The Military Roots of Cembo, Rembo, and Pembo Districts

EMBO is short for Enlisted Men’s Barrio.

In 1901, near the end of the Philippine-American War, the Americans established Fort William McKinley, one of the largest overseas U.S. military bases in the world. But the 25-square-kilometer military camp was still dwarfed in comparison by Subic Naval Base, which was the largest U.S. overseas base in the world at 678 square kilometers (about the same size as Singapore) when it still existed. Nevertheless, Fort William McKinley was an expansive military reservation situated in the center of what would be today’s Metro Manila. It became a site for infantry training, field artillery training, signal training, and medical training for enlisted men.

In 1935, the Americans used the base as training grounds for its artillery forces. When the Second World War erupted, Fort William McKinley became the headquarters of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), until its defeat at the hands of the Japanese. The base and its environs sustained heavy damages in 1945 during the Battle of Manila, in which the Americans retook the capital at great cost.

After the war was won in 1945 and the Philippines gained its independence in 1946, the U.S. surrendered all territories of the Philippines to the Filipino people, except its military bases. In fact, to ensure that the Americans still had control over the bases, it signed the Military Bases Agreement of 1947 with the Philippine government, merely eight months after the latter’s independence. It was only in 1949 when Fort William McKinley was turned over to the Philippine government. The base was renamed Fort Bonifacio. It was after this turnover when the government hatched plans for the creation of the CEMBO, PEMBO, REMBO, and COMEMBO districts, all of which were established around the military base. 


The Military Roots of Cembo, Pembo, Rembo, and Comembo

Cembo stands for Central Enlisted Men’s Barrio. After World War II, the Philippines was not only devastated in terms of infrastructure, but also in terms of human capital. Manila lost at least 100,000 civilian lives, and it was still not ready to enlist people into the security forces even after five years. The government looked to the countryside to replenish its armed forces. Among the first recruits were the Infantry Group from the Philippine Ground Force, who were mostly from Floridablanca, Pampanga.

In 1949, the enlisted servicemen from Pampanga and other provinces from the north settled on the rolling plain outside Fort Bonifacio, near its northern gate. Their settlement site was named Central Enlisted Men’s Barrio or Cembo. 

Then, in 1954, the Philippine Armed Forces authorized the construction of three more settlements for enlisted servicemen: Rembo or Riverside Enlisted Men’s Barrio. Like Cembo, this would be situated on the outskirts of Fort Bonifacio.

Two years later in 1956, another batch of enlisted servicemen occupied the adjacent area along the Pasig and Pateros Rivers up to the boundary of Mamancat, a busy upriver settlement that was a key trading hub where Indians, Chinese, and Arabs came to barter many centuries prior. Its name derived from the Tagalog word "angkat," which means to import. Duck raising and egg production was a profitable trade in Mamancat, which was part of Pateros. To accommodate the enlisted men, the government created the West Riverside Enlisted Men’s Barrio or West Rembo.

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In 1957, a special group within the Philippine Army was created. It was called the Combat Engineering Group. They, too, settled outside Fort Bonifacio. Their settlement was named Combat Enlisted Men’s Barrio or Comembo.

Pembo or Panthers Enlisted Men’s Barrio was the name given to the settlement of the military’s crack regiment or the highly experienced, elite forces called Panthers, otherwise known as the First Ranger Regiment.

Pembo is also the location of the historic Pembo War Tunnel. It was constructed in 1941 on orders of General Douglas MacArthur, and was used as a bomb shelter during World War II, saving many Filipino lives. When the Japanese captured Manila, they reused the tunnel and expanded it. It is connected to the Fort Bonifacio War Tunnel. Sadly, the Bonifacio War Tunnel was neglected and has been converted into a septic tank.

The Embo Districts Today

Although the Embo districts were originally designed to house military personnel, the enlisted men were allowed to live in these districts with their families. At present, most of the residents of these districts have fathers or grandfathers who were military men.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor-at-Large
Mario Alvaro Limos is features editor-at-large at Esquire Philippines, and heads the Lifestyle and Esports content of as its section editor. Email him at [email protected] and [email protected]
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