And we would be asking the question posed by folk singer Pete Seeger in this haunting song: “Where have all the soldiers gone?”
The answer: “Gone to graveyards, everyone.”
But more to the point: Would the United States have by then recognized the service and sacrifices of our Filipino World War II veterans and said ‘Thank you’ to them?
We’re hoping the answer is “Yes!”
A “Yes” would be the kind of affirmation America needs to make after she reneged on her promise. Following the victory by U.S. and Allied Forces in the Philippines in October 1945, Congress – just four months later – stripped Filipino soldiers of their rightful benefits. Although they fought and died under the American flag, their status as veterans changed when the Rescission Acts of 1946 systematically denied them recognition for their valiant efforts.
We want Congress to rectify a grave injustice to Filipino veterans by restoring their dignity and honor. We call on Congress to award them the Congressional Gold Medal, the “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.”
This same award has been given to the Japanese American Nisei soldiers, Navajo Code Talkers, Montford Marines, Tuskegee Airmen, Women Air Service Pilots and Puerto Rican servicemen of a U.S. Army segregated unit.
But why not the Filipino veterans of World War II? Why?
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, son of a World War II veteran, says, “We cannot close this dark chapter in our nation’s history without recognizing the sacrifices and contributions made by Filipino soldiers in winning the war. They have a story to tell. And we must keep their story alive for the next generation and generations to come.”
A Story of Duty and Valor
Most were in their early twenties, and many were in their teens, when they were conscripted on July 26, 1941 into the U.S. Armed Forces by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt:
“Under and by virtue of the authority vested in me … as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, I hereby call and order into the service of the armed forces of the United States for the period of the existing emergency… all of the organized military forces of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.”
The U.S. was about to go to war. The Philippines, as sovereign territory of the United States, was a target of the Japanese Imperial Army. The U.S. needed every able-bodied men and women to fight a war.
On December 28, 1941, twenty days after hostilities broke out in the Pacific, President Roosevelt exhorted the Filipinos with these words:
“In this great struggle of the Pacific the loyal Americans of the Philippine Islands are called upon to play a crucial role… I count on every Philippine man, woman and child to do his duty. We will do ours.”
Those who served include over 260,000 members of the Old Philippine Scouts, Philippine Commonwealth Army, Recognized Guerillas and the New Philippine Scouts. They all responded to President Roosevelt’s call-to-duty.
Through three months of battle, thousands were killed and wounded. Thousands more endured the brutal Death March.
Through the years after the War, the U.S. Government had given small and piecemeal benefits to the Filipino veterans: eligibility for U.S. citizenship, SSI extension, burial benefits. In 2007, veterans got a lump sum payment of $9,000 (for veterans residing in the Philippines, and $15,000 (for U.S. residents).
But full equity and recognition eluded them.
There are fewer than 18,000 of them left today. Mostly in their late 80s and 90s. Betrayed by the country they fought and died for, they are nevertheless unwavering in their love and loyalty to America.
‘God Bless America’
I remember one congressional hearing in the Fall of 1998. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs, chaired by U.S. Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz), was considering the “Filipino Veterans Equity Act” introduced by U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and Ben Gilman (R-NY). It was meant to repeal the Rescission Act and restore the benefits denied Filipino veterans.
The hearing room was packed with more than 200 veterans and community supporters. Many traveled from as far as Hawaii and California. Some had to wait in the hallway for their turn to get in. The testimonies arguing for the Equity Act boosted the hopes of the veterans who always kept the faith. The public mood was clearly on their side.
After almost three hours, the hearing adjourned. When Stump came out, he was greeted warmly by the veterans who shook his hand, embraced him and said, “Thank You, Chairman Stump.” As more veterans gathered around Stump, someone started singing “God Bless America.” Everyone in the hall joined in. Some were in tears as they sang their hearts out. The Capitol Hill police had to break up the spontaneous demonstration.
Despite enlisting 209 co-sponsors, despite discharge petitions, the bill did not pass. Chairman Stump remained a stumbling block. He never moved an inch from his intransigent position that Filipino veterans do not deserve any benefits from the U.S. government. No bill favoring veterans’ equity moved forward for so long as he was chairman.
Call to Action
In his meetings with community leaders across the country, Taguba always stresses the need “to renew the purpose and values that make the Filipino American community a community, to seek a strong sense of our presence and identity, to create another national story for a great generation of men and women who fought long and hard in a world war in the Philippines, where thousands have died and wounded for life, and are diminishing in population and will be forgotten.”
The approval of the Congressional Gold Medal is worthy of a national story, he says. “We must rally around the veterans for this small, but highly significant recognition for their loyal, dedicated and honorable wartime service to the U.S. and the Philippines. The veterans have earned it many times over. They have waited over 70 years for their story to be told. We, all of us, across this country, must tell their story and for the deepest gratitude we owe them for defending our freedom and livelihood which we often take for granted.”
Jon Melegrito is a board member of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, a non-partisan, community-based, all volunteer national initiative whose mission is to obtain national recognition of Filipino and Filipino American WWII Soldiers across the United States and the Philippines for their wartime service to both countries, from July 26, 1941 to December 3, 1946.