Bill recognizes efforts of Filipinos in WW II

By:  Ivy Ashe

A federal bipartisan effort led by Hawaii legislators to recognize Filipino veterans of World War II for their service unanimously passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday and now awaits a presidential signature.

The bill will award the Congressional Gold Medal to thousands of veterans who fought under U.S. command but were not American citizens. The medal is the highest honor a civilian can receive.

Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard sponsored the bill in their respective legislative chambers.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer,” Gabbard said in a release, calling the bill’s passage a “historic step forward.”

“These veterans really deserve all of the recognition they can get,” Hirono told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday. “It’s taken this long for our country to recognize their service.”

Hirono first introduced the measure to the Senate in June 2015, but recognition of the veteran group is 72 years in the making.

Between 1934 and 1946, the United States had sovereignty over the Philippines foreign policy, and Filipinos could be called to serve in American armed forces.

This scenario began to play out in July 1941, months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the United States Forces in the Far East was created, with its headquarters in Manila. The Philippine army was brought into the USAFFE in phases.

Different groups of Filipinos served in the USAFFE, including the Philippine Commonwealth Army, Philippine Scouts serving in the U.S. Army garrison station at the start of the war, and civilians who volunteered to serve with the U.S. Army.

Of the more than 78,000 U.S. Armed Forces members captured when the Japanese army took the Bataan peninsula, 66,000 were Filipino.

Filipino guerrilla units also fought against Japanese occupiers between 1942 and 1944, providing intelligence to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

The bill, S.1555, states that Filipinos fighting under the USAFFE “were not only defending or fighting for the Philippines, but also defending, and ultimately liberating, sovereign territory held by the United States Government.”

The military order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in July 1941 gave Filipinos in the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines and the Philippine Scouts full veteran benefits.

That was reversed by the Rescission Act of 1946, signed by President Harry Truman, leaving more than 260,000 without the benefits that were promised.

A compensation fund for the surviving veterans was not created until 2009. There are more than 18,000 Filipino veterans still alive today.

Hirono attended a Filipino Independence Day event this June and said that prompted her to push for the bill to move forward as soon as possible.

“I went to that event in D.C. and said, ‘We need to get it done this year,” Hirono said. “I told the crowd that I’m on a mission to get it done and get it out of the Senate.”

The bill cleared the Senate unanimously a month later.

“I think it was a long time coming, and I’m glad my colleagues decided this should not be the subject of any kind of protracted debate,” Hirono said.

“It’s (about) being recognized for that service and remembered for the sacrifice,” said Yukio Okutso State Veterans Home administrator David Pettijohn. Recognition offers something positive to stand alongside wartime memories of tragedy and the loss of friends.

It’s something Ramon Abong, 92, who was born on Hawaii Island, knows well. Although he was an American citizen when World War II broke out, and thus received his benefits after serving in the U.S. Army in the former Czechoslovakia, his memories of those months are of troopers running “all over the place” and the extraordinary stress of taking care of his 12-man unit.

By contrast, Abong said when he returned home and eventually received the Asiatic Pacific Service Medal and the World War II Victory Medal, it was “a high feeling to get recognized.”

“That was the great generation,” Pettijohn said. “They basically changed history.”

Awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the overlooked Filipino veteran group, though symbolic, is “the right thing to do,” he said.

Hirono said she sat in on Wednesday’s House vote and noticed younger generations in attendance, as well as the veterans themselves.

“It was really great to see this cross-section,” she said.

Original co-sponsors of S. 1555 included Hawaii’s Sen. Brian Schatz and the late Rep. Mark Takai; Nevada Sens. Harry Reid (D) and Dean Heller (R); Nevada Rep. Joe Heck (R); Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D); and California Reps. Juan Vargas (D) Jackie Speier (D) and Mike Thompson (D).