Last Saturday, April 7, over two dozen surviving Filipino World War II veterans and the next of kin of those who had passed away gathered at the Golden Gate Club in the grounds of the historic Presidio in San Francisco to be given recognition and conferred honors that had been denied to them for over seven decades.
Each surviving veteran and close kin received a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award within the power of the United States government to give its most illustrious citizens and those non-citizens who had rendered outstanding service to America.
My wife, Gigi, and her sister, Lourdes Uy, received the replica on behalf of their father, the late Jose Sambajon Nobleza, who had fought as a guerrilla captain in Albay during the Japanese occupation.
They were the second batch of honorees to receive the replicas, the first batch having been honored in solemn ceremonies in October last year in Washington DC.
The original gold medal will be on permanent display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
The conferment was the result of intensive lobbying with the US Congress by aging veterans, veterans advocates, and the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetsREP), a volunteer group led by US Army Major Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret.) specifically organized for the purpose of gaining the coveted recognition.
The fact of giving the old soldiers, personally or posthumously, an honor long overdue was heart-warming enough, but what made my hair stand on end was when the military band played the service song, a medley of songs of the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force and the Army, and the sight of the uniformed military personnel present at the event who stood at attention.
And when the program was concluded with a bugler playing Taps, the final salute for fallen men-at-arms, I actually felt a tear falling down my cheek.
Most of the veterans were too old and too weak to stand at attention, although they did sit up straight, chests out, in their seats and wheelchairs. I rose to my feet and stood at attention, too, although I knew that I was just an onlooker and a beneficiary of the heroism of the old soldiers and the prospective sacrifices of the uniformed men and women in the room.
It is during rare moments like that when one is confronted by the stark and brutal realization that the young uniformed men and women standing at attention were listening to a bugle call that would be played for some or for all of them over their graves; the humbling realization that the old soldiers who had hobbled or were wheeled into the ceremonial hall were survivors from Hell, an inferno that many of us have been spared and may already be taking for granted.
In a message sent by US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, he pointed out that the first recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal was George Washington. It was conferred on him in 1776 by the Second Continental Congress.
“Since then,” Gen. Milley continued, “only 160 individuals, groups and organizations have been deemed worthy enough of this prestigious award by Congress. The Congressional Gold Medal, enacted into law and signed by president Obama in December 2016 has been awarded to the more than 260,000 Filipino soldiers who fought under the red, white and blue of the United States flag during World War II. This medal is a symbol of the unwavering loyalty and dedication to the defense of a nation in the face of daunting odds.”
In fact, this Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino soldiers is also a symbol of the unwavering quest for honor and recognition — indeed, a quest for justice — denied them after the war with the passage of the Rescission Act of 1946. That ignominious act of the US Congress discriminated against the Filipino fighting men and rendered meaningless their wartime services.
It is also a symbol of the continuing efforts of veterans advocates, among them FilVetsREP, the Bataan Legacy Historical Society, the Veterans Equity Center, and many other selfless volunteers, working for no pay and no recognition, to honor those who were willing to offer their lives in defense of the country.
Among their current objectives is the inclusion of the role played by the Filipino soldiers in World War II in the US school curriculum. This is about to succeed in California. But the ultimate goal is to include this story of courage and heroism in the curriculum of every state in America
I once described as The Second Death March the uphill struggle to gain “veterans equity” — meaning, veterans benefits — for Filipino War II veterans.
Last Saturday, as I witnessed the modest ceremony of handing over medal replicas, I realized that the Second Death March is still being endured — but the injustice is being perpetrated, not just by the government of the United States (which has, at least, allocated cash benefits for veterans and approved the Congressional Gold Medal) but by many of us who have benefited from the sacrifices of the old soldiers but have not expressed our gratitude.
It is an injustice of omission rather than commission.
Toward the conclusion of the awarding ceremony, envelopes were passed around and an appeal was made by the organizers of the event for financial support for the efforts of the Bataan Legacy Historical Society and FilVetsREP to pursue their self-imposed mission.
The initial funding for the first batch of bronze medal replicas is about to be exhausted. Thousands more veterans and their next of kin need to be given their medal replicas, with each one costs $52. The US Congress only allocated funds for the minting of the original gold medal. The replicas have to be paid for from private community contributions.
Additionally, expenses need to be defrayed for creating the lesson plans that would include the story of Filipino soldiers in the school curriculum.
Raising the money has not been easy. It really takes being in a room where Taps, the final bugle call, is being played and uniformed men and women are standing at attention for one to realize the a contribution of $52 isn’t much compared to the sacrifice that our soldiers have made and must make for the country.
One line in the epic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” comes to mind: “Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die.”
And to those to whom I am directing this appeal, allow me to add: “Ours is not to do and die. But ours is to, at least, appreciate the sacrifices of those who do.”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.