By Jon Melegrito
Letter from Washington
The Fight for Recognition Continues
Seventy three years ago, more than 200,000 Filipino soldiers fought in World War II. Ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, they were sworn in under the command of the U.S. Army Forces of the Far East (USAFEE). They fought valiantly side by side with American soldiers, under the American Flag. In effect, they were U.S. soldiers.
The Philippines was not yet an independent country when the U.S. declared war against Japan in 1941. This "land of the morning" was a commonwealth of the United States.
My father, Gregorio Melegrito, was 26 years old when he took up arms. He was among the thousands who were called to military duty, to primarily defend American interests in the Far East. When Bataan and Corregidor fell in 1942, my dad was among the 72,000 American and Filipino troops captured. He survived the infamous Death March, the 80-mile trek from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga. Approximately 10,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war died of starvation and exhaustion, and physical abuse and murder committed by the Japanese Army.
"We didn't want to surrender," my father told me, two months before he died in 2005. "We wanted to keep on fighting."
After they were released from Camp O'Donnell, he went home to Guimba, Nueva Ecija, married my mother a year later. She gave birth to a son, whom my father named after his American commander, Jonathan Wainwright.
He was 89 when he died. He never talked much about the war. On my last visit, I had to pry it out of him. He struggled to recall that distant, painful past. He said he wanted to escape the Death March and the POW camp. "We were sick and starving," he recalled. "But we were too weak to even try."
For their loyalty, bravery and sacrifice, the U.S. Congress passed the Rescission Act in 1946, depriving them of their rights as American servicemen.
With their honor and dignity taken away by an act of Congress, these old soldiers chose to fight instead of just fading away. It took more than 60 years to finally win something, a one-time lump sum payment of $9,000 if you reside in the Philippines, $15,000 if you are an American citizen. It was better than nothing, some thought. But it wasn't even close to the full equity and justice they fought for.
President Obama signed the bill in 2009 that provided funds for the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation (FVEC) fund. About 40,000 applied, with 18,000 receiving theirs to date. The others were not eligible. About 4,000 of them have appealed.
My dad died in 2005. He missed this benefit by four years. Only survivors can receive it. But even long before he died, he tried several times to file claims for war-related injuries. Each time, the U.S. Veterans Administration rejected his claims. He thought the VA cared for him. The VA, after all, proudly displays this motto at the building's entrance:
"To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." (Abraham Lincoln)
Most of the Filipino American World War II veterans are now in their 90s. One of them passed away recently, a few days after his 96th birthday. Conrado Andamit Damasco was a longtime resident in the nation's capital. A member of the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans (ACFV), he was a constant presence in Capitol Hill in the 1990s. His lobbying activities got him arrested in 1997 for protesting "illegally" at the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He regularly sang in his church choir.
Now that voice is silent. His final wish was to be buried at the Quantico National Cemetery with his long time comrades, Joaquin Tejada and Tomas Culanag. His closest relatives are in Bukidnon province in Mindanao.
The voices of the Filipino World War II veterans may be silent now but their spirits are very much alive. At least that's what Major Gen. Antonio Taguba wants to believe. And he wants the American people to keep their spirits alive as well.
He is currently spearheading an effort to secure congressional legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Filipino World War II veterans. Congress has commissioned gold medals as "its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions."
Top Photo: Among those involved in the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP) are, from L, University of Maryland professors Colleen Woods and Jon Sumida, former legislative director Marie Blanco, Veterans Administration staff Ronald Sagudan, Philippine Veterans Affairs Director Del Lorenzana, MG Antonio Taguba (chairman of FilVetREP) and University of Maryland Prof. Janelle Wong, a member of the Academic Advisory Group along with Woods and Sumida. (PINOY Photo by Jon Melegrito)
Taguba notes that other war veterans groups have been honored with the highest civilian award, but not Filipinos. They include the Japanese American Nisei soldiers, Navajo Code Talkers, Montford Marines, Tuskegee Airmen and Women Air Service Pilots. More recently, a U.S. Army segregated unit composed mainly of soldiers from the island of Puerto Rico received this award.
It's time for Filipinos to be recognized. To make this happen, a broad alliance of community leaders, veterans advocates and civil rights activists recently formalized the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP). Its main three goals are: Secure Congress' approval of the Congressional Gold Medal Award, organize a national exhibit in cooperation with the Smithsonian; and establish a digital education program for all public schools.
"We can not close this dark chapter in our nation's history without recognizing the sacrifices and the contributions made by Filipino soldiers in winning the war," Taguba says. "If we all do our due diligence, we can make this happen. This is a 'We' thing. We need to do this for our veterans. We have a story to tell. Let's do it."