Some survivors of the Bataan Death March are still alive, both in the Philippines and in the United States. However, it is ironic that for 75 years, textbooks in American schools have had very little, if any, on the participation of Filipinos in this part of history. Also, Philippine Scouts and Fil-Am vets recruited by Gen. Douglas MacArthur were promised veterans’ benefits, but six months after the war ended in 1945, Congress reneged on that promise. President Truman signed the First Surplus Rescission Act of 1946, which retroactively disbarred Filipinos from receiving of benefits that would have been payable to them on account of their military service under the United States at a time when the Philippines was a US territory and Filipinos were US nationals.
Until the reversal of this act in July 2016, WWII Filipino veterans fought an uphill battle for their rights. Last year marked a turning point for the WWII Filipino veterans whose place in history had almost been forgotten. Bataan Legacy Historical Society (BLHS) had been working with the California Department of Education since 2014 to include WWII in the Philippines in the U.S. history curriculum framework for high school. On July 14, 2016, the State Board of Education approved its inclusion in the U.S. history curriculum framework for Grade 11 (Chapter 16), the first time that this seminal part of WWII history will be required teaching for high school not just in California, but in the entire United States.
Also, on December 14, 2016, former President Barack Obama signed into law the bill “to award a Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to Filipino veterans of World War II, in recognition of the dedicated service of the veterans during World War II”.
The gold medal will be given to the Smithsonian Institution and made available for display and research. Filipino WWII veterans are to receive duplicates of the gold medal in bronze, and a direct family member will receive the medal on behalf of a deceased veteran. The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award bestowed by the United States Congress to express national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
These two landmark events took a huge village (and generations of citizens) to make them happen. Notably, several women helped rectify an official history that was seriously incomplete. This is a tribute to the women behind the Bataan Legacy.
At the helm of the BLHS is its founder and executive director Cecilia Gaerlan, daughter of a Bataan Death March survivor whose war stories were etched in her mind from childhood. Her relentless efforts focused on addressing the lack of information about the role of the Filipinos during World War II in the Philippines and seeking justice for the Filipino veterans whose benefits were rescinded in 1946.
The BLHS educates the public on the historical significance of Bataan and World War II in the Philippines by presenting the war from different perspectives (Filipino, American, soldiers and civilians) through its multimedia presentations, exhibitions, conferences and lectures in schools and different organizations throughout the country. It is also documenting the stories of survivors and veterans of WWII in the Philippines.
Known as a mover and shaker both in the Philippines and in the United States, philanthropist, community leader and educator Connie McHugh, along with her brother, Roderick Hall, whose name marks the Roderick Hall Collection in the Filipinas Heritage Library, has been an essential part of the preservation of Philippine heritage. The collection is a unique and important trove of books and papers dealing with World War II and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.
Ms. McHugh’s family members, including her mother, were killed by the Japanese during WWII. She and her brother Roderick Hall, along with their childhood friend Amb. Johnny Rocha, founded the Memorare-Manila 1945 Foundation, Inc. in memory of the over 100,000 civilians killed during the Battle of Manila.
She is on the Honorary Board of BLHS and co-chairs with Ms. Gaerlan on events. Since she joined the Bataan Legacy Foundation four years ago, she has helped push forward the campaign through her community leadership and by providing resources to keep the project funded.
RAQUEL RAMSEY, PhD
Another Honorary Board member of BLHS is Dr. Raquel Ramsey, widow of Lt. Col. Edwin Price Ramsey, subject of the documentary “Never Surrender: The Ed Ramsey Story” which narrates the WWII hero’s story. Ed Ramsey was a young lieutenant in the last cavalry assigned to take on the Japanese in the Philippines. He was credited with gathering 20,000 Scouts in the Philippines and for using the first guerilla tactics used in the war. The Green Berets also credit him as their inspiration the early adoption of hit-and-run missions. Dr. Ramsey, who has made it her mission to tell her husband’s story to the world, has tirelessly lobbied Congress to restore the benefits promised the Filipino veterans.
Cynthia Bonta is known both as an activist/community leader and the mother of California Assemblyman Rob Bonta.
“My community work with Filipinos, past and present, has always focused on the youth growing up in America. The Filipino identity is a very important issue with them,” when asked what compelled her to support BLHS.
“To get a grasp of this, knowing and understanding our history is imperative. We soon realize that much is omitted or distorted in its reporting or are completely inaccurate about Filipinos or the Philippines. I have always supported the need to teach our history accurately and to become authorities of our own history.
“I also have many Filipino friends from military families including those whose father or grandfather either died or survived the Bataan Death March. I am personally interested in WWII history because I was a child during the war. In telling the story of my mother and father and my own childhood, I need to place it in the context of this war.”
ATTY. LOURDES TANCINCO
Known in the Bay Area as a legal advocate for Filipinos is Lourdes Tancinco, an immigration lawyer and media personality. Atty. Tancinco is the chair and founding member of the San Francisco Veterans Equity Center, a not-for-profit advocacy organization established to provide a clearinghouse for Filipino World War II veterans issues. From1994 up to the present she is the supervising attorney for the Fil-Am Veterans Legal Clinic where she provides pro bono services to elderly seniors, mostly war veterans, in San Francisco.
Another veterans’ advocate is Luisa Antonio, executive and board member of the San Francisco Veterans Equity Center. Under Ms. Antonio’s leadership, the veterans’ equity center provides outreach, information and referral, translation, and consultation services to seniors, adults with disabilities, Filipino World War II Veterans and their families.
CATHERINE CENIZA-CHOY, PhD
Award-winning author and educator, Dr. Catherine Ceniza Choy is a voice for the Filipino Americans. A professor of Ethnic Studies in UC Berkeley, Dr. Choy has opened doors to an understanding of Philippine culture and has actively supported the BLHS in pushing for the recognition of Filipino veterans and the inclusion in schools of the Philippines participation in WWII.
Lourdes Catig-Poblete was a teenager working for a Japanese-owned company during WWII in the Philippines. The daughter of a Bataan Death March survivor, Mrs. Poblete was a guerrilla in the 10th Military District Live or Die Unit and did reconnaissance for the guerrillas. She was arrested by the Japanese soldiers who held her at Fort Santiago, the notorious concentration camp in Manila, where she was tortured and forced into slavery until her escape. She is an honorary board member of BLHS and speaks at events where she shares stories about WWII.
Ms. Marietta Flores is a frequent speaker at BLHS conferences. She recounts stories of war she witnessed growing up as a child of war in the Philippines. To this day, her memories of the war are as vivid as when they happened decades ago, so she takes her audience along on her journey back in time.
VIRGINA GANZON-STURWOLD, PhD
Dr. Virginia Ganzon-Sturwold was only 16 years old when her family was forced out of their home in Bataan. She walked side by side with the military and civilians in the Bataan Death March and has shared with the public her experiences in the hands of the Japanese.
Dr. Sturwold, an educator, has devoted time to talk about the Bataan Death March to share the message that the human spirit can rise above the atrocities of war. Dr. Sturwold’s life has been living proof of that concept. She was a recipient of the 2006 President’s Volunteer Services Award given at the White House for her community services.
Manzel Delacruz is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.
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