ABOARD BRP SIERRA MADRE, Spratly Islands (AP) - On board the crumbling carcass of this World War II-era warship, Filipino marine 1st Lt. Mike Pelotera and his eight men make their way to a mid-level deck to raise the Philippine flag up a leaning pole and then salute it. Across the calm, turquoise waters, two Chinese coast guard ships lurk, looking on.
Its hull riddled with holes and rust, the BRP Sierra Madre has become a fragile symbol of the Philippines‘ claim to Second Thomas Shoal, an eight-kilometer (five-mile) -long submerged coral outcrop that has been disputed by China and the Philippines for years.
It’s a lonely ship, where Pelotera and his team wage a daily battle against isolation.
“There’s a point where you tend to feel low,” Pelotera said of the challenges of his team’s four-month deployment at the reef, where there is no land to stand on and nothing to stare at all day but sea. “But we have to kill the boredom because there is an important mission to fulfill.”
The Philippine navy inherited the former U.S. tank-landing ship USS Harnett County in 1976, and ran it deliberately aground at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999.
A Chinese frigate and maritime surveillance ships arrived last year to press China’s claim to the shoal, which is believed to be sitting atop undersea oil and gas reserves. The move was an example of China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, something that is alarming the United States, Manila’s longtime ally.
Analysts say China’s strategy is to slowly take possession of islands and outcrops in the South China Sea, using intimidation where necessary but avoiding any major confrontation. Its military might and economic dominance in the region mean it can push its weight around with little fear.
Second Thomas Shoal and the nearby Spratly Islands lie about 120 miles (190 kilometers) from the western Philippine province of Palawan, and about 700 miles (more than 1,000 kilometers) from southern China. China’s foreign ministry says Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty” over the shoal.
The Sierra Madre is now effectively a shipwreck, but the Philippine military has not decommissioned it. This makes the ship an extension of the government and means any attack on the ship is tantamount to an assault against the Philippines. The Chinese ships are around 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the outpost, clearly visible to those on board.
When Associated Press journalists and other members of the media were allowed to board the ship over the weekend, the marines went about their day, washing dishes and giving the visitors a short tour. The slow strain of Kid Rock’s late 1990’s song “Only God Knows” played from an old stereo set.
“We’re marines,” Pelotera said in an interview. “We can adapt to life anywhere.”
Another marine, Cpl. Sheffrey Luna, said people should look beyond the ship’s disrepair.
“They should see the determination of the soldiers in it,” he said. “If you’re not determined here, where everything you see is water, you won’t last long.”
In the last 15 years, the Sierra Madre has slowly crumbled, beaten by the sun, sea and storms.
Its main deck, used as a helipad before, is now home to an upturned lifeboat and toppled iron poles. Doors and wooden scraps cover holes and weak deck sections that could collapse and hurl a marine down into the cavernous cargo hold. Its towering mast is heavily rusted and could be toppled by the next big storm.