Filipinos fight to be recognized as U.S. vets

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Jose Ginito is a Filipino American veteran of World War II. They lived in the Philippines, but they were members of the U.S. armed forces. More than 200,000 of them fought during World War II. Tens of thousands died before the final hard-won triumph over Japan. TYSON TRISH / THE RECORD

By ELIZABETH LLORENTE – But in the decades following the war, the title of U.S. veteran — and resulting compensation — has eluded them. Now, Filipino-American World War II veterans, aided by their adult children, have stepped up a decades-long fight to get Congress to recognize them as bona fide U.S. veterans – a move that would qualify them for VA benefits.

“Our community has been lobbying for this bill for more than 40 years,” said Ludivina Hughes, a Fair Lawn resident whose late father fought in World War II. “These men fought in this war, they fought side by side with Americans. Many of us fighting for them to be acknowledged are the sons and daughters of these veterans. We want the recognition that they deserve.”

Some North Jersey towns have large concentrations of Filipinos. Bergenfield was home to 3,133 people of Filipino ancestry in the 2000 census; New Milford had more than 1,000 residents reporting Filipino roots, and Dumont, Hackensack and Teaneck each reported more than 800. Jersey City, however, dwarfed them all, with nearly 16,000 residents of Filipino descent.

Proponents have met with the staffs of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby and held forums to discuss the struggle for recognition. And the veterans and their families – who number in the dozens in New Jersey, and about 6,000 nationwide — say victory has seldom seemed as close as it does now.

After similar so-called equity bills have died in congressional committees over the years, this summer committees in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives approved measures that acknowledge the Filipinos’ wartime service and declare them eligible for full benefits. At the same time, Congress raised the budget for veterans’ health care by billions of dollars.

And it has all come as the growing Filipino-American community has grown more vocal. They plan to lobby more assertively this fall, when the bill may come up for votes in both houses of Congress.

“It’s a matter of honor, our dignity,” said Fred Diaz, a 90-year-old veteran in Jersey City who heads a Filipino veterans group. “I fought with the Americans, I stood up to the Japanese. The American soldiers and the Filipinos were all one; we did not treat each other as separate units.”

Diaz, a prim, diminutive man with an easy smile, beams with pride when he speaks about his service.

One of his prized possessions is a tattered folder that holds documents – including the yellow-brown notice he received telling him he was drafted — related to his wartime service and the struggle to regain U.S. veteran status. He always dons a uniform when he lobbies or takes part in demonstrations. He nearly always wears a Navy blue baseball cap that says “World War II veteran” in gold letters. A U.S.-born World War II veteran gave it to him, he said.

Now, he gets slightly more than $600 a month in Social Security benefits. If the bill passes, he said, his monthly income could rise to nearly $1,000. Moreover, Filipino veterans living in the United States could move back to their native homeland and still receive their full military pension – something not allowed now.

Another veteran from Jersey City — 85-year-old Jose Genito — proudly speaks of his efforts during the war to shield a wounded commander from further attack by the Japanese.

“I ran out into the open field and tried to cover him, and I got hit by shrapnel,” he said, recounting the story behind the leg wounds that earned him a Bronze Star medal. “Other people warned me that my leg was bleeding badly, but I had to try to help my commander.”

Genito says that over time, each day that passes without action on the bill looms larger and larger.

“It’s been many years fighting for this, and we’re in our twilight,” he said. “We’re in our 80s and 90s. Just since February, four veterans I knew from here in Jersey City have died.”

Subject to draft

The designation of the Philippines as a U.S. territory before and during World War II enabled the United States to draft Filipinos, who were considered American nationals. They have all the legal protections that citizens have, but they do not have full political rights, such as the right to vote for president.

Under U.S. law during the war, Filipino veterans were entitled to U.S. military veteran benefits. But after the Philippines gained independence in 1946, Congress passed the 1946 Rescission Act, stripping the Filipinos who had served in World War II of their U.S. veteran status.

Though most of the veterans have died, those still alive say they hope to see the day they can regain their veteran status. Most of the Filipinos who served during World War II, they point out, did not live to see measures passed in 2000 and 2003 that allowed for those living in the United States to receive care in VA hospitals and be buried in military cemeteries.

They live mainly on fixed incomes, and say they could use the monthly military pension that other veterans and their widows receive. Now, those living in the United States receive Social Security benefits, which is several hundred dollars less per month than the pension they would receive if the equity bill passes.

But it is equally important to them, they say, to be rid of the “second class” cloud they say has hovered over them since World War II. They find it bewildering that they were U.S. nationals when they were drafted and while they fought – with more than 50,000 losing their lives in the war – only to see their status stripped.

The equity bill also provides recognition to Filipino World War II veterans who remained in the Philippines. Under the measure, those veterans, who number about 12,000, would receive a smaller monthly pension than their counterparts in the United States.

Doing it for dad

Hughes’ father, Francisco de Asis, was one of those who lived in the Philippines. He died when she was just 3, and before she and her mother came to the United States.

Her father was among roughly 80,000 Filipinos and Americans who fell captive to Japanese forces after a four-month battle. He was among those forced into the nearly two-week Bataan death march, but he escaped and hid in the home of a family for a few months, Hughes said.

“Somehow, he made it back home from that family house,” she said. “He walked for about 10 hours, hiding through mountains so he wouldn’t be seen and captured again, until he got to our house.”

But even though the fight for recognition here has centered mostly on Filipino veterans living in the United States, Hughes says her passion for the equity bill is driven by the recognition that eluded her father.

He could have benefited from the extra hundreds of dollars per month, she said, that the bill would give to veterans living in the Philippines.

But mostly, she said, she still feels she owes it to her father to fight for the honor she said he still deserves.

“He was proud of his service; he even kept a diary of it, which my brother in the Philippines has,” she said.

Rep. Bob Filner, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and a longtime proponent of equitable status for the Filipino veterans, said the United States has an obligation “in both historical and moral terms” to provide them U.S. veteran status.

He said that over the years, a reluctance to steer money from other veteran programs and a view that the Filipino veterans were “foreigners” have stymied his efforts to garner support for the bill. But he is more hopeful now that the measure has moved out of congressional committees, and the veteran affairs budget has increased by billions.

“They helped us win the battle in the Pacific,” said the California Democrat. “They held up the Japanese advance after Pearl Harbor for months and months so we had time to prepare.”

For his part, Diaz said he will continue to chase the dream of U.S. veteran status.

“I am proud that I was able to contribute, help recover the Philippines from the Japanese,” he said. “Why do I keep fighting for recognition? Well, because I’m still alive.”


Fast facts
• Ferdinand Magellan reached the Philippines and claimed the archipelago for Spain in 1521. It remained under Spanish rule for nearly 400 years.

• Spain ceded the islands to the United States under the terms of the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The legacy of Spanish rule remains strong in the Philippines, where many people have Spanish names.

• Filipinos and Americans fought together against Japan until the Japanese surrendered in 1945. In 1946, the Philippine Islands became the independent Republic of the Philippines.

Source: U.S. State Department

* * *
By the numbers
Filipino versus Asian population. Estimates based on household population.

New Jersey Bergen County Passaic County Morris County

Filipinos 110,817 21,628 3,838 4,641

Total Asians 620,588 118,918 22,400 40,651

Rank Third (17.8 %) Third (18.2 %) Third (17.1 %) Third (11.4 %)

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 American Community Survey


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Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    KEEP UP THE FIGHT! It’s well earned and well deserved recognition for all war veterans whether they reside in the Philippines or the U.S. It’s not only men by the way, my grandmother served the U.S. government as a nurse and made her house as a hospital/clinic to treat the wounded. Although, she received a medal from the U.S. Navy for her service, she deserves to be honored, recognized and given the status as a U.S. war veteran. such.

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