By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
Four-hundred-fifty people filled the Renton Pavilion on Saturday, May 13 for a fundraiser with a $25,000 goal to buy replicas of Congressional Gold Medals for the Filipino Veterans (FilVet) of World War II. These men remain unrecognized for their wartime military service 75 years ago. Their service included guerilla warfare and enduring the brutal Bataan Death March in the Philippines after the Japanese attacked in 1941.
The Renton event also commemorated Asian Pacific Islander Month, Memorial Day, the 75th Anniversary of the Bataan Death March, and the passage of S1555 — the bill that after 75 years, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to WWII FilVets.
The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP)’s goal is to distribute replicas of the civilian medals to WWII FilVets or their surviving family members. Time is running out for these veterans. The youngest of the estimated 16,000 – 18,000 veterans still alive are in their 90s. There were only about five or six veterans in the elegantly decorated hall on Saturday.
Joe Taton, Sr., at 101 years of age, sat in his wheelchair, blind, surrounded by his family, and grinned happily while daughters Desirae and Elizabeth, and grandson Solomon lovingly talked about Taton’s positive attitude despite being ignored for his military service.
Taton served in the United States Army as a Staff Sergeant, is a Korean War veteran, and survived the Bataan Death March and being held prisoner of a war camp. His daughter Desirae said Taton never really talked about the details of his wartime experience. Taton only mentioned being poked and prodded by his captors’ bayonets because of recurring nightmares. Desirae was angry when she heard about Taton’s treatment. “How can another human being be so cruel? Even animals have rights.”
In December 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The Act provided a one-time payment of $15,000 to FilVets living in the United States and $9,000 to others living outside of the United States. In a sad twist of fate, Taton failed to qualify for compensation because he was wanted by the Japanese and served under an alias.
Taton’s family said the FilVets never got the recognition, honor, and respect they deserve. Taton’s grandson Solomon said that despite surviving the horrors of the Bataan Death March, Taton still speaks of nothing but peace, putting family first, and doesn’t believe in anyone saying, “I can’t.” He reminds his family that if you don’t try, how would you know you can’t?
Ret. Brigadier General Oscar Hilman is the Director of Region 8, which sponsored the fundraiser and includes Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Idaho. Hilman served 35 years in the U.S. Army and acknowledged there had been a lack of leadership in the FilVet community, which contributed to the length of time getting FilVets the honor and recognition they deserve. The tragedy is FilVet survivors are dying. Two passed away this month, and the number of survivors gets smaller every year.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they attacked the Philippines on Dec. 8.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed General Douglas MacArthur to draft Filipino men and to build an army, explained Hilman. Roosevelt signed a 1941 Executive Order incorporating the Philippine Commonwealth Army into the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). Roosevelt’s order promised U.S. citizenship and full U.S. veterans’ benefits, enticing 100,000 Filipinos to enlist, and they were sworn in as members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
But the infamous Rescission Act of 1946 stripped the FilVets of all promises, which saved the U.S. government about $3 billion. President Harry Truman balked at first and vetoed the bill. But Congress persisted, and Truman ultimately signed a second nearly identical bill breaking every promise made to FilVets.
Lourdes Alvarado-Ramos, Washington State Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, thinks compensation to the FilVets is taking so long because people view the veterans as foreigners. “We have to put this skunk on the table. Racial bias existed in the past and continues today.” When asked about the difficulties of getting recognition under the new administration, Alvarado-Ramos responded with hearty laughter.
Ret. U.S. Army Major General Antonio Taguba, National Chair of the FilVetREP, said the Congressional Gold Medal is “a solace of sorts — a consolation,” after the torment FilVets have experienced. As far as the one-time $15,000 payment to FilVets in the United States, it doesn’t even cover the cost of a typical burial. “If you do the math, it works out to 62 cents a day.” There are still about 4,000 FilVets appealing the denial of payments. Taguba said perhaps the last act of Congress would be to publicly recognize the contributions of the FilVets and apologize for its broken promises.
It’s personal for Taguba. His father was a FilVet who survived the Bataan Death March and died in 2011. Many FilVets continue to be denied payment because they lack proof of service due to aliases they had to use during the war. Some were granted U.S. citizenship because they had adequate documents proving their military service — yet those same documents were not enough to receive benefits from Veterans Affairs.
Taguba said the story about a 1973 fire in St. Louis destroying military service records is a myth. “None of those records were destroyed.” Taguba is stoic, but his compassion is unmistakable when he said the entire burden of proof falls on the shoulders of 90- and 100-year-old FilVets. Many are on their third round of appeals and will die before they see any benefits.
Taguba personally helped a FilVet from San Francisco about five years ago. Taguba found and provided the name of the FilVet’s commander, two witnesses, the name of the unit he served under, and the area of service. But the records misspelled the FilVet’s name — it was off by two letters. The veteran is appealing for a third time, but Taguba said he wouldn’t win because the witnesses have since died. And tragically, so will the FilVet because he’s close to 100 years old.
Taguba gave the first check to a FilVet who was 101 years old. But the amount is so insignificant and is nearly meaningless. “It’s the piece of paper — the record of recognition of their service to the country and righting a wrong” of broken promises that these veterans seek.
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.