With Veterans Day only two days away, I’d like to call attention to a class of veterans who became part of the American military in 1941, fought valiantly alongside American troops, and sacrificed their lives by the thousands in defense of democracy in the Philippines during World War II.
By the terms of the Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898), which brought an end to the ten-month-long Spanish-American War, the Philippine Islands became a colony of the United States, which then became responsible for defending her new possession. Our government inducted into the U.S. Army two new infantry regiments, the Philippine Scouts, comprised of Filipino soldiers, trained and commanded by American officers. The United States also installed a colonial governor in the Islands, introduced many social reforms, established schools, and implemented plans for economic development, all designed to win over the Philippine people.
The majority of the Filipino people, however, had endured 300 years of subjugation under Spanish rule, and they wanted independence, not another colonial master. After years of intense lobbying, finally, on March 22, 1934, the U.S. Congress passed the Philippine Commonwealth and Independence Act (Tydings-McDuffie), establishing a process by which the Philippines would become an independent country after a transition period.
The newly elected Philippine Commonwealth President, Manuel Quezon, then invited General Douglas MacArthur to come out of retirement to oversee the gradual build-up of a Philippine military force capable of assuming the defense of the Islands upon its eventual full independence, slated to occur in 1946. Under MacArthur’s plan, additional young Filipino men were drafted at the rate of 10,000 per year, and American junior officers were brought over from the States to help train the new Philippine Commonwealth Army.
Despite ongoing peace negotiations between the United States and Japan, by mid-year 1941 it was becoming clear that the Japanese had no intention of waiting until 1946 to exert their dominance in the Far East. With U.S.-Japanese relations deteriorating rapidly, on July 26, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created a new command, the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), and called General MacArthur back into active service as its commander. At the same time, all organized military forces in the Philippines—including the Philippine Scouts and the fledgling Philippine Commonwealth Army—were called into the service of the United States under USAFFE, thus granting members of the Philippine Commonwealth Army and the Philippine Scouts, along with the Philippine national police, equal standing with regular American troops.
Monuments have been erected and volumes written honoring the starving Americans who fought, suffered, and died on the Bataan Peninsula and its aftermath, the Bataan Death March; on Corregidor, the last U.S. stronghold in the Philippines; and in brutal, filthy prison camps during the Japanese occupation of the Islands. But we’ve heard little of the bravery and valor of the Filipino troops as they fought, suffered and died at a ratio of nearly ten to one alongside the Americans. By the war’s end in August of 1945, at least 57,000 of them had lost their lives.
Following President Roosevelt’s death in 1944, Vice-President Harry S. Truman assumed the presidency. Under his leadership, two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing the Japanese to their knees and finally ending the Pacific War in August 1945. While the surviving Americans were welcomed home with parades and decorated as heroes, the Filipinos were betrayed. In 1946, Truman signed laws that stripped away all the promised benefits and citizenship for Filipino veterans.
Despite the untiring efforts of some in Congress, it wasn’t until 1990 that the most egregious wrongs were righted when the U.S. Congress awarded citizenship to thousands of the Filipino veterans and extended VA benefits to them. Still, their valor went unrecognized.
Finally, on Wednesday, October 25, 2017, the United States Congress recognized the extraordinary heroism of the Filipino veterans by awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these brave men died waiting.