Jesus Villamor Was the Greatest Filipino Fighter Pilot in History
On a bright and sunny day in July 1941, five months before the Philippines was dragged into World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur formally drafted into the USAFFE the best pilots at the time. It was composed of 141 Filipino and American fighter pilots and 64 planes, among them Lt. Col. Jesus Villamor, son of Supreme Court associate justice Ignacio Villamor.
There were already signs that America would soon be dragged into war, so the Air Corps became the top priority among all branches of the Philippine Army.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they swiftly attacked the Philippines within 10 hours, shocking Filipinos and Americans with their speed and audacity.
The Air Corps’ 64 planes were outnumbered by Japan’s 3,368 Nakijima Ki-27 and 1,700 Mitsubishi Ki-46 fighter aircraft. After the initial Japanese air raid in the Philippines, most of the country’s warplanes were destroyed—the Japanese knew exactly where they were. Crippled, the Philippine Army Air Corps was left with a single squadron of six fighter planes, commanded by Villamor.
Boeing P-26 'Peashooter'
In the days that followed, the Imperial Japanese pilots bombed Nichols Field (now Villamor Airbase), Camp Stotsenberg, Camp John Hay in Baguio, Zablan Field in Camp Murphy, Fort McKinley (now Fort Bonifacio), and the U.S. Navy Yard in Cavite.
On December 12, the Japanese destroyed the Batangas Airport and left Batangas City in ruins. Undaunted, Villamor and his crew of six took to the skies and launched a counter-attack against the 54 Japanese aircraft.
The Filipino aces piloted the outdated Boeing P-26 fighter, also known as “Peashooter,” which were produced in 1932. Its body was fat and heavy, making it a difficult plane to maneuver.
The Japanese, on the other hand, piloted the state-of-the-art Mitsubishi Ki-46, which were produced in 1941. Its body was streamlined and had twin engines, making it faster and easier to pilot.
Villamor and his squadron scrambled their Peashooters against the more agile Japanese fighters. Navy officer Ramon Alcaraz detailed what happened in his diary:
Several Air Force personnel made up for our many setbacks. Aside from Capt. Kelley’s bombing a Jap battleship during the Northern Luzon landings that made him our first war hero, our PAAC pilots have their share of accomplishments to be proud of Captain Jesus Villamor PAAC Comdr., 6th Pursuit Squadron, is credited with shooting down two enemy planes to date and was cited by Gen. MacArthur. Lt. Alberto Aranzaso PAAC, also a member of the 6th Pursuit Squadron of Villamor, is also credited with shooting down a Jap plane and was awarded the Silver Star.
Against an enemy of 54 aircraft, Villamor’s squadron shot down three, two of which were downed by Villamor. The battle was considered a victory for the Philippines despite being severely outnumbered. Five of the pilots from Villamor’s squadron survived. Lt. Cesar Basa was killed when he was strafed after he landed his plane. Basa was the first casualty among the Air Corps.
Douglas MacArthur Confers the Distinguished Flying Cross on Jesus Villamor
Jesus Villamor was ordered to destroy his planes.
At the end of December, MacArthur ordered Villamor to destroy his remaining aircraft and join the rest of USAFFE in their retreat to Bataan. Villamor wrote of his “painful” experience:
Still, it pained me to have to destroy them, and I walked to my number 303 for a last farewell. Slowly I moved around the once-proud fighter to whose fiber my body, my mind, had once been welded.
Her stubby body was now scarred and pitted. The wire brace wings were no longer smooth. The streamlined fairings which housed the wheels were torn. All over her olive drab were bare patches of aluminum.
Still, she could fly. Still she could lift me from the ground… I could not destroy the plane myself. I told a sergeant to do the job, to attach dynamite to her and blow her up. As all of the planes burned, as they crackled with angry flames, I turned my back and shut my eyes tight.
The battle over Batangas would become the most praised dogfight in the history of the Philippines. Because of it, Villamor received the Medal of Valor, the highest Philippine military bravery decoration, which was awarded to him by President Ramon Magsaysay in 1954. In honor of Villamor, the Nichols Airbase in Pasay was renamed Jesus Villamor Air Base, which is now known simply as Villamor Air Base. It is now the main headquarters of the Philippine Air Force.
A Commemorative Stamp Featuring Jesus Villamor
- Jesus A. Villamor and Gerald S. Snyder, They Never Surrendered: A True Story of Resistance in World War II (Quezon City: Vera-Reyes, 1982), p. 42.
- The Philippine Diary Project, Diary of Ramon Alcaraz.