“We are here to immortalize the legacy of great liberators, who have paved the way for generations to follow. Let this ceremony serve to ensure that those who fought for freedom are never forgotten, and always remembered.”
Indeed, October 25, 2017, was a day of celebration.
But to the 21 living veterans, mostly in their 90s, who attended the morning ceremony in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, they could have been easily forgotten. And to add insult to injury, they were stripped of their rightful status as soldiers of the U.S. Armed Forces when Congress passed the Rescission Act in February 1946 – only a few months after America declared victory.
In effect, their service was unceremoniously erased from the record, as if they never existed.
“What else could we have done?” asked 100-year-old World War II veteran Celestino Almeda in a pained voice that hushed the audience in Emancipation Hall. He was later given a standing ovation.
In his acceptance remarks representing the Philippine Commonwealth Army, Almeda said that after the war, “thousands of us felt underappreciated and unrecognized for fighting for our country. I have waited along with my Filipino and American soldiers for this moment to come.”
This moment came because there were champions in Congress, like the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI), who never gave up during his lifetime in the Senate trying to restore veterans’ benefits.
This moment came because there are community advocates, like Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret.) of the Filipino Veterans Recognition & Education Project (FilVetREP), who led a nationwide campaign three years ago to push for recognition of the 260,000 Filipino soldiers who served.
This moment came when Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), former Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introduced the “Filipino World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015,” followed by months of intense grassroots and advocacy effort by the Filipino American community.
This moment finally came on December 14, 2016, when President Barack Obama signed the bill into Public Law 114-265, awarding a Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to Filipino World War II veterans, whose dedicated service is now enshrined in U.S. history.
Righting a Wrong
“Presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to our Filipino World War II veterans is a long overdue honor for hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families,” Hirono said in her remarks. Added Gabbard: “I’m honored and proud that we can finally be here today to right this wrong.”
More than 700 members of Congress, community supporters and family members of Filipino veterans who traveled across the country witnessed the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal. The colorful ceremony featured remarks by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin. The U.S. Army Band played a stirring rendition of “God Bless America.”
But the highlight of the one-hour ceremony was Speaker Ryan personally presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to Almeda, Frank Francone (an American Veteran representing the Philippine Scouts), Dean Aquilino Delen (Filipino Veteran representing Guerrilla units), Mrs. Alicia Benitez, Mrs. Magrit Baltazar, and Mrs. Caroline Burkhart, all next of kin of Filipino and American Veterans.
For many in the crowd, it was a highly emotional moment. “I was in tears, just being here with my dad, watching him smile,” said Cynthia Dizon Linder of New York City, daughter of 90-year-old Arsenio Dizon, a former guerrilla fighter in Nueva Ecija. “When I told him a month ago, he was going to Washington to receive a medal, it lifted his spirits. He couldn’t wait to meet other veterans and share their joy.”
To see the hour-long congressional ceremony, watch the video below:
‘A Bolt of Energy’
Later in the day, bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal were awarded individually to 21 living veterans and more than 400 next of kin of deceased veterans. The solemn ceremony, replete with military colors, was organized by FilVetREP and held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Maj. Gen. Taguba, Brig. Gen. Oscar Hillman and Maj. Gen. Eldon Regua – retired officers of the U.S. Army – did the honors and presented the awards.
Among the recipients is 90-year-old Ciriaco Ladines, who lives with his family in Bowie, Maryland. Wheel-chair bound, the former guerrilla who helped unload munitions from a submarine as U.S. troops marched to liberate the country, is battling stage four cancer. Two previous strokes have been disabling, weakening his physical mobility. “He couldn’t even lift his hands anymore,” said his daughter, Blesilda Lim, who escorted her father to all the day’s events. But when his name was called to receive his medal, Ladines promptly got his face up and raised his hand.
“I was shocked, but delighted,” his daughter said. “It was like a bolt of energy entered his body. That’s when I realized how much this moment meant to him. And he’s never stopped talking about his guerrilla days since then.”
Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, who flew in from San Francisco, to receive awards for her dad and grandfather, posted this in Facebook: “I could feel my dad and grandpa burst with pride as they looked down from heaven, their sacrifices and bravery finally recognized. A nation says thank you to its former colonials and its marginalized people of color. My immigrant grandfather was barred from citizenship, owning land, and voting because he was Filipino. He only got citizenship because he served in the First Filipino Infantry, and WWII exposed the country's hypocrisy with race. My father served in the United States Armed Forces in the Far East in the Philippines, the US colonial Army, but received none of the benefits promised and died before the $15,000 payment (which he would have been insulted to get -- he wasn't a mercenary). The medal is an honor, but one paid for with blood, sweat, tears and struggle.”
FilVetREP will continue to register Filipino veterans and make sure they, and their next of kin, will receive their award replicas. Medals presentation ceremonies are slated to take place in major cities across the U.S. as early as November and through next year. (For more information, go to www.filvetrep.org)
Tribute to Heroes
It was a long day for the veterans and their families who came from as far as Hawaii to participate in the events. But the Grand Ballroom at the Ritz Carlton had a festive air as more than 700 guests wined and dined to celebrate the memorable occasion. They were even entertained by Philippine Concert King Martin Nievera, who was at his best serenading the crowd and getting many of them to sing along with him.
Dressed in ternos and barongs, long gowns and tuxedos and some in military class-A uniforms, veterans and their relatives used the occasion to renew acquaintances with old friends, meet new ones and share stories. And fun was had by all.
Early the next morning, despite chilly weather, about 60 family members and half a dozen veterans gathered at the World War II Memorial to pay tribute to their heroes. Frank Francone, who represents the Philippine Scouts, recounted Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines in March 1942.
“This began the one-year battle to recapture the Philippines,” he said. “But by this time, it is estimated that 57,000 Filipino soldiers and 900,000 civilians died. We are here today to memorialize this sacrifice and it couldn’t be in a better place. But the memory will only be maintained as the story is told to our children and grandchildren.”
Also delivering remarks were Philippine Secretary of Veterans Affairs Lt. Gen. Ernesto Carolina and 90-year-old Filipino World War ll Veteran Rey Cabacar. In recalling the battle against the Japanese Imperial Army, Cabacar recalled another fight when Congress passed the Rescission Act.
“This act was a slap in the face to Filipinos, being singled out as the only Allied troops not to receive benefits,” Cabacar said. “Because of this act, another battle ensued. It was fought in the streets of the United States and the halls of Congress. As the years went by, the numbers of living veterans dwindled, and the battle became harder. Gratefully, Congress finally relented and the struggle and sacrifice of these veterans were recognized.”
‘Battle Is Not Over’
Taguba, a son of a Filipino World War II veteran, a retired US Army officer and FilVetREP Chairman, admits that securing the long-awaited recognition for Filipino veterans is “satisfying and rewarding. Because they accomplished their mission, we must accomplish ours. Many thought it could never be done. But we made it happen, thanks to legions of community supporters, organizations, donors and of course our living veterans who inspired us to fight on.”
But “the battle is not over,” Taguba declares. “We have to get Congress to repeal the Rescission Act, and close this dark chapter in our country’s history.”
Jon Melegrito is a son of a Filipino World War II veteran and the Executive Secretary of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP). For more information, go to www.filveterep.org
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