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Remembering the Filipino veterans of World War II

Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of ethnic studies | November 9, 2017

For many years, unbeknownst to many of my friends and colleagues, Veterans Day has held special significance for my family and I. During World War II, my Lolo (the Filipino word for grandfather), Braulio Ceniza, served as a soldier and later captain of the United States Army Forces of the Far East in the Philippines (USAFFE).

On October 25, 2017, he was one of the over 250,000 Filipino veterans of World War II who received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States Congress. I was able to attend the ceremony held in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center together with my mother, Patria Ceniza, and aunt, Lucita Ceniza. I brought a copy of my Lolo’s photo in his military uniform with me. He passed away in 2009.

Photo of the author’s Lolo, Braulio Ceniza, with his bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor

In my conversations with friends and in my Facebook posts about the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, I conveyed excitement and joy. In reality, my feelings were more complicated because the history of Filipino veterans of World War II is bittersweet. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created USAFFE in 1941, offering full veterans benefits to Filipinos who enlisted. But President Harry S. Truman rescinded these benefits in 1946. This denial of justice sparked a decades-long battle for Filipino World War II veterans equity and recognition. And, in ways that are difficult for me to write, it broke my Lolo’s as well as my own heart.

While he was alive, my Lolo loved writing. In 2002, he wrote my husband Greg and I a letter to thank us for a book we had given him about Asian American veterans. The book prompted him to reflect upon his own experiences:

With the experiences therein related by authors of different nationalities, I can anticipate the thrill of their encounters against the enemies. How they survived and the heroic acts they played, etc. . . . My role was a hit and run tactic, a guerrilla warfare. We did not have sufficient arms and weapons to face the enemy. The [Japanese] were after us all the time and we tried to evade. Many of my fellow officers and enlisted men were caught by surprise and they were killed. . . . I was able to survive in spite of all those sacrifices, thank God.

War was over. We, who survived, were indeed very happy. Peace has come again. Perhaps some remunerations are expected from the U.S. government only to find out that the U.S. Congress passed the cruel law, the Rescission Act of 1946. This Act denied [USAFFE] veterans of the benefits and privileges as members of the United States Armed Forces per military orders issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt . . . This Act is the 3rd atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. in the Philippines that wiped out all the benefits and privileges that the USAFFE veterans are duly entitled to. Oh, I am going too far.

My Lolo was a man of quiet discipline and extraordinary patience. It must have been traumatic to recall and convey the depth of his feelings of betrayal in part because they co-existed alongside his respect for his American as well as Filipino brothers in arms, and his admiration for the United States. As a former civil engineer, he relished our visit to Virginia where he marveled at the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. After he migrated to the United States, he delighted in writing American politicians and receiving correspondence from their offices. In a five-page letter addressed to New York State Senator Roy Goodman in 2000, my Lolo detailed the plight of Filipino World War II veterans, concluding his letter with this hope:

Mr. Senator Goodman, I am now more than 88 years old, but I am still hoping to receive the award of our service to the United States of America in World War II. I hope that the brief account of our status and involvement in World War II cited above will be sufficient to support my request for whatever help you can extend to the USAFFE veterans.

Sadly, multiple attempts to pass Filipino veterans equity bills in Congress in the 1990s and early 2000s were unsuccessful. A 1990 immigration law enabled Filipino veterans to naturalize and become U.S. citizens. And a 2009 stimulus package gave a lump sum benefit of $15,000 to those Filipino veterans who were U.S. citizens and $9,000 to non-citizens. These gestures of recognition have been and continue to be controversial. Those veterans who have become U.S. citizens have been frustrated by the lengthy backlog to process green cards for their children in the Philippines. Some Filipino veterans have been mired in bureaucratic red tape in their applications for the lump sum benefit, a puny amount in contrast to what had been promised.

When Filipino World War II veterans received this year’s Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, some observers remarked that the “honor” had come too late. Many of the attendees at the ceremony, like my mother, were next of kin. Only an estimated 16,000 to 17,000 Filipino World War II veterans are still alive today. I understand this critical sentiment all too well. My Lolo would have had to have been 105 years old in order to bear witness to this historic event. Why, I asked myself, did it have to take this long?

The reasons behind why the U.S. government rescinded the benefits of Filipino World War II veterans and why it took so long to recognize them are multi-layered and complex. And I hope to participate in some of the scholarly conversations about how and why this history unfolded the way it did.

The author with her mother and aunt at the U.S. Capitol

In the meantime, my own feelings of heartbreak have not gone away. However, my attendance at the ceremony was hardly in vain. I witnessed the beautiful diversity and strength of the Filipino World War II veteran community, a community primarily composed of Filipinos and Filipino Americans, but also of our non-Filipino allies. I observed the tireless advocacy of Major General (Ret.) Antonio Taguba and UC Berkeley alumnus Ben de Guzman among other leaders of The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project on behalf of the Filipino veterans and their families. I was overjoyed to see my mother receive a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor on behalf of her father. And I joined my mother and aunt in congratulating the living Filipino veterans and their family members.

Because it is never too late to honor the sacrifices and achievements of those who have come before us. It is never too late to remember those who have made history. And it is never too late to pick up the broken pieces of ourselves and to do what we can to right a wrong.

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