Fdr's Forgotten Promise To Filipino War Veterans
Times Editorial Columnist
The clamor over welfare benefits for sick and elderly immigrants has overshadowed a wartime promise made by the U.S. government to thousands of able-bodied foreign soldiers. Lay your lives on the line for American ideals, the men were told, and we will make you Americans. The brown-skinned foreigners who took up arms for freedom and democracy are now aging, disabled, or dead. The promise has yet to be fulfilled.
This is not a story meant to endorse the something-for-nothing entitlement state that too many "immigrant advocates" advocate. It is just the opposite - a timely history lesson about the lost values of honor, sacrifice and patriotism.
More than a half-century ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped soldiers from the Philippines to fight against Japan in World War II. The Japanese had attacked the Pacific island nation, then a U.S. territory, on Dec. 8, 1941. In return for their courage and loyalty, Roosevelt pledged that Filipinos who fought for the U.S. would be granted American citizenship and veterans benefits.
Over 100,000 Filipino soldiers served the U.S. faithfully throughout the Japanese occupation. On April 9, 1942, some 76,000 Filipino and American soldiers surrendered to Japanese troops at Bataan, located on the Philippine island of Luzon. For the next 10 days, in blazing heat, they were forced to march 65 miles through the jungles and on to concentration camps at Cabanatuan.
Last weekend marked the 55th anniversary of the end of that gruesome journey - the Bataan Death March.
Along the way, Japanese soldiers tortured their bound white and brown captives mercilessly. The atrocities ranged from cigarette burns to water and food deprivation, bayonet stabbings, fatal beatings, and decapitation with samurai swords.
A lucky few escaped; many survived, including my grandfather, Nazario E. Perez, a colonel in the 3rd Battalion of the Philippine Commonwealth Army. Almost 54,000 of the marchers made it to camp, but more than half (25,000 Filipinos and 2,500 Americans) succumbed behind barbed wire to disease and starvation. When the war finally ended, more than 1.1 million Filipinos - soldiers and civilians alike - had sacrificed their lives for the U.S.
FDR's pledge died with them. Although a small number of Special Philippine Scouts were naturalized immediately after the war, Congress passed a rider to the 1946 Rescission Act stripping all regular Filipino army soldiers of their rights and privileges as U.S. veterans. President Harry Truman signed the bill into law. It declared that the Filipinos' military service had not been "active" as defined for the purpose of receiving full veterans benefits. Yet, all other European allied soldiers who served similarly under the U.S. flag were granted full veteran status and attendant benefits.
How tens of thousands of Filipinos who shot, shelled, spied, marched, starved, prayed and died for America came to be viewed as "passive" participants in the war, my grandfather could never comprehend.
When I was 8, he traveled to the country he fought for to see the Statue of Liberty. He wept. In my eyes, Lolo 'Zario was an American patriot. In the eyes of the U.S. government, he was indistinguishable from any other camera-toting foreign traveler. He visited a few times over the years and passed away in 1989. Just one year later, Congress partially righted its historic wrong by granting overdue U.S. citizenship rights to Filipino World War II vets.
Last fall, President Clinton signed a proclamation designating Oct. 20 a day to honor Filipino veterans for their valor. But a pat on the head from a man who protested the U.S. on foreign soil during another war is hardly fulfillment of the promise FDR made 55 years ago. Bipartisan efforts to provide equity in military benefits for the aging Filipino vets have failed year after year, even as states (including Washington) and the feds move to preserve welfare benefits for other immigrants.
Retired U.S. Army Major Urbano Quijance, president of the Bataan Corregidor Survivors Association in Seattle, member of the Philippine Scouts, and a Bataan Death March survivor, says he understands that Congress needs to "economize." But a promise is a promise. Keeping it will be expensive, he acknowledges. But those who defended democratic ideals in the Philippines paid a high price, too - in lost limbs, innocence, and life.
"This is not a giveaway," says Maj. Quijance. "This is something earned."
Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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