In this Rogue special report, Irwin Ver—former chief of the presidential guards and favored son of feared General Fabian Ver—recounts in great detail the other story of People Power: the last negotiations before the Marcoses’ flight out of Malacañang, and that one chopper ride that could have changed the course of Philippine history.
Fabian Ver (left), Presidential Guard Battalion Commander and Director of the Presidential Security Unit of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos (right).
Note from the writer, Criselda Yabes:
This is the other story, the one people did not see: how Ferdinand Marcos had fled from the walls within which he had kept himself in power for twenty years.
What we didn’t know was that there had been a failed coup attempt. It was a daring one, unimaginable for a military held by the leash. On February 22, this came crashing down. In four days, on February 25, it was over for Marcos, the strongman fleeing a fight he could no longer fight.
This story will be told from the side of the palace, following the words and memory of Colonel Irwin Ver, the de facto commander of the presidential guards, the favored son of Marcos’s chief of staff General Fabian Ver.
Having transcribed the interviews that took place in my winter and spring breaks from university in 2012 to 2013, I reconstructed and interpreted Irwin’s narrative in various sequences. I forwarded to him this piece, which he sent back with his corrections and comments [in upper case] elaborating on our previously recorded interview. In this exercise, we each chose our own way of remembering.
A worried Minister of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile and Vice Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Lt. Gen. (and future president) Fidel Ramos together with Colonel Gregorio ‘Gringo’ Honasan are surrounded by armed bodyguards as they cross EDSA from Camp Crame to Camp Aguinaldo, February 24, 1986. (Photo by Alex Bowie/Getty Images)
The flight out
February 25: the fourth and final day of the uprising. Victory for the people was within reach.
In the palace there were last-ditch attempts at negotiations that failed as the hours drew nearer. Gen. Ver was willing to meet secretly with the rebels who, as Irwin was told, had asked to see his father alone. Ikaw lang ang gusto nila. They want to talk to you. It wasn’t clear what that meant, what the demands would be.
[IT WAS MY FATHER WHO TOLD ME THAT ENRILE OR SOME PEOPLE FROM ENRILE’S CAMP WANTED TO TALK TO HIM. HE WANTED TO MEET THEM RIGHT AWAY. I SUGGESTED THE MEETING SHOULD TAKE PLACE IN A NEUTRAL PUBLIC PLACE, AND MY FATHER SAID MAYBE IN A HOTEL RESTAURANT OR EVEN OUTSIDE THE COUNTRY]
There was little love lost between Gen. Ver and the officers close to Enrile and Ramos. In their eyes, the chief of staff had made this happen, dividing the military over personal loyalties. The assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr. in August 1983, for which Gen. Ver had been accused, had set the time bomb for Marcos’s downfall.
The meeting never pushed through, in the precious ticking hours toward the swelling of people power. Irwin looked back with an earnest thought that there could have been room for compromise before February 25.
But the defections in the military went in rapid waves. People in the streets felt they were miraculous. Army units joining the sea of change nationwide was simply overwhelming as it turned. None would open fire.
If there had been negotiations under way, it would have had to be in a neutral country. Irwin had made arrangements for Hong Kong, but he planned that on take off he would tell the RAM rebels at the last minute that the meeting place would be changed to Singapore instead.
He had conjured a cloak-and-dagger scenario, changing into his Americana suit, a coat and tie, and ready to carry his James Bond attaché case with a secretly built Heckler and Koch tiny machinegun into the handle. He wanted to join his father. His father wouldn’t let him, no I want you to stay here.
All this came to naught when the telephone rang. It was the president calling. He asked to see Gen. Ver, and Irwin came along.
And so this he remembered clearly: that on that fourth day of the revolt when the tide was about to drown them, he walked up to the second floor of Marcos’s private quarters, the same stairs that Gringo would have taken in the final act of the coup.
That was when the president gave the order of a strategic withdrawal and Irwin wouldn’t hear of it.
“Mr. President, maybe we need a couple of hours to prepare our movement to the north so that we can protect our route.”
“No, that’s not necessary,” came the answer from Marcos.
Ferdinand Marcos, photographed by Bruce Dale of National Geographic, in Malacañang Palace, March 1977.
[ACTUALLY FM’S WORDS WERE SOMETHING LIKE, ‘WE WILL NEED TO LEAVE MALACANANG TO AVOID SHOOTING AT OUR OWN PEOPLE AND GO TO THE NORTH WHERE WE CAN NEGOTIATE OUR POSITION CLEARLY.’
PERSONALLY, THIS WAS THE MOMENT I REMEMBER MOST OF OUR FLIGHT FROM THE PALACE. AS HE DECLARED THESE, I LOOKED DIRECTLY INTO HIS EYES, WHEREFORE I DARED NOT, AS A SIGN OF RESPECT TO THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF, AS I AM NOT HIS EQUAL AND I WOULD FOCUS BELOW HIS EYES.
AT THAT MOMENT WHAT I SAW WAS A MAN WHO CLEARLY KNEW WHAT HIS NEXT MOVE WAS. SURELY HE ENVISIONED WHAT WAS COMING AND HE WAS GOING TO HANDLE THE IMPASSE THE WAY HE WANTED IT. IT WAS APPARENT THAT ONCE HE LEFT THE PALACE, IT’S THE END OF HIS PRESIDENCY.
HE LOOKED BACK AT ME AS IF TO SAY YOU MUST KNOW IT TOO. SO AT THAT MOMENT WHEN HE SAID WE NEEDED TO LEAVE TO AVOID SHOOTING AT OUR OWN PEOPLE, THAT’S WHEN I ALMOST LOST IT. MY EYES WELLED WITH TEARS.
HERE’S MY LEADER WHO MANY THOUGHT WAS SUCH A MONSTER, HIS BACK FORCED AGAINST THE WALL, AND THOUGH ARMED WITH SUCH TREMENDOUS FIREPOWER AT HIS DISPOSAL, WOULD NOT FIGHT HIS WAY OUT, AND CLEAR IN HIS MIND, WOULD RATHER AVOID IT.
HE WAS WELL PROTECTED INSIDE THE PALACE. NOW AT THIS POINT WHEN THERE WERE NO MORE OPTIONS LEFT BUT TO DEFEND THE SEAT OF PRESIDENCY, HE HAD CHOSEN TO LEAVE, AND HE WOULD NOT FIRE BACK AT THOSE WHO WERE READY TO SHOOT HIM DOWN. THEY ARE OUR OWN PEOPLE. THERE IS A PEACEFUL WAY.
AT THAT MOMENT, DEEPLY I FELT GREAT REASSURANCE I HAVE SERVED THE RIGHT COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF.]
Everything has been arranged.
His father nudged at his tail, tugging the back of his shirt. That’s enough talking from you, was the unspoken reprimand Irwin was getting from his father. When the commander-in-chief speaks, there will be no more questions asked.
But neither father nor son knew what has been arranged. The aide on duty told them boats will be coming. Philippine Navy boats? No one was certain. If that were so, they must be big enough to fit the entire family, the aides, and the nurses.
By this time chaos ensued, people going to and fro, rushing with bundles and boxes and packing and re-packing piles of documents, piles of cash. Night fell like a haunting mantle over the palace. Where were they to go now?
With First Lady Imelda Marcos behind him, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos waves to supporters from a balcony of the Malacañang Palace in Manila after his self-administered inauguration ceremony as victor in the Philippine Presidential elections, February 25, 1986. This was the last public appearance by Marcos and his family. Later in the evening they fled the palace aboard four American helicopters and were taken to Clark Air Base enroute to exile in Hawaii.
Hoping for a last stand
They waited for the boats. In what was going to be the start of a long night, the floodlights glaring upon the palace garden became a flicker of a memory of their exodus. Urgent phone calls had to be made. Orders here and there. How could a coup plot they had discovered and averted change the outcome of a country’s destiny?
The President himself was leaving. He was carried down from the quarters of his palace in a wheelchair. He wasn’t wearing the barong Tagalog anymore. He was dressed sportily, in a shirt and cream-colored zip-up jacket and a brim hat that he wore when playing golf. The First Lady was in a pants suit that was in her fashion of those days.
There was a sudden change of plan: it will be helicopters instead of boats that will be plucking them out of Malacañang.
It did not occur to Irwin then that they were going to be exiled.
They were still thinking of holding the fort. We’re going to Paoay and we will tell the others when to follow, but then there was this feeling that once we leave, that’s it, it’s over.
In Irwin’s mind, right then, the palace in Ilocos Norte was going to be their fortress. He saw in almost everyone’s faces that this was going to be the end. In the silence of the night, he could see Marcos’s face, he knew it too, he’s leaving the presidency behind.
Irwin had felt it, the strains of losing, when they were discussing the withdrawal, that the president’s eyes had a tint of sadness and I was touched. I didn’t want to deal with that moment. If I did I might have cried, my voice might have betrayed me.
Three times, he remembered, the president had asked him about his family. Irwin regarded this as tender, personal moments between the two of them. The president had made it clear the Ver family should be joining him to the north; at that juncture, Irwin learned from Col. Aruiza, the president’s aide who had already changed into his civvies, that the choppers were on their way.
To his relief, Irwin saw they were American helicopters, a sign of hope that not all is lost. He whispered in a tone of surprise to Marcos’s son Bong Bong, who was beside him, kasama pala natin ang mga Americano dito? They’re with us?
“Sshhh, be quiet.”
Bong Bong was wearing fatigues. He had been battle-ready even on the balcony when his father was declaring his election victory earlier. There is a memorable picture of the family on that surreal stage, the son ready for a fight, the worried faces of the mother and the daughters, the strongman raising his fist but faltering.
The choppers didn’t land flat on the ground. They hovered in the middle of the golf course in Malacañang Park for a quick getaway.
The president had to be carried up to get on board. He and his daughters Imee and Irene and the adopted little girl Aimee were put in one chopper; the first lady and the son Bong Bong in the other.
Bong Bong made a wrong swerve, the helicopter’s landing bar hitting his chest. Irwin helped give him a proper push to board. [THE HELICOPTERS WERE HOVERING ABOUT THREE FEET FROM THE GROUND, TILTING LEFT AND RIGHT, THAT I OFFERED BONGBONG MY RIGHT THIGH TO STEP ON AND PUSHED HIM UP.]
Gen. Ver made it, too, along with Irwin’s two brothers Rex and Wrylo, who were also with the presidential guards. Irwin was left behind with the nurses, waiting for the two more choppers that were coming to collect him and others who remained. The nurses were needed; they carried the milk and diapers of the children of Irene and Imee.
[AFTER THE HELIS WERE GONE, I DID NOT KNOW OF A SECOND FLIGHT. I TOLD THE NURSES THAT I WILL ARRANGE THEIR TRANSPORT FOR ILOCOS. I HAD CHOSEN TO STAY BEHIND TO PERSONALLY SUPERVISE THE MOVEMENT OF THE REST OF THE TROOPS TO THE NORTH.]
If he had known what was to come, he would have stayed. Put the nurses on board and then stay. Looking back on that critical moment, Irwin said that’s what he should have done. Yes he should have stayed.
In between the first batch of choppers that took the president and his family, the close-in aides, his father and brothers, and the second that took him and the nurses away, he had time to make a decision. He had time to move around giving instructions to the guards, what positions they must take to defend what little that had to be done in Malacañang.
Life In Hawaii: At their Makiki Heights home in Honolulu, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos talked to reporters about their lives in exile. Photographed by Ken Sakamoto for Star-Bulletin on January 17, 1987.
[YES, I WAS IN A GUARDPOST PHONE ARRANGING FOR THE HOSPITAL AMBULANCE AND A COUPLE OF VEHICLES TO TAKE THE NURSES TO ILOCOS, ABOUT HALF A KILOMETER FROM WHERE THE HELIS WERE, WHEN THE SECOND HELIS CAME. I RUSHED BACK TO THE GOLF COURSE. I HELPED THEM LOAD THE BAGS OF DIAPERS UP THE HOVERING HELIS, WHEN ONE OF THE NURSES ON BOARD TOLD ME THAT ‘SIR’ WAS LOOKING FOR ME, AND THINKING ‘SIR’ MEANT THE PRESIDENT, I JUMPED IN.]
The chopper carrying the president had left at roughly seven o’clock in the evening. Irwin left on the second round at about an hour later.
He’d taken the ride because he thought the president was asking after him. Later, he learned it was only his father calling for him through radio messages, and he regretted afterward having taken the flight.
I was the last one to board and when we were already 1000 feet above, it came to me that it was just dad waiting for me to join them. I felt very bad. I’d been talking to the other officers, okay let’s all plan out what we need to do, we will move to the north so pack your things. I even called the armory to make sure all the guns and ammunition will be taken there. I called the motor pool to find out how many vehicles we have. I called for the companies and they were ready to move anytime.
In about half an hour, he found himself landing in Clark Air Base just outside of the capital. Not in Ilocos Norte. Nowhere near Paoay.
In Clark Air Base, they were in the hands of the Americans.
A rough sketch by Irwin Ver of the schematics of the Malacañang Palace, drawn from memory, detailing the proposed strategy for Ferdinand Marcos’ escape.
A photo of Irwin Ver and his wife, taken by the writer, Criselda Yabes. By way of research, Yabes conducted a series of interviews with Ver in San Francisco.
Excerpted from “The Last Days of Marcos: From the Memory of Irwin Ver,” by Criselda Yabes. The full and unabridged story—which chronicles the Marcos family’s final days in Manila and their first week of exile in Hawaii—will appear in the March 2016 issue of Rogue Magazine.