Men and women from the Philippines were promised recognition and benefits when they enlisted to fight alongside US troops during World War II. Many of those honors are only arriving now, 64 years after the war ended.
About 140 Filipino veterans of World War II were given commemorative medals on Friday at a Honolulu ceremony saluting their bravery in helping repel Japanese forces.
They’re also set to receive long-awaited benefits that the US pledged during the war.
“I feel like a little boy going up to heaven,” said Jose Ortego, 83, a former infantry sergeant.
Some 250,000 Filipinos enlisted in 1941 to help defend the Philippines, a US commonwealth at the time. They were promised that they could become US citizens if they chose, and receive benefits under the GI Bill.
Congress took away that offer in 1946 when the Philippines became an independent nation.
Congress passed legislation this year rewarding the soldiers for their service with US$9,000 payments for non-US citizens and US$15,000 for those with citizenship.
“I’m saddened and embarrassed that you had to wait this long,” US Senator Daniel Inouye told the assembled veterans. “But I’m proud that my country was strong enough and big enough to admit that it was wrong and to rectify that wrong. I hope you’ll forgive us.”
About 18,000 Filipino veterans, many in their 80s and 90s, are still alive.
Some soldiers like 85-year-old Artemio Caleda recalled how they risked their lives in advance units determining lines of attack.
Caleda said his unit rescued a downed US pilot, helped capture Japanese holdout General Tomoyuki Yamashita and fought for long months in the jungles.
“We did it not for the benefits that were promised to us, but to defend our country,” said Caleda, who served in the 11th Infantry Regiment, part of the Filipino Organized Guerrillas. “It was the US and multinational presence that made us a target, but it was up to us to defend our freedom and democracy.”
Former Army corporal Salome Calderon, who gathered intelligence during the war, said she was grateful that the US government is finally paying up, but she was dismayed that the checks still hadn’t arrived, five months after the legislation was approved.
“They give us honors, honors, honors, and we’re thankful,” said Calderon, 84, the only female soldier at the event. “But we haven’t received any money yet. It’s always in our minds: ‘How long shall we wait?’”
In addition to the money, the veterans also are waiting to see if Congress will pass the Family Reunification Act, which would exempt their sons and daughters from immigration caps. The measure is set for a hearing on July 25.
“If we can bring our sons and daughters to the US and have our grandchildren be born US citizens, that will be an eternal benefit,” Caleda said.