Ceremony gives rise to reflections from veteran’s daughter

By:  Stephanie Castillo
On Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, I witnessed with hundreds of others a moment in American history that righted a long overdue wrong. Filipino veterans from World War II, the living and the dead, were finally recognized and thanked for their courageous service to our nation during the years of 1941 to 1946. It took 75 years, the congressional leaders who spoke acknowledged, as they awarded the highest honor given to civilians — the Congressional Gold Medal.

While triumphant, this moment brought waves of sadness in me. Righting wrongs often does this — two sides of even a gold medal can be a poignant reflection of loss and gain. And that’s where my mind went as speaker after speaker heralded what America gained by having Filipinos fight side by side with our U.S. forces as their commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, led the retaking of the Philippines from Japanese occupiers. Some spoke of the solid contributions Filipinos and their families have made as citizens of and immigrants to America, going way back to a time at the turn of the 20th century when the Philippines became a U.S. commonwealth and Filipinos entered our country as nationals.

Having helped make four TV documentaries about Filipinos and America and the tumultuous and sometimes tragic times they had to face and endure as they sought to make America their own, I felt that a day like Wednesday, with bright sunlight streaming into Emancipation Hall, seemed unreal.

No kidding, joy filled the air and the room reeked with meaningful excitement as Filipino and other veterans in crisped uniforms and Filipino families of vets now gone made memories with selfies and iPad recordings. It is not often that such a horde of Filipinos gathers and reminds the world that we are around and are important and do important things. The last time for me was at the Smithsonian in 2006 when one of our documentaries was unveiled to commemorate 100 years of Filipino immigration.

The ceremony was impressive, the military and congressional protocol impeccable. The leaders of Congress turned out in full — House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — as well as our own Hawaii champs, Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who had pushed this Congressional Gold Medal bill all the way to the goal line. “Get it done” was Hirono’s mission in the Senate and her charge to Gabbard in the House. The event seemed perfect. Why, then, did my heart seem heavy?

Most of the living Filipino vets in attendance were in their 80s and 90s. The vet who stood at the podium on behalf of all of his fellow soldiers, a quarter-million of them, dead and alive, was 100 years old. Celestino Almeda wondered why this award had taken so long. “So many have passed away,” he said.

His remarks made me think of my father, Wallace W. Castillo of Kauai, son of a Philippine immigrant, who died at age 61 in 1971. He was not here. Nor was my uncle Primo Manandic, and my stepfather Hank Caminos, and others from their all-Filipino U.S. Army regiments. And missing Wednesday also was my filmmaking partner Sonny Izon’s father, Esmeraldo, who served as a guerrilla in the Philippines. All had a hand in helping MacArthur return and liberate the islands.

The moment that lifted me, though, was when Hirono thanked Domingo Los Banos, who is one of the last remaining living Filipino veterans in Hawaii, a son of Filipino immigrants, who went to war with 300 other Hawaii teenage recruits and did mop-up details for MacArthur in Leyte and Samar.

Domingo was unable to travel here from Hawaii, but he was remembered by so many Wednesday who say they owe him so much for keeping their history, their legacy, alive. Domingo authored a picture book to hold their wartime memories and helped Sonny Izon and I produce the documentary we made together that went to PBS and showed for four years in prime time on Memorial Day starting in 2005. “An Untold Triumph: The Story of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments, U.S. Army” remains the only seminal telling of the history of these Filipino vets.

I got goosebumps when they played our national anthem back to back with the Philippine anthem. It reminded me in that moment that I am of two nations whose close ties produced me and our family when my dad Wally met and married his war bride in Manila and brought her home to start our family in Hawaii.

Yes, waves of reflections from Wednesday will stay ever-present, I am sure, as I share with others what the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony meant to me.