Filipinos heeded the call of then President Delano Roosevelt to become defenders of democracy in the Pacific when he issued executive order on July 26, 1941, incorporating the Philippine Army into the USAFFE.
The late President Carlos P. Romulo, who served as Resident Commissioner of the Philippines to the United States Congress from 1944 to 1946, expressed disgust over the discriminatory act saying that the Philippine government stood by its position not to accept the appropriation.
Heavy cruiser HMAS Australia was first hit by kamikaze, a Japanese suicide plane, on October 21, 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which is considered to be the largest naval battle with at least 850 ships involved.. It was repaired at New Hebrides, now Vanuatu, only to be hit again five times by kamikazes at Lingayen Gulf in January, 1945.
It was on January 9, 1945 when Les Kennedy of the Royal Australian Navy, arrived in the country onboard HMAS Manoora that was part of the 850-convoy that waged amphibious warfare against the Japanese during WWII.
There were more than 400,000 Filipino WWII veterans who were promised to receive the same military benefits given to American soldiers, including the disability compensation, full health care coverage, and survivors’ compensation from the US government when the First Supplemental Surplus Appropriation Rescission Act was approved by the US Congress in 1946 and stripped the veterans of their benefits for service rendered under the US flag.
It was on July 4, 1946 when the Philippines became an independent state.
US Department of Veterans Affairs verifies if those who applied were included in the list of the US Army Roster of WWII Filipino veterans stored at the US Army Archives in St. Louis, Missouri state or known as Missouri list of 1948, which makes the vets eligible for the US package.
This particular provision was successfully included in the Senate version by US Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii when the Stimulus Bill was introduced at the US Senate floor on February 2 this year.
At the wake of economic slowdown gripping the US and other rich economies, President Barack Obama signed the Stimulus Bill into law on February 17 in Denver.
US embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson said so far, over 2, 500 Filipino veterans have applied since it started accepting applications on February 18, 2009.
“As of 11 a.m., February 24, the embassy allowed the veterans to mail their application because most of them are in their 80s and 90s. We do not want to give them unnecessary burden of lining up in this hot weather,” PVAO Claims Division Head Melinda Luna said.
In accordance with the new law, for an individual to be eligible for payment, the US Department of Veterans Affairs must receive the individual’s claim no later than February 16, 2010, which is one year from the date US President Barack Obama signed the historic legislation.
IN the few days since the signing of the veterans’ “stimulus bill” the discussion is all about the benefits: (1) if qualified dependents of veterans who died days after the bill became law can claim $ 9,000 (2) if veterans who are too ill and cannot write nor sign papers can still collect $ 9,000 through their dependents (3) if veterans who are “brain dead” (or on life-support) are qualified to receive full benefits, and (4) if application forms can be sent to claimants’ homes or hospital rooms.
Filling forms properly
Answering any of the above without full guidelines from the US Embassy may mean instant loss of benefits. The veteran, age 96, who “wrote X” shown on TV faces all the uncertainties/disqualifications.
In a previous article I ventured a guess that most living claimants fought the enemy forces in 1942 at age 18, and are now nearing 85 up. But officers born between 1910 and 1920 (89 to 99 years old) may not be alive anymore, except for very few exceptions in longevity.
Wheelchair, cane, etc.
Last week front-page pictures and news reports were about veterans limping their way asking questions about their fate. Some were on wheelchairs or leaning heavily on cheap aluminum canes and pretended to be strong and healthy.
In my town I know one qualified veteran, who is now 94 years old (born 1915, Frank Sinatra’s birth year). He taught in high school after 1945. He has no complaint except for body pains and aches common to old boys and girls in their late 80s or early 90s.
The waiting creditors/lenders
Most veterans who may get $ 9,000 expect to hold their check for a few hours/days before entrusting them to creditors (or Bombay-style lenders) who advanced cash for medicines, performance-enhancing vitamins, milk/chocolate, etc.
It is not expected that the dollar benefit will be added to their savings that don’t exist. It is doubtful that, with dozens of dependents expecting it, a large amount will be left for the remaining few years of the veteran’s misery.
Remembering their heroism?
Years ago our brave soldiers and freedom fighters stopped telling tales of bravery in battle or skirmishes between enemy and guerilla platoons. Bataan, Corregidor, Lingayen Gulf and the Leyte landing or invasion ceased to be important events or subjects as early as 30 or 40 years ago.
Only the officers of the various veterans legions, here and abroad, lobbied and waited with great expectations. But they knew the fading years and hope may end one day but not at age 80, 85, or 90.
No whistle of joy
The sick or sickly veterans who may benefit from the dollar lump-sum mostly are in dire need, but the time to whistle with joy may not come today or tomorrow. The passing years were too long to move them to “another show of gratitude” to the giver.
All the famous names who fought hard in Bataan were long gone – Napoleon Valeriano, Alfredo Santos, Carmelo Barbero were just three of the hundreds who died years ago.
Fighting under two flags
The one great trait of our veterans has a quality of its own: None of them ever complained of their suffering in total misery while waiting for any form of recompense from America. They knew they fought or died under two flags: Stars and stripes and Aguinaldo’s banner of the 1898 Republic.
The trek to 14 venues where claims are filed is just starting. It’s like “Death March” all over again.
Their one and last prayer? To live for one more year and get the final cash reward or symbol.
Those who are too infirm to remember their service to PI and America may wonder and ask: What’s the $ 9,000 for? (Comments are welcome at email@example.com)
By Atty. Romeo V. Pefianco
THE benefits package approved by the United States Congress for the thousands of Filipino World War II veterans is an important victory. For many of the old men who’ve endured years of isolation in America in order to support their loved ones in the Philippines, the money would surely be a big boost in difficult times.
But there are those who see the approved bill as a sad, tragic compromise.
One of them is photographer Rick Rocamora who has spent nearly 20 years documenting the lives and struggles of the beteranos.
“As a photographer who has captured moments in the lives of the veterans during their early days in America, the funeral services of their passing and life in between, I also look forward to the day that our heroes will be given the full recognition as equal to US veterans,” he told me in an e-mail.
“While the monetary compensation will find its way to help the surviving beteranos and their relatives, being recognized as equals is more important,” he added. “For those who died waiting, I have been waiting for them. But we must not forget that it took many years for the US Congress to recognized and correct the injustice. We must credit the collective efforts of the Filipino community in America and their supporters to finally gain justice for our heroes.”
To the elderly Pinoys often seen hanging out on Powell Street near the Cable Car stop in downtown San Francisco, Rick “Totoy” Rocamora has been a friend and ally who helped preserve the memory of their gallant, but sad mission in America.
They’ve known him as the soft-spoken heavyset man with a mop top hairdo, who seemed always to have a fancy-looking camera around his neck. Totoy told in moving, vivid pictures the journey of the thousands of Filipino World War II veterans who arrived in the United States in the 1990s.
His work has been published in many magazines and newspaper articles, and put on exhibit throughout the world. Now, Rocamora’s impressive body of work has been collected in a newly-published book of photographs, “America’s Second-Class Veterans.”
Rocamora’s photographs helped spread the word on what has become a sad chapter in the history of US-Philippine relations. The Filipino veterans began arriving in the United States in the early 1990s after they were finally granted citizenship for fighting alongside American troops in the war against the Japanese forces in World War II. But many of the elderly men found themselves in a bind. While they fought bravely under US command during the war, they did not receive the same rights and benefits enjoyed by other American military veterans.
The beteranos came to America hoping to send money back to their families in the Philippines or to enable their loved ones to immigrate to the United States. But most of them were old and ailing. Some became vulnerable to abuse, falling victim to swindlers. Many of them lived in cramped and damp rooms in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.
Rocamora began documenting their struggles almost as soon as the first veterans began to arrive. His work helped mobilize the Filipino American community in advocating for the elderly Pinoys. A few times, when one of his beterano friends became ill, Totoy brought him sinigang and kept him company.
Totoy’s photographs also helped inspire me to write my novel Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street (Guerrillas on Powell Street) which was adapted for the stage by the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Pilipino. His pictures also inspired prominent figures to support the fight for equity rights. One of them is Congressman Bob Filner, who has been the leading proponent for equity rights in Washington DC, and who wrote an introduction to the book.
“The photographs in Rocamora’s book and the words of the veterans next to the photos will not only bring tears to your eyes but also a firm resolve in your heart,” Filner writes. “Congress has officially granted the recognition as Veterans of World War II to these brave men, both living and dead.”
Totoy, Filner added, “has created a book with a powerful message, a book that should be in the homes and offices of every American.”
Totoy’s powerful images should be given even more prominence, as a reminder of the lonely struggle of the beteranos. As Totoy himself said, “Personally, I would like that my archive about the veterans will be housed appropriately in an institution where young Filipinos and Americans can look back on how much our heroes suffered waiting for full recognition.”
Copyright 2009 by Benjamin Pimentel
MANILA, Philippines—For these Filipino war veterans and their heirs, recognition for their efforts and their rightful place in history are more important than the $198-million compensation package from the US government.
“Our lives are priceless. It cannot be measured in dollars,” said Col. Rafael Estrada, founder of the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Inc. (DBC), during the group’s weekly fellowship at the Veterans Center in Taguig City Wednesday.
Estrada, now 90, said the Filipino veterans “volunteered” their lives when the Philippines was still a colony of the United States.
“We were not fighting for the Philippines, we were fighting for America,” he said.
The veteran dropped by for the fellowship and left soon after because he was not feeling well.
“I don’t know if gratitude is the right word,” Estrada said. “The fact is that the American people, through their president, have finally come to the financial aid of the poor Filipino veterans.”
Rafael Evangelista, a “national commander” of the DBC, said that attaching a monetary value to the veterans’ efforts “make you look like mercenaries.” He is the son of Dr. Rafael L. Evangelista, who served in the Medical Corps of the US Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).
Retired 2nd Lt. Emilio Aquino, who enlisted as a corporal with the USAFFE on Oct. 7, 1941, said during the DBC fellowship that he was just glad he was still around. “Obviously, I’m happy,” he said with a wide grin.
The DBC was organized in 1948 in recognition of the services of some 80,000 Filipinos who were conscripted in July 1941 on orders of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The Filipinos were trained and organized by the US government to fight together with American troops a day after Japanese planes wiped out the US naval forces at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.
War dead, survivors
Thousands of USAFFE soldiers died in Bataan and Corregidor, while many of those who survived would meet the same fate during the Death March, or the forced transfer of prisoners from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac.
Thousands more died in the camp, according to two survivors who attended Wednesday’s fellowship.
Retired Brig. Gen. Felix Pestaña and retired 2nd Lt. Simplicio Copiaco remembered burying 20 to 25 bodies a day at Camp O’Donnell. “We have no pencil, no paper. We didn’t even know their names,” Pestaña said.
Getting the names of those who died and survived, and honoring their sacrifice and ensuring their place in history was a topic discussed at the fellowship.
Evangelista said the DBC would sponsor a project to expand the Wall of Heroes at Camp O’Donnell after Pestaña noted that his name was there, while his friends who had died were not even engraved.
Through the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO), the group has commissioned Dr. Trota Jose to compile the personal accounts of the men and women in WWII.
“This is not just a history the way it’s written, but it’s the story of the men and women who were there,” Jose said.
Copiaco said that when his company was “wiped out,” he was sent to Pampanga to recruit farmers to the USAFFE.
“We got them in the rice fields, taught them how to shoot, gave them uniforms and boots, and they were soldiers,” he recalled.
Apparently, a lot of the written records about the heroism of the Filipino veterans have to be corrected.
Some veterans who attended the fellowship said Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the leader of the Japanese Imperial Army, did not surrender to the Americans at Camp John Hay as recorded in history books but was captured by Igorot volunteer soldiers in the Mountain Province.
Jose’s book, to be titled “Defending Bataan and Beyond” and set for release in October, will set the records straight.
“WITHOUT 1872,” Dr. Jose P. Rizal wrote his friend Don Mariano Ponce, “there would not be now a Sanciangco, Plaridel, Lopez Jaena… Without 1872, Rizal would now be a Jesuit and, instead of writing the Noli Me Tangere, would have written the opposite.”
To highlight further the impact of the Cavite Mutiny and the execution of Fathers Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora, Dr. Rizal dedicated his novel El Filibusterismo to the memory of the three priests, thus: “The Church, in refusing to degrade you, has placed in doubt the crime imputed to you; the Government, in shrouding your cause with mystery and obscurities, creates belief in some error committed in critical moments; and the whole Philippines, in venerating your memory and calling you martyrs, in no way acknowledges your guilt… May your blood be upon the hands of those who, without sufficient proof, assail your memory.”
Many vital details about the martyrdom of Fathers Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora remain hidden to most Filipinos. Foremost of these details is the extraordinary courage of the three martyrs in combatting theocracy in colonial Philippines. When the friars put up in 1868 the newspaper La Verdad and printed article after article vilifying the natives of the Philippines, Father Burgos put up the newspaper El Eco Filipino. Father Gomez kept the funds for the newspaper, while Father Zamora solicited contributions for its support. El Eco Filipino fought for the rights and honor of the Filipino people.
When Don Carlos Maria de la Torre became the governor-general of the Philippines in 1869, Father Burgos and several liberal Spaniards and Filipinos honored De la Torre with a serenade and dinner at the latter’s official residence in Intramuros. In turn, De la Torre publicly praised Father Burgos, declaring: “Hail! Father Burgos, Pride and Honor of the Philippines.” The friars seethed with anger against all these happenings.
Implicated in the January 19-20, 1872, Cavite Mutiny and condemned to die by the garrote, the three priests were confined at Fort Santiago. There were attempts to save them. On the eve of the execution, Srta. Clarita Rubio de Celis recruited 60 men to carry out a suicidal mission – attack all colonial posts in Intramuros and spirit away the three priests. They were blocked by several native priests who feared a general backlash against the native population.
Asked to whom they would like to make a confession, Father Gomez replied: “To any of our most vociferous enemy so that they should know the purity of our conscience.” Going up the scaffold, Father Gomez saw Major Boscasa, the prosecutor who condemned them to death, and said: “May God forgive you the way we have forgiven you.” A friar replied: “Forgive them, Father Gomez, for they do not know what they did.” Father Gomez turned to the friar and said: “Why should we forgive them if they did nothing wrong against us?”
Even colonial historians concluded that the execution of Fathers Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora was a blunder on the part of colonial government. The Cavite Mutiny of 1872 nourished Filipino nationalism.1872 produced 1896 which, in turn, produced June 12, 1898.
Our observance of the anniversary of Fathers Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora’s martyrdom will make our youth aware that the freedom they enjoy today was nourished by the blood and sacrifices of their forefathers.
Opinion and Editorial