Oct. 25 (UPI) — Members of Congress on Monday are scheduled to present the Congressional Gold Medal to Filipino veterans of World War II, honoring thousands of men who have long fought for recognition of their service.
Some made the ultimate sacrifice — their lives — for the U.S. cause during the second World War, but promises of U.S. citizenship and veterans benefits would go unfulfilled for many of those who survived.
In July 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order calling on all Philippine military forces to join the U.S. armed forces to fight Axis powers in World War II. At the time, the Philippines was under U.S. rule.
Some 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers fought on behalf of the United States until the end of the war. Since the Philippines was a commonwealth of the United States, Filipinos who served in the U.S. military were entitled to the same benefits U.S. citizens enjoyed.
But in 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the Recission Act, which stripped those benefits citing $200 million the U.S. government gave the Philippines after the war.
In 2009, seeking to make good on the recognition Filipino veterans deserved, lawmakers passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided one-time payments of $15,000 to Filipino veterans who served in the war and are now U.S. citizens. Non-citizens who served received $8,000.
“That amount is nothing compared to what they sacrificed for this country,” Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, told Philippine newspaper The Inquirer. “What we’re really asking for is full recognition and fair treatment.
Ninety-one-year-old Gregorio Azurin manned a .50 caliber machine gun in mountainous terrain in the Philippines when he came under attack by Japanese soldiers. He told the Yakima Herald in Washington that he jumped down a steep slope to escape the enemy.
He said he hid from the Japanese for three days without food before reuniting with his unit.
“They all thought I was dead — they already had my name on the list [of casualties],” Azurin told the newspaper.
The now-U.S. citizen said he received $15,000 from the U.S. government in 2009.
Celestino Almeda, 100, was a high school teacher when the war broke out. He said he joined a guerrilla unit after the Japanese bombed Manila.
“Once I saw five dead bodies piled on top of each other. Their bloody arms and limbs were hanging off a casket,” he told The Inquirer.
“Who could forget those grim images of the atrocities of war? They are and will always be with me,” he added.
Almeda, now living in the United States, said he wrote the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs multiple times starting in 2000, seeking recognition of his service.
“In every letter of denial that I received, the U.S. Department of Veterans insisted that there’s no written document about my military service,” he said. “I told them, ‘Look, everything was in verbal at the time.’ No one would sign a piece of paper while you were in the battleground.”
But the U.S. Congress approved the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Medal Act in December 2016
A statement from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said a single Congressional Gold Medal was struck to honor the veterans. The ceremony is scheduled to take place at 11 a.m. EDT in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitor Center.
The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, an organization that promotes awareness of Filipinos’ contributions to World War II, said bronze replicas would be presented to veterans during a ceremony Wednesday afternoon in McLean, Va. Officials are making the 1-pound replicas available to veterans or families for $50 each.
Almeda will be among 26 living Filipino veterans and 200 next of kin to others who will receive one of the bronze medals Wednesday.
“The long-awaited event will be a formal presentation recognizing the tremendous service and sacrifice of Filipino WWII veterans during the war from July 26, 1941 to December 31, 1946,” the organization said in a statement.