Last Wednesday, November 30, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 2737, the “Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.” The bill was introduced in the House on June 11, 2015, by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). (The Senate version, S. 1555, which is identically named, was passed on July 13, 2016.) As its title suggests, the bill awards “a Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the Filipino veterans of World War II, in recognition of the dedicated service of the veterans during World War II.”
Beginning in 1941, in response to increasing tensions between the United States and Japan, the military forces of the Philippines were absorbed into the U.S. Forces in the Far East under General Douglas MacArthur. These forces served as scouts, as guerrilla fighters, and in other roles throughout the course of the war. When the Japanese overran the Bataan Peninsula in 1942, they captured 66,000 Filipinos and 12,000 U.S. service members. During the subsequent forced march that has come to be known as the Bataan Death March, some 6,000 to 10,000 Filipino prisoners and 700 U.S. Armed Forces members died.
The Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015 points out that “Filipinos participated in the war out of national pride, as well as out of a commitment to the Allied Forces’ struggle against fascism. 57,000 Filipinos in uniform died in the war effort. Estimates of civilian deaths range from 700,000 to upwards of 1,000,000, or between 4.38 to 6.25 percent of the prewar population of 16,000,000.”
It was originally specified by President Roosevelt that the Filipinos in the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines, who would be serving alongside the U.S. military in the Allied struggle, would be entitled to full veterans’ benefits, which included pensions and U.S. citizenship. Laws enacted at the conclusion of the war rescinded those benefits, declaring that the Filipinos who served were not considered active.
Since that time, Filipino veterans and their advocates have fought for their promised benefits, but progress has been slow. In the 1990s, veterans and their spouses were allowed to move to the United States and gain full citizenship; they were also permitted to bring their parents and unmarried children who were not yet 21 years old. In 2009, some of the veterans were given one-time payments of $15,000 (if they were citizens; $9,000 if they were not).
The 15,000 or so living Filipino veterans (now in their 80s and older), their families, and their advocates welcome the Congressional Gold Medal. In a December 1 press release, the Asian Pacific American Advocates (or OCA*) stated:
On Wednesday November 30th, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to award a collective Congressional Gold Medal to Filipino veterans of World War II in recognition of their service to the United States. The Congressional Gold Medal is among the highest civilian honors in the United States. Until last year, Filipino veterans were denied the family immigration benefits that they were promised and went largely unrecognized in popular narratives about how the war was won.
“We applaud Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard for introducing this bill in the House. The passage of this legislation acknowledges the critical role Filipino and Filipino American soldiers played in protecting the United States during World War II,” said Leslie Moe-Kaiser, OCA National President. “For far too long our courageous Filipino and Filipino American veterans have been denied the rights and privileges they were owed for their service, many of whom have died waiting for proper recognition by the American government. Over 200,000 Filipinos fought on behalf of the United States and today only 15,000 remain. We hope that this Congressional Gold Medal may finally honor their distinguished and crucial role in American history. With the formal recognition of other distinguished units in World War II, such as the Navajo Code Talkers, Japanese American Nisei soldiers, and Puerto Rican soldiers, this act will serve to correct and broaden the narrative regarding the contributions of units of color in our nation’s military history.”
The bill is now headed to the desk of President Obama, who is expected to sign it. Following the award of the gold medal, it will be given to the Smithsonian Institution, which “should make the gold medal … available for display elsewhere, particularly at other appropriate locations associated with the Filipino Veterans of World War II.” Subsequently, the U.S. Mint will be free to strike and sell bronze duplicates of the medal to the public.
Click here to read the full text of H.R. 2737. ❑
* The group was originally founded in 1973 as the Organization of Chinese Americans; hence the abbreviation.