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Vicissitudes of the Victor 

Honor, history at stake as Filipino veterans press for recognition

Wednesday, Sep 2 1998
Comments
Thank God somebody saved Private Ryan.

During a few stunning minutes in darkened movie theaters around the country, baby boomers and Gen-Xers suddenly began to understand the depth of their parents' and grandparents' courage and what "ultimate sacrifice" really means. As a D-Day veteran once described it, "They gave up all their tomorrows for your today."

Yet in late July, as General Spielberg's Hollywood Rangers opened their wide-screen assault on the nation's forgetful conscience, some real WWII fighters were waging a much less publicized battle, almost certainly the last major struggle of their lives and the most important in their half-century-long quest simply to be recognized as American veterans.

These men and women were Filipinos - soldiers and guerrillas whose own service on behalf of the United States should have entitled them to the same benefits as millions of other GIs from Normandy to Iwo Jima, but who lost out to a cynical bit of congressional cost-cutting known as the Supplemental Surplus Rescission Act of 1946.

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Their battlefield now was a congressional hearing room, their ultimate objective the passage of HR836, the Filipino Veterans' Equity Act. A bipartisan effort backed by Representatives Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.) and already supported by more than 190 co-sponsors, the bill will, if passed, finally give Filipino veterans equal access to the benefits long enjoyed by the Americans with whom they fought side by side on the Bataan Peninsula, at Leyte Gulf and in the mountains of Luzon.

For nearly 10 years, despite the support of every major veterans' organization, similar bills have languished in committee. But now, after a year of concerted organizing and protest, most visibly here by the Los Angeles-based Equity Village group - which organized a cross-country caravan that galvanized political support in major Filipino-American communities in Phoenix, El Paso, Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. - the vets were finally getting a hearing.

It was not an altogether friendly reception.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), perhaps best known outside his district for a premature obituary of Bob Hope on the House floor, was already on record as opposing any further benefits for Filipino Veterans. In both the Washington Post and Stars and Stripes, Stump had written that the Filipinos had already been sufficiently compensated. "I do not believe that simply serving under U.S. command meets the test of swearing allegiance to the Constitution of the United States."

But that is precisely what they had done, the Filipinos and their supporters politely reminded the committee.

They had fought for America - not, as Stump had asserted, "for their own, soon-to-be-independent, Philippine nation" - from the day the Japanese invaded what was then the Commonwealth of the Philippines in December 1941. Those who had not been in regular American units, or in Philippine outfits ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt into American service with Douglas MacArthur's United States Army Forces Far East (USAFFE) more than four months before Pearl Harbor, had joined - and were sworn into - guerrilla groups, headed by a few American officers but an overwhelmingly Filipino rank and file. During the Japanese occupation, they had provided valuable intelligence to MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Headquarters, had sabotaged the Japanese war effort, and fought side by side with American troops from Leyte to the liberation of Manila and beyond.

But in the end, the 79th Congress, in a bit of legalistic hairsplitting worthy of a Clintonian denial, declared that the war service of most Filipino fighting men and women was "not to be deemed to have been active military, naval, or air service for the purposes of any law . . . conferring rights, privileges, or benefits" They had served, but somehow had not really served. They had been in the active service of the United States Army, but somehow were not in the United States Army.

No GI Bill for them - no pensions, no medical care, no free college education - the only national or ethnic group in American service during World War II so denied. "This discriminating treatment was reserved for Filipino veterans," observes Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, himself a WWII veteran.

For Congress, it was a matter of money over honor - never mind that the Filipinos helped shorten the war, thereby saving billions of dollars, along with the lives of countless American GIs. There were the costs of the war, of postwar reconstruction, and the GI Bill, and General Omar Bradley, overseeing the Veterans Affairs Administration, had estimated that benefits to Filipinos, if paid in full, would alone add another $3 billion to the bottom line.

A few exceptions were made: Veterans of the Old Philippine Scouts, a handful of units manned by Filipinos but commanded by Americans and considered part of the American Army, received full benefits. Some others were awarded partial benefits calculated at a rate of 50 cents on the dollar. These payments and any remaining veterans' issues were to be covered by a one-time, $200 million payment made as part of final arrangements for Philippine independence from the United States on July 4, 1946; after that it was the Philippine government's business.

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