More than 260,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, including 300 from Hawaii, answered President Franklin Roosevelt’s call to liberate the Philippines 74 years ago, but unlike the nisei soldiers or the African-American Tuskegee Airmen, many feel they have not received adequate recognition for their wartime efforts.
Most of the survivors are in their 90s and supporters continue to fight for U.S. fulfillment of promised pensions and health benefits. Now, there is hope that Congress within the coming year will offer some recognition of their deeds with passage of legislation making them eligible for the Congressional Gold Medal.
Lucio Sanico, 90, of Honolulu, served with the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment after he was drafted.
“Nobody knows about us,” said Sanico, who also served with the 25th Infantry Division in the Korean War. “I am not a hero. I was just doing my job.”
Retired Army Col. Ben Acohido, who is part of a national effort to complete a census determining the exact number of surviving Filipino veterans, estimates that little more than a dozen are still living in Hawaii.
“The medal would bring dignity and honor to World War II veterans who served under U.S. military command in the Philippines — a U.S. possession at the time,” said retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who is spearheading the national recognition effort.
Taguba, a 1968 Leilehua High School graduate, leads the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FILVETSREP) — a national, nonpartisan group with regional directors in 50 states and four territories. Acohido, a Vietnam War veteran, is one of the organization’s 11 regional coordinators whose jurisdiction includes Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa.
“It’s their turn,” said Taguba, the second Filipino-American general in the U.S. Army, whose father, Tomas, survived the 65-mile Bataan Death March in 1942, retired as a sergeant first class in 1962, and lived in Hawaii until his death.
Taguba said Congress has already recognized the wartime contributions of other minority military units with eligibility for the medal beginning with Tuskegee Airmen in 2006; Navajo Code Talkers in 2008; Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII (WASP) in 2009; the Japanese-American soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service in 2010; the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African Americans to serve in the Marine Corps, in 2011; and the 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the Borinqueneers, in 2014 — the only Hispanic, segregated military unit in the Korean War whose soldiers were predominately from Puerto Rico.
Domingo Los Banos, 89, of Honolulu said he is “pleased” by the efforts of former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation to continue work started by the late Sen. Daniel Inouye and retired Sen. Daniel Akaka.
“One of our big jobs is to find where the guys are buried,” said Los Banos, who was one of the youngest members of the 1st Filipino Regiment — cutting short his studies at the University of Hawaii to enlist in the Army in 1942 to join his twin brothers, Alfred and Bernard, who had been drafted.
Among the 300 Filipino-Americans in the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiment were former Chief Justice William Richardson, International Longshore and Warehouse Union leader Tony Rania, state Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Menor and state Reps. Emilio Alcon and Peter Aduja. Los Banos said since each is deceased, their family members would be eligible to receive the medal.
Jose Saromines, 91, of Honolulu said, “It would be good to get recognition for the boys.”
Saromines, who was born on Maui, recalls being drafted just after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 while he was still attending Farrington High School. He served for 18 months in the Philippines with the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment.
The “Congressional Medal for Filipino World War II Soldiers” is a part of a campaign to restore military benefits to those who volunteered from the Philippines, Hawaii and the mainland to serve in World War II under a promise of U.S. citizenship. However, in 1946 Congress stripped the Filipino veterans of the promised medical and pension benefits.
With efforts from Inouye and Akaka, the Immigration Act of 1990 included a provision that offered those affected the opportunity to obtain U.S. citizenship. Nineteen years later the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included a provision that authorized the payment of benefits to the 30,000 surviving Filipino veterans in the amount of $15,000 for those who are citizens and $9,000 for those who are noncitizens.
Hawaii’s congressional delegation continues efforts on behalf of the veterans to eliminate the distinction between the regular or “Old” Philippine Scouts and the other three groups of veterans — Commonwealth Army of the Philippines, Recognized Guerrilla Forces and New Philippine Scouts. Widows and children of Filipino veterans would be eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation just like any other veteran.