He didn’t live long enough to receive a check and a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal.
During their years in the Senate, Sen. Daniel Inouye and Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii fought for full equity rights that would have restored the benefits that were promised by President Roosevelt to Filipino soldiers who served under the U.S. flag, only to be stripped away from them once the war ended. Both senators and other members of Congress felt it was a matter of honor for the U.S. to keep its promise. To the veterans, who endured pain and humiliation, it meant living a life of dignity.
Had my dad gotten his check, he would have given it away to needy children in the Philippines. Living on Medicare and Social Security in Gulfport, Mississippi, he considered himself among the fortunate few who lived in relative comfort. “God looks after me,” he always said.
His comrades who got theirs were of course grateful. But as one of them said, “it does not correct the injustice and discrimination done to us 60 years ago.” The honor came too late for the many Filipino veterans who had died. Families of deceased veterans are not eligible to receive the money.
Months before he passed away, my dad asked me about the status of the veterans’ equity bill. He knew I had been walking the halls of Congress and picketing in front of the White House. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. They had been forgotten, treated like second-class veterans.
He said he was past the bitterness and anger over Congress’ failure to do the right thing. He had given up pleading his case with the Veterans Administration for service-connected benefits, like treatment for the loss of his hearing. The bureaucrats at the VA wouldn’t listen to him. The continued rejection simply wore him down.
Fortunately, he was able to vent his frustrations. In Gulfport, he tended a garden, planted beans, eggplants and bitter melons. He also had a few chickens, goats and a couple of hogs. That’s what he loved to do. Farming was among his passions. He liked to use his hands, clearing brush, digging up soil, building trellises, sowing seeds. He always left behind lush vegetations.
My siblings and I addressed him as “Papang.” He never talked much about the war. During our visits, I’d try to pry it out of him. All he could say was, “We didn’t want to surrender. We wanted to keep on fighting.” He and his comrades wanted to escape from the Death March and the POW camp, but they were sick and starving, too weak to even try. When I asked how the war changed him, he said it only deepened his faith in God.
“So, Papang, what would you consider your greatest achievement?” I asked him one day. “You’ve been a soldier, a teacher, a preacher, a farmer.” Without hesitation, he said: “That all my four children got a good education, and are able to support their families.”
My last visit with my dad was on Father’s Day. He loved to sing in church, so he asked if we could sing a duet the following morning during worship service. We sang an old hymn about God’s great faithfulness: “Morning by morning, new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
At 89, my dad couldn’t carry a tune anymore. He sang along in a monotone. But it didn’t matter. He was singing from his heart. Singing as he always did from the moment I was born, when the doctor told him to suck the mucus out of my nose so I could breathe.
On August 11, 2005, two months after my last visit, my dad was rushed to the hospital for the fifth time in two years. He had left instructions for the doctors not to use any more heroic measures. He was ready to go. His remains were cremated and buried somewhere in a small village in Mindanao.
On November 30, I brought a picture of my dad to the House Gallery when the Congressional Gold Medal was being voted on that Wednesday afternoon. It’s a photo of him when he was 31 years old, the year after the war ended. He would have been 101 years old this year.
Seated beside me was Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. Like me, he’s also a son of a World War II veteran. I showed him my dad’s picture. He noticed a lapel pin on his uniform. “He was in the infantry division,” the General noted. “Those are the guys who engage the enemy in close-range combat.” I found out later that these troops bear the largest brunt of warfare and typically suffer the greatest number of casualties during a military campaign.
It was 5:29 p.m. when the Speaker pro tempore announced the passage of S. 1555, the bill granting recognition to my dad and 260,000 others who fought in World War II. The half-hour of speeches by US lawmakers who rose to support the measure ensured that the almost forgotten story of Filipino soldiers would now be part of American history.
The wait was finally over. The same Congress that stripped them of their rights and benefits in 1946 had now restored their honor and dignity 70 years later. Over drinks that night, I raised my glass and whispered quietly: “This one’s for you, Dad. I may not have done much for you in your living years, but this time I’m going to do something you can be proud of--make sure your story lives and is preserved for posterity.”
There’s a lot more about my dad that I don’t know. But the things that stand out in my memory make me extremely grateful to be his son. Living on a farm in Mindanao, he taught me how to plow the fields when I was nine. He showed me how to use my hands. He challenged me how to use my head. But most of all, he taught me how to give my heart.
Jon Melegrito is executive secretary of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP), a community-based, all-volunteer national initiative whose mission is to obtain national recognition of Filipino and American WW11 soldiers across the United States and the Philippines for their wartime service to the U.S. and the Philippines from July 26, 1941 to December 31, 1946. For more information about Filipino WWII veterans and how to get involved, visit www.filvetrep.org.
More from Jon Melegrito