Marines fish their way past blockade
PUERTO PRINCESSA, THE PHILIPPINES
NINE hungry marines guarding the Philippines' loneliest outpost aboard a rusted World War II vessel had just one option after Chinese vessels blocked fresh supplies from reaching them - go fishing.
The troops were 200km from the nearest major Philippine island, holding on to a tiny reef in the South China Sea as part of a territorial row that had grown increasingly hostile in recent months.
"We knew about the dangers signing on to the job, but my worry was we were running out of supplies," Mr Mike Pelotera, the leader of the Marine unit, said after his five-month mission ended this week and he returned to shore.
"But we are marines and we adapt, we went fishing."
In a remarkable act of military doggedness, the Philippines has, since 1999, stationed a tiny number of marines on a former United States Navy boat that was deliberately grounded on a group of islets and reefs called Second Thomas Shoal.
The 100m BRP Sierra Madre, built during World War II and acquired by the Philippines in the 1970s, is now little more than a rusted hull and incapable of sailing.
But it has thwarted Chinese efforts to occupy all of the area. The Philippines grounded the boat at the tiny shoal in response to China's military occupying Mischief Reef in 1995.
China had largely tolerated the Philippines' plucky effort to hold on to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys archipelago to the south, but began increasing pressure last year to end what it termed an "illegal occupation".
In May, the Philippines said a Chinese warship had begun "provocatively" circling the Sierra Madre, and lodged a formal protest. Since then, the Philippine military has reported a near constant presence of Chinese vessels encircling the marines.
However, China had always allowed the Philippine vessels to sail up to the reef and deliver supplies to the marines, who generally do tours of duty lasting between three and six months.
This changed last month when vessels marked "China Coast Guard" blocked two civilian resupply boats, forcing Mr Pelotera and his men to cast their fishing lines into the sea.
The marines said they were relieved when, a few days later, a tiny twin-propeller Philippine military plane flew low and dropped sacks of food near the boat.
Some of the marines jumped into the water and swam out to collect the bags. They filmed the joyous moment and the military this week released that footage, as well as clips of the initial blockade, Mr Pelotera said.
"We were happy when the plane dropped the supplies...we were good for another few weeks," a heavily bearded and deeply tanned Pelotera said. "But we were also worried because we knew the Chinese ships were still around."
The Philippine military sent another civilian vessel last weekend with a fresh batch of marines to rotate with Mr Pelotera's crew, plus many months' worth of food.
Vessels marked with "China Coast Guard" again tried to form a blockade.
But after a dramatic stand-off lasting two hours, the smaller Philippine boat outmanoeuvred the Chinese ships and sailed into the shallow waters of the shoal.
"Some of the troops jumped (12m) from the top of the deck into the sea in celebration," Mr Pelotera said.
"It meant we could now go home to our families, have a haircut and showers."