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Veterans fight for full equity 

The recent federal economic stimulus package ensures Filipino World War II soldiers get some recognition

click to enlarge FIGHTING VETERAN :  Santa Marian Ben Reyes was a member of the New Philippine Scouts in World War II. In his eyes, he’s always been a U.S. veteran. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FIGHTING VETERAN : Santa Marian Ben Reyes was a member of the New Philippine Scouts in World War II. In his eyes, he’s always been a U.S. veteran.

There are fights, and then there are fights.
   
During World War II, Filipino soldiers fought alongside their U.S. counterparts against Japanese invaders, sharing the same fears, fights, and fates as part of a guerrilla resistance. They were on the front lines of the battle of Corregidor, they fought at Bataan, and they walked in that infamous journey that became known as the Bataan Death March.

For their efforts, they were promised the same health and pension benefits American soldiers received. But for more than 60 years that promise went unfulfilled.

The year after the war ended, the Rescission Act of 1946 went into effect. It declared the Filipino soldiers’ service as not “active service,” denying them many of the benefits they were promised when they entered service.

So later, those same Filipinos began fighting again, this time for immigration rights, then for Social Security benefits, and again for compensation and recognition for their service, a basket of rights and payments most Filipino veterans have come to call “full equity.”

That last battle began winding toward success with the recent passage of the federal Economic Stimulus bill, which included legislation awarding surviving Filipino veterans a one-time lump sum payment: U.S. citizens get $15,000, while citizens of the Philippines get $9,000.

The money marked a long-awaited victory for the veterans, but the celebration was bittersweet. Some of the veterans found the funds to be offensive. And for others, it was too late. By most estimates, there are only about 18,000 Filipino World War II veterans still alive: 6,000 in the United States and 12,000 in the Philippines. Most of the former soldiers are in their 80s or 90s. Their attrition rate has been cited as anywhere from three to 10 veterans dying each day.

click to enlarge A LONG ROAD :  Rosalie Marquez is president of the Central Coast Filipino American Historical Society. She said Filipino World War II veterans have had a long fight to win the recognition they’re finally getting—though the honor is bittersweet: These days, there aren’t many local Filipino veterans who can enjoy it. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • A LONG ROAD : Rosalie Marquez is president of the Central Coast Filipino American Historical Society. She said Filipino World War II veterans have had a long fight to win the recognition they’re finally getting—though the honor is bittersweet: These days, there aren’t many local Filipino veterans who can enjoy it.
Rosalie Marquez, president of the Central Coast Filipino American Historical Society, said she’s pleased to hear that surviving veterans are finally getting some recognition and compensation “for their hard work and training and their part to help win the war.”

Marquez said it’s been a long fight to win such recognition, but these days, there aren’t many local Filipino veterans who can enjoy it. Many have passed away, and others have returned to the Philippines.

There is Ben Reyes, however, who lives in Santa Maria with his family and lots of memories of his service. He said there used to be a lot more veterans—they even had veterans groups—but since the government began allowing them to move back to the Philippines and still receive what SSI benefits they had, many packed up and left.

‘It was my job’

Reyes has followed the fight for various Filipino rights for years. He said he believes the compensation came just in time for many veterans.

“It’s very good,” he said. “It’s success.”

He added that he’s “very old” and doesn’t know how much longer he’ll live, but Reyes carries himself strongly, even if he speaks softly. The only obvious sign that he’s getting on in age is a slight tendency to occasionally turn his ear toward whomever’s talking. He’s 82 years old.

In 1944, Reyes was 17 and living in the Philippines, where he joined the guerrilla army. He felt he had little choice. With his fellow Filipinos he shared a sense of fear, a sense of having no other options. The way Reyes figured it, he said, he’d rather die fighting than die without a fight.

“The Japanese would recruit men to build the roads for them, and sometimes the ones they recruit, they didn’t come back,” Reyes remembered. “They just killed them to protect what they did.”

Reyes served as a medic in the military until 1949. He saw men injured, carried away on stretchers. He also saw others try to avoid fighting.

“I knew they were doing it because they were scared to go to the battlefield, but without my certification they couldn’t go to the emergency station,” he said. “I’d have to just send them back out. There was nothing else I could do. It was my job.”

A matter of money

Some veterans have likened the stimulus funds to a mercenary payment. Reyes saves newspaper clippings with such quotes in a binder alongside his military records. Reyes, however, said he believes he did his duty—and if payment is due for his service, then so be it.

Jon Melegrito, communications director for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, also talked about veterans’ mixed reactions to the money. The conflicting opinions and emotions, he said, sprang up because veterans have waited so long—about 63 years—and have grown frustrated because the funds came with such a fight. Still, recipients have to admit that the payment comes at a critical time, when the economy is in crisis and many veterans are hurting financially.

Melegrito said the national federation considers the legislation as a win, even though it took years to implement.

“To us, it’s a significant step towards the struggle for full equity,” he said. “Civil rights like this are not won overnight.”

Melegrito also said the association was disappointed, mostly in the fact that the funds were bandied about for years while Congress fought.

“We hoped it would be a bipartisan decision, but the record shows it’s been the Democratic Party carrying the water for this bill for the last 15 years with very little Republican support,” Melegrito said. “It’s been an uphill struggle in Congress trying to get something.”

Despite the long, rough, and often painful fight, many veterans consider their forthcoming compensation to be their long-awaited recognition as soldiers.

“It’s about the honor of being recognized once and for all, because that was taken from them: the honor of being recognized as U.S. veterans,” Melegrito said.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was the leading force behind getting the measure included in the stimulus package. He met with resistance, most infamously from former presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who’s been quoted as questioning the legislation’s inclusion because it doesn’t stimulate the economy or create jobs.

On Feb. 5, Sen. Inouye addressed the floor, saying he agreed with McCain’s objection but that the measure was nonetheless an important one.

“This is not a stimulus proposal,” he conceded. “It does not create jobs. But the honor of the United States is what is involved. It is about time we close this dark chapter. ... I hope my colleagues will join me in finally recognizing that these men served us well. They died for us. They got wounded for us. And they deserve recognition.”

The legislation authorizes the release of $198 million for payments to eligible Filipino World War II veterans.

click to enlarge THE ‘GODFATHER’ :  Isidro ‘Sonny’ Javier, known to his friends as ‘The Godfather,’ is the last known surviving Filipino  veteran of World War II in SLO County. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • THE ‘GODFATHER’ : Isidro ‘Sonny’ Javier, known to his friends as ‘The Godfather,’ is the last known surviving Filipino veteran of World War II in SLO County.
The ‘Godfather’

Not all Filipinos were exploited for their service. Some, like Isidro “Sonny” Javier, were lucky in a way.

Javier is 95 years old now; he’ll be 96 in May. At the onset of World War II he was drafted into the Navy to serve on an aircraft carrier that patrolled between the Philippines and the China Sea. Javier said he didn’t want to go to war. He said he wasn’t scared, but he would have rather stayed on his farm in Compton. Regardless, he was given U.S. citizenship, was drafted, and was sent to war.

“So I said ‘OK, I go. It makes no difference.’”

Had Javier volunteered with hopes of citizenship or been in the Philippines at the time, like Reyes, he probably would have been denied compensation and cast aside as less worthy than his American comrades. His situation, however, was very different. Javier collected a monthly payment for his service, he said, and received some benefits for his service after his four-year term was over. He does not, however, qualify for the stimulus compensation.

Javier recalled his soldiering days almost lackadaisically. He didn’t seem to feel particularly ostracized for being a Filipino soldier and did not realize other Filipinos were denied benefits. As he recalled the war it was clear that during his four years he just wanted to get back home to his farm.

His face is leathery and worn. A frail man, Javier’s skin appears delicate as if his slender hands are wrapped in nothing more than tissue paper. There are moments when he springs to life and a spry spirit shines through his intense blue eyes. Maybe it’s why his friends call him “The Godfather.”

Javier is admired in the Central Coast Filipino community as a pioneer, the historical society’s Marquez said. As far as anyone knows, Javier is the last surviving Filipino World War II veteran in SLO County. Any other veterans in SLO County have either left or died.

Javier is still here, though, and he still remembers the war. He remembers being in the belly of his ship as Japanese suicide pilots tried to bring it down. He spoke of that day in a carefree tone. The ship was well protected, he said, so he wasn’t scared.

He didn’t seem to have any desire to talk about the war at length; he was proud of his service but spoke of it as nothing more than a period in his long life. The story that really got Javier excited and brought his small 95-year-old frame out of the chair was about the day he caught 12 tons of fish in Pismo Beach—after the war.

click to enlarge VIEW OF THE PAST :  Ben Reyes joined the guerilla army in the Philippines, in 1944. He served as a medic until 1949. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • VIEW OF THE PAST : Ben Reyes joined the guerilla army in the Philippines, in 1944. He served as a medic until 1949.
Always a U.S. veteran

Shortly after the Japanese surrender, Congress seemed to make good on its promise to Filipino soldiers, enacting the Armed Forces Voluntary Recruitment Act of 1945, which authorized guerrilla fighters to receive pay and allowances for services performed in the Philippine Islands, Japan, and elsewhere in the Far East. They were to be considered members of the regular army and therefore entitled to veterans’ benefits.

Then, through two follow-up acts the next year, Congress took most of the promised rights and payments away.

In Reyes’ eyes, he’s always been a U.S. veteran. Just like any other soldier, he dutifully carried out his orders, sometimes through waves of fear—like the time he heard a comrade call for a medic in the middle of a firefight. That was his cue. But he was scared to go.

“The platoon sergeant came to my foxhole and said, ‘Didn’t you hear someone call medic?’ I said, ‘Yes, but I can’t go.’ He said, ‘Come follow me,’ and we crawled out,” Reyes remembered. “When we got there, I saw it was just a little scrape on his shoulder, and I said, ‘Do you see what you did? You put our lives in danger for a little scrape on your shoulder.’ And my platoon sergeant said, ‘Well, that’s your duty.’”

Like any other veteran, Reyes also carries unshakable memories of his service, such as the time he was in another firefight. He was lying face up on the ground and remembers being able to see the branches in the trees hit by bullets. He said his comrade convinced him to get up and follow. They dived into a hole.

“You know what it was? It was the latrine of the Japanese soldiers,” Reyes said, and slapped his knee and laughed at the memory.

They got away from the gunfire, but Reyes and his buddy were in up to their knees. Because their water ration was limited, they couldn’t rinse off.

“I tell the story all the time,” he said. “It’s funny now, but it was not that funny at the time.”

Still fighting

The fight for honor and recognition may technically be over for Filipino veterans, but in many ways it will continue. Melegrito said there have been other wins—such as burial benefits and SSI—but there are still benefits to recoup. Widows, he said, don’t get any entitlement from the legislation. He said the National Federation of Filipino American Associations will also seek to support fast-tracking the immigration of sons and daughters of veterans in the Philippines.

Congress has tried in the past to cut red tape and help veterans by amending the Nationality Act of 1940, which allowed Filipino veterans the privilege of becoming U.S. citizens. That’s how Reyes came to the United States. As soon as he was able, he and his son came in. A year later, his wife and seven other children followed.

The Nationality Act expired at the end of 1946. In 1990, certain Filipino veterans who served during World War II became eligible for U.S. citizenship, though that opportunity didn’t confer any veterans’ benefits.

  And there are still loose ends to tie up with the recently approved compensation. Melegrito said the association hopes the claim process goes smoothly and quickly—for the benefit of the soldiers who put their lives on the line for this country so many years ago. They are, after all, running out of time.

Shelly Cone is arts editor at the Santa Maria Sun, New Times’ sister paper. Contact her at scone@santamariasun.com.  New Times staff writer Colin Rigley contributed to this article. He can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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