation to provide flight training to 33 students at Camp Claudio in Paranaque. Lt Leoncio Malinao was the first to spread his wings and soar the Philippine skies as he became the first Filipino Military Pilot to fly solo on April 20, 1920. The first batch of Filipino pilots where 25 out of the original 33 Constabulary and PNG volunteers soon graduated on December 29, 1920. Six graduates were chosen to form the core of the short lived Philippine Air Service on January 1, 1921. The early aviation unit was limited to air transport duties and airmail flights from Manila to three other ports which was eventually dissolved due to lack of equipment.
After 13 years, Philippine Military Aviation was reactivated on January 2, 1935 when the 10th Congress passed Commonwealth Act 1494 that provided for the organization of the Philippine Constabulary Air Corps (PCAC). The unit was composed of two companies, the tactical company and the service company. The Philippine Constabulary Air Corps was redesignated as the Philippine Army Air Corps (PAAC) on January 11, 1936 when PCAC was placed under control of the newly established Philippine Army. PAAC started with three (3) “Stearman” 73L-3 trainer planes forming the nucleus of its air assets. By middle of 1941, the Air Corps had a total of 54 aircraft in its inventory ranging from pursuit (fighters) light bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, light transport and trainers.
At the outbreak of World War II, after a few months of PAAC’s induction into the USAFFE by General Douglas Mc Arthur on 15 August 1941, the PAAC found itself unprepared for a shooting war. Japanese invading forces separately struck Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the Philippines and using only Curtiss P-26A “Peashooters”, which were obsolete at that time, PAAC officers and men fought gallantly against the superior enemy raids. Japanese raid of Zablan Field at Camp Murphy (now Camp Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo) on December 10, 1941 became the baptism of fire for PAAC pilots against an incoming invasion. Among these brave PAAC pilots was 6th Pursuit Squadron leader Capt Jesus Villamor, a fearless fighter pilot in whose honor, Colonel Jesus Villamor Air Base, the home of the Headquarters of the Philippine Air Force, is named after. On December 12, 1941, remnants of Villamor’s squadron, again gallantly fought, engaging 17 Japanese Zeros and 27 bombers in an incredible dogfight over Batangas Field, as a result Lt Cesar Basa was killed in that action. The more superior Japanese invading forces, with the advantage in aircraft ratio against the PAAC, lost a bomber and a fighter during the encounter. These feats would later earn Capt Villamor two Distinguished Conduct Star awards. The RP-US forces and the whole country later on succumbed to Japanese regime but Capt Villamor and few of the PAAC officers continued to fight under guerrilla movements. Capt Villamor’s courage and bravery during delicate missions of Mc Arthur’s Allied Intelligence net became instrumental for the RP-US forces in liberating the Country, which earned him the Medal for Valor.