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.
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.
Which meant, basically, that most of the more than 200,000 Filipinos officially recognized as having risked their lives fighting the Japanese and who had managed to survive the war without serious injury were, as the old service expression went, SOL - shit out of luck.
The slight did not pass without protest. The Washington Post editorialized at the time, "[I]t is one thing to leave the long range problem of caring [for] . . . disabled veterans to the new government at Manila, and quite another thing to deny the Filipinos the current benefits they had earned as members of the American fighting forces." Philippine General Carlos Romulo - a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, MacArthur's former aide de camp and a future president of the U.N. General Assembly - announced 10 days after the passage of the Rescission Act, "It would be bad enough if the Filipino veteran were to be forgotten. It would be inconceivable that he should be discriminated against." And President Harry Truman considered it "a moral obligation of the United States to look after the welfare of the Filipino veterans."
Moral obligation or not, Congress cut the Filipinos out. Yet, despite the implied stain on their honor, the veterans still felt a deep loyalty to this country and its ideals.
Though the historical relationship between the Philippines and the United States, which occupied the archipelago from the end of the Spanish American War until 1946, was hardly idyllic - U.S. economic policy, for example, favored large landowners and the export commodities they produced, thus indirectly forcing many small farmers from their land - government policies were aimed at preparing the Filipinos for eventual independence. Chief among them was the establishment of a highly popular system of universal public education - for all practical purposes staffed entirely by Filipino teachers - teaching the English language and American values.
Ask a Filipino vet what the U.S. did right in the years before the war, and the chances are good he will say, "Education." Filipinos had not only learned what America was supposed to be, but, like the men on Omaha Beach, believed that it was worth fighting and dying for.
"From the beginning we were taught to sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" recalls veteran Dalmacio Austria, 73. "We were raised under the laws of the U.S. We were taught democracy, the laws and the Constitution."
The influence of easily accessible American popular culture - jazz, baseball, the movies - humanized the civics lessons and effected a monumental cultural change after three centuries of Spanish occupation. "The saying is that we were 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood," says John Melegrito, executive director of the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations. "And it's shaped the way we think and the way we conduct ourselves."
But even if the virtues America preached were not always practiced, the U.S., which in the mid-1930s had already set the date for Philippine independence, engendered more genuine loyalty than any other imperial power in the Southwest Pacific.
"I think it would also be appropriate to point out . . . that nowhere else in Asia did subject peoples support and defend their colonial masters," Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Price Ramsey told Stump's committee. "The Indochinese turned on the French, the Indonesians on the Dutch, and Malaya and Burma were against the British. Only the Filipinos remained loyal." The former commander of the 40,000-strong East Central Luzon Guerrilla Force, the largest in the Philippines, Ramsey reminded the committee that more than 1 million Filipinos (out of a population of something over 16 million) died during the war. The liberation of Manila alone cost 100,000 lives and reduced "the pearl of the Orient" to the second most damaged Allied city after Warsaw.
Last June 14 - Flag Day - in MacArthur Park, the Equity Village protest movement celebrated its first anniversary. A crowd of around 200 Filipino veterans, all in their 70s and 80s - many wearing old campaign ribbons with here and there a bronze star or Purple Heart - carried American flags and sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as they paraded slowly past the statue of General Douglas MacArthur.
Signs neatly taped to the memorial proclaimed, "We Are Americans - Treat Us as Americans," "For Former Foes - Billions of Dollars. For Comrades Nothing." And on every jacket or shirt, a red, white and blue button: "Justice for WWII Filipino Veterans - Equity Now!"
A year before, inspired by the techniques of the American civil rights movement, veterans had chained themselves to the MacArthur memorial and occupied the area around it to publicize their cause and rally support for the Filner bill. They staged hunger strikes and stayed for more than 300 days - so tidy in their housekeeping and so well-mannered in their protest that the worst any vet was ever charged with was a misdemeanor citation for distributing political literature in a public park.
The story of Dalmacio Austria - right out in front of the anniversary march and carrying the biggest flag of all - is not untypical. He was a high school kid, only 16, when the war broke out. When the call came for volunteers on December 8, 1941, he reported to Manila City Hall to enlist, but the training camp he was assigned to was bombed, and instead he wound up as one of Ramsey's guerrillas, gathering intelligence on the Japanese while he worked as a pipe fitter for the Manila Metropolitan Water District, and stealing Japanese aircraft oil to clean and lubricate weapons of the resistance. Eventually captured and facing certain death, he managed to escape, and finished the war as an infantry corporal attached to a number of U.S. units.
As the ceremonies wound down at MacArthur Park, Colonel Jaime Catral, 80, a junior artillery officer when the war broke out, talked to a reporter, calmly at first, of the horrors he experienced on the Bataan Death March - of desperately thirsty men shot and bayoneted for breaking ranks for a drink of water, of local women savagely beaten for throwing handfuls of rice to starving prisoners.
"My feeling is it is very unfair," he says of the denial of benefits. "I don't need the money. I'm okay economically, but . . ."
Catral stopped, struggling to find the right word. He clenched his fist and tapped his chest as if trying to show a doctor where the pain was.
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"I mean, we fought with you. They should restore that honor . . ."
Time, however, is not on the veterans' side. Only 70,000 survive, of whom 26,000 live in the United States, most of them American citizens. The death rate among the entire group is estimated at five per day.
The committee is unlikely to send the bill to the House this year. But having fought the good fight so far, the Filipino veterans, like the man who once led them to victory, have promised to return, and, like the civil rights workers before them, they mean to hold America accountable not so much for its vices as for its virtues. It is, after all, simply what's right.
The men at Omaha Beach would have understood.