On US Veterans’ Day (Canada Remembrance Day), a Toast to Our Freedom Fighters

“Mano-po” by Speaker Paul Ryan to Dr. Alice Benitez at the CGM awards ceremony at the Emancipation Hall in Washington DC (Photo courtesy of www.speaker.gov)

“Mano-po” by Speaker Paul Ryan to Dr. Alice Benitez at the CGM awards ceremony at the Emancipation Hall in Washington DC (Photo courtesy of www.speaker.gov)

The Filipino veterans who fought under the American flag during World War II were recognized, after 75 years, with the highest civilian honor with the Congressional Gold Medal. The Emancipation Hall – U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. was where a few surviving WWII veterans accompanied by family members congregated on October 25, 2017 for the awards ceremony. It was a memorable day for my mother, Dr. Alice Benitez.

In 1941, my mother was all but 10 years old when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, a U.S. territory at the time; but she remembers details of life during the war. Her father, Lt. Col. Juan A. Benitez, was an active member of the guerrilla underground movement in our hometown of San Carlos, Pangasinan. One specific war story linked with my grandfather is when he, together with the Benitez household, hid an American soldier named Edwin P. Ramsey in their home.

A U.S. Army lieutenant who belonged to the 26th Cavalry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts, Ramsey led the Division of the East Central Luzon Guerrilla Area (ECLGA) responsible for organizing close to 40,000 Filipino guerrillas. Juan Benitez was appointed by Ramsey as District Commander of the Pangasinan-Tarlac Military District (PTMD). A prisoner of war, he survived and went on to serve as chairman of the Philippine Veterans Board in 1949. [See Col. Edwin Ramsey’s War http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/col-edwin-ramseys-war]

Leon Banaag, Cipriana Benitez, Edwin Ramsey, Juan Benitez & Luis Villareal, 1964 in the Philippines (Photo courtesy of Alice Benitez)

Leon Banaag, Cipriana Benitez, Edwin Ramsey, Juan Benitez & Luis Villareal, 1964 in the Philippines (Photo courtesy of Alice Benitez)

The fall of Bataan, marking the surrender to the Imperial Japanese Forces of about 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers, was said to be the largest U.S. surrender in history. “After everyone was captured, there was no Filipino army or constabulary. They became part of the guerrilla (movement). Col. Ramsey was the overall Luzon guerrilla commander,” Brigadier General Oscar Bautista Hilman states. Retired U.S. Army Brig. General Hilman now serves as President of the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society (PSHS) [See http://www.philippine-scouts.org/] Five members of the general’s family were part of the Bataan Death March. His maternal grandfather, Gregorio Bautista, together with his uncles, Alfredo and Jesus, paid the ultimate sacrifice. Two other uncles, Philippine Scouts Robert and Filemon, belonging to the same Bautista family, survived WWII and both later served in the U.S. Army.

FilVetREP Regional Directors Thelma Sevilla, Brig General (retired) Oscar Bautista Hilman & Zenaida Crisostomo Slemp at the CGM Gala at the Ritz Carlton in Washington DC (Photo courtesy of Zenaida C. Slemp)

FilVetREP Regional Directors Thelma Sevilla, Brig General (retired) Oscar Bautista Hilman & Zenaida Crisostomo Slemp at the CGM Gala at the Ritz Carlton in Washington DC (Photo courtesy of Zenaida C. Slemp)

One of the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society missions, to “obtain national recognition of the Filipino-American WWII soldiers for their wartime service to the United States and Philippines from July 1941 to Dec 1946,” came to fruition with the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino Veterans last month. Every year, at the PSHS reunion, the WWII veterans’ attendees continue to diminish. A restructured plan for next year’s 2018 reunion in San Antonio, Texas, in July is to “recruit descendants to talk about their unit, their recollections and major contributions during the war and, on a more personal knowledge about their father.” Some families who bring artifacts and mementos will also have an opportunity to talk about their displays and be part of the scheduled activities.

There are many stories from WWII that remain to be documented and remembered. In September this year my mother, Alice Benitez, was invited by Cecilia Gaerlan, executive director of the Bataan Legacy Historical Society, to speak at their 3rd conference on “World War II in the Philippines” held at the University of San Francisco. My mother was part of a panel that presented the “Role of the Guerrillas During the Liberation.” There, she met one of the speakers, Major General (retired) Tony Tabuga, who currently sits as chairman of the Executive Board of The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetsREP). General Taguba championed and played a key role in advocating for the passing of the Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) for the Filipino WWII Veterans’ bill to “honor our veterans and demonstrate our deepest gratitude for their supreme sacrifice.”

Major General (retired) Tony Taguba with Dr. Alice Benitez at the CGM awards ceremony in Washington DC (Photo courtesy of Cecilia Gaerlan)

Major General (retired) Tony Taguba with Dr. Alice Benitez at the CGM awards ceremony in Washington DC (Photo courtesy of Cecilia Gaerlan)

He invited my mother to attend the CGM awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. but little did she know, until the morning of October 25th, that General Taguba, in collaboration with General Hilman, had arranged for her to be one of the six representatives (three veterans and three next-of-kin) standing beside the House Speaker Paul Ryan at the event. “A complete surprise! I was very honored and touched by representing Papa (referring to her father, Lt. Col. Juan A. Benitez), Col. Ramsey and all the veterans and their families,” she said. At the awarding of the gold medal, Speaker Paul Ryan “mano-po” my mother’s hand – it is a Filipino tradition to express one’s respect for an elder.

My family’s story of the war is just one of many others. Cecilia Gaerlan of the Bataan Legacy has interviewed more than 30 veterans and civilians over the years. As a member of the 41st Infantry Regimen of the U.S. Army Forces of the Far East (USAFFE), Cecilia’s father, Luis Gaerlan Jr. served as quartermaster and marched in Bataan. “My father used to tell stories like a comedian with action and sound effects (gunshots or bombs exploding). The way he narrated and framed them was so funny. He made me and my siblings laugh,” Cecilia said, recalling her childhood days. Fast-forward to 2012, Cecilia got hold of documents from the Infantry School in Fort Benning about the last days of Bataan and, in particular, about the 41st Infantry her father belonged to.

Cecilia Gaerlan, Bataan Legacy Historical Society Executive Director at the Bataan Conference in San Francisco (Photo courtesy of Cecilia Gaerlan)

Cecilia Gaerlan, Bataan Legacy Historical Society Executive Director at the Bataan Conference in San Francisco (Photo courtesy of Cecilia Gaerlan)

“It was shocking. I cried. It was carpet-bombing in Mount Samat. They were hungry and sick, no ammunition so they did not have a choice but hunker down on the trenches. A lot of people died and burned to death.” When she approached her father about the document, he too got quite emotional. Most veterans have difficulty telling their children about details of what really happened; perhaps, as part of their coping mechanism.

A proponent of keeping the memories of WWII veterans and survivors alive through education, the Bataan Legacy led by Gaerlan made it a part of their mission. “The biggest project is inclusion of the WWII in the Philippines in the U.S. history curriculum framework for California. For the first time, WWII in the Philippines will be taught in Grade 11 (Chapter 16).” Support from Filipino communities and various organizations made the passing of bill AB199 possible in 2011. The Bataan Legacy is working with the Instructional Quality Commission of the California Department of Education to implement the bill. A long process but major strides have been made to make the project a reality.

Implementation of the curriculum remains the top priority of Gaerlan. Six teachers from the different school districts in the Bay area were sponsored to create a lesson plan [See http://bataanlegacy.org/lesson-plans.html], which is now available to schools across the country. Primary documents and resources have also been included. The society’s ultimate goal is to create a coalition of organizations like the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society, FilVetREP, Naval Order of the United States, National Historical Commission of the Philippines, Memorare Manila and many more groups to produce a comprehensive narrative of WWII in the Philippines.

A small way to say thank you to our veterans, past and present, on November 11th and throughout the year is to keep their memories alive. One of my favorite quotes from John F. Kennedy sums it up, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
 


Sandie Gillis

Sandie Gillis

Sandie Gillis is based in Vancouver, Canada. She is the co-author ofSYM: The Power of Struggle, a biography on Filipino-Canadian artist SYM Mendoza. She holds a degree in Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines at Diliman. Aside from writing, she enjoys traveling and has a passion for producing documentary short films. 


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