To Help Heal an Unhappy History, Congress Awards Medal to Filipino World War II Vets

2 min
Ramon Regalado, 100, of Berkeley, served in the U.S. Army during the defense of Bataan in 1941-42, escaped his Japanese captors after the allied surrender and joined Filipino guerrillas who resisted Japan's occupation of their homeland. Regalado is one among thousands of surviving Filipino veterans who are being awarded the Congressional Gold Star in recognition of their wartime service.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The words don’t come easy for Ramon Regalado.

He’s 100, and frail, and for now the longtime Berkeley resident is living at an El Cerrito convalescent home.

But he says, “I am so happy.”

What he's joyful about is a ceremony Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to honor Filipinos who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II.

Leaders of the House and Senate will award a Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow -- in long-delayed recognition of the Filipinos' role in resisting the Japanese invasion of their islands in 1941 and in helping the United States defeat Japan. The text of the bill approving the medal cites the veterans' "bravery, valor and dedication."

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Regalado is one of those vets, having been part of the Philippines armed forces that merged with the U.S. Army just months before Japan attacked.

"They train us to fight hard and be ferocious when the Japanese come," Regalado says.

A machine-gunner and mortarman, he put that training to use in one of the most harrowing of all World War II campaigns, the defense of the Bataan Peninsula west of Manila.

About 66,000 Filipino troops alongside a 12,000-strong U.S. force fought Japanese troops to a standstill in a long series of bloody engagements at the end of 1941 and start of 1942. Beyond help -- the U.S. didn't have the capacity to send reinforcements or supplies -- Regalado and his comrades endured half-rations, then quarter-rations, as they resisted the invaders for four full months.

When American commanders surrendered in April 1942, the Japanese forced survivors of the campaign on a long trek into captivity that immediately became notorious as the Bataan Death March. Several hundred Americans and as many as 10,000 Filipinos died along the way -- and many more perished later as prisoners of war.

Regalado, starving and suffering from malaria, beriberi and dysentery “all mixed up," escaped the march. Saved by a fisherman, he joined guerrilla forces until Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- the U.S. commander who had evacuated during the fighting -- came back to reconquer the islands.

“I did not go home until General MacArthur came back to the Philippines, to liberate the Philippines,” Regalado says. “I fought hard.”

Ramon Regalado served as a machine-gunner and mortarman during the defense of the Bataan Peninsula from Japanese invaders in 1941-42. He said air-cooled .50-caliber machine guns were an improvement over earlier models, though he still burned his hands after firing. Another firearm was his favorite. "The best weapon I like was the Browning automatic rifle. I could wipe out a platoon of Japanese if I hold that, easy." (Dan Brekke/KQED)

An Uneasy History

The Congressional Gold Medal being awarded Wednesday is the latest gesture from a federal government that has long had an uneasy relationship with the Filipino veterans and their service.

In 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II and just as the Philippines were about to gain their independence from the United States, President Harry Truman had occasion to recall the service of the roughly 250,000 Filipinos who had served with U.S. forces.

"The record of the Philippine soldiers for bravery and loyalty is second to none," Truman wrote in a message to Congress. "Their assignment was as bloody and difficult as any in which our American soldiers engaged. Under desperate circumstances they acquitted themselves nobly."

The context for Truman's words was ironic: He was helping finalize a policy that stripped Filipino service members -- who, as citizens of a U.S. commonwealth were American nationals -- of most of the veterans benefits his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had promised them.

Truman conceded that the minimal benefits that remained -- mainly medical treatment and pensions for vets disabled during the war -- was not enough to cure “the current discrimination against the Philippines veterans.” But he insisted that even the reduced level of aid “will clearly indicate to the Filipinos that it is the purpose of the United States Government to do justice to their veterans.”

It wasn’t until 2009, though, that Congress and the Obama administration approved “equity pay” for surviving Filipino veterans. Under the program, veterans living who can prove their service can get $15,000 lump-sum payments (for vets living in the Philippines, the amount is $9,000).

The program has been the subject of widespread complaints, though, since many of the former Filipino service members lack the paperwork to secure the one-time payments.

Cecilia Gaerlan heads the Berkeley-based Bataan Legacy Historical Society. Visiting Ramon Regalado, she says her father was a Bataan Death March survivor and that she had no idea of what he had endured until long after the war.

"My father, he was a comedian, so the way he related the stories was actually funny," Gaerlan said. "... I think that's the typical reaction. Most of these soldiers, they never told their families the pain and the sacrifice they went through."

Gaerlan says the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony today is just a small step in shedding light on this past.

She says education is the key to gaining wider public awareness of Filipinos' sacrifices during the war. To promote that, the Bataan Legacy Historical Society has developed a curriculum on the war in the Philippines that was recently approved for use in California high school history courses.

Because of California's influence in the textbook market, Gaerlan says, it's likely that material will wind up in high schools nationwide.

"So it's just a matter of time before the rest of the country will learn about World War II in the Philippines," she says.

Cecilia Gaerlan of Berkeley heads the Bataan Legacy Historical Society, a group that is working for wider public awareness of the sacrifices the Filipino fighting men and civilians made during Japan's occupation of their homeland during World War II. Here, she's talking with Ramon Regalado, also of Berkeley, a 100-year-old veteran who was among the defenders of Bataan. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

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