- ANDREW GOLD
The Fight for Justice and Recognition Continues for Filipino American World War II Veterans
“When President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war against Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, the ravages of war did not reach the continental United States. Instead, the war was fought in the Philippines, its colony from 1898 to 1946, where thousands of Filipino and American soldiers died, and approximately one million civilians perished.” – Bataan Legacy Historical Society.
Joey Anne Pangilinan knew her lolo, Sgt. Jacob D. Abergas fought alongside U.S. forces during World War II. But it wasn’t until ten years after his passing that she uncovered the details of his decades-long fight to gain recognition for his military service and obtain the full benefits he was promised.
“He wrote letters to Veterans Affairs asking for a prisoner-of-war medal or citizenship. I wondered, ‘What happened to this? Did he ever get it?’ So I started digging a little more. That’s when I realized that hundreds of thousands of people like him didn’t get the benefits they were promised,” Pangilinan said.
Abergas was one of over 250,000 Filipino scouts, guerrillas, and soldiers who served in the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). They were told they would receive full benefits and pathways to citizenship in exchange for their sacrifice.
But when the war was over, Congress passed the Rescission Act of 1946. Signed by President Harry S. Truman, the act retroactively deemed the service of Filipino soldiers during World War II to have not been “active military, naval, or air service for the purposes of any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges, or benefits upon any person.”
For over seventy-six years since the act was passed, Filipino veterans and community leaders have advocated for those who were denied the recognition and benefits of their service. The movement has spanned across generations, with youth and families of Filipino veterans now leading the way.
After learning about her lolo’s story, Pangilinan joined Kabataang maka-Bayan (KmB) and Justice for Filipino American Veterans (JFAV), a broad alliance of veteran, youth, student, and community organizations.
“KmB and JFAV are central to organizing justice for Filipino American veterans, and that’s really what prompted me to start my community organizing here in Los Angeles,” Pangilinan said.
On Nov. 11, JFAV led the first community march since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Held in Historic Filipinotown Los Angeles since 2001, the annual march and rally honors the contributions of Filipino American World War II veterans and continues the call for action to demand justice and equity.
Krystle Canare and her husband, TJ Simba-Medel, were among the descendants of Filipino veterans at the march seeking justice. Originally from Washington, D.C., Canare met her husband through an immersion program in the Philippines. Together they traveled from community to community, exchanging stories and supporting different causes.
“We thought, ‘How do we continue to do that and learn about how we can support Filipino American communities here in the United States?’” Canare said.
They decided to live in an R.V. and travel across the country to various Filipino communities. They have traveled over 7,000 miles, beginning in Simba-Medel’s home state of Arkansas in 2021. Through their experience, Canare and Simba-Medel founded Tayo Trails to continue chronicling their journey and amplifying the history and experiences of Filipino Americans in the diaspora.
“We came here today mainly to find community with others who are sharing similar stories. It’s really hard for my parents and grandparents to share all the things that happened to them during the war,” Canare said.
The Filipino people paid a heavy price during World War II. Once called the Pearl of the Orient, Manila became the second most devastated city in the world after Warsaw, Poland.
On April 9, 1942, after fighting for 99 days without air support or reinforcement, Filipino and American troops, mostly suffering from massive disease and starvation, were forced to surrender to the Imperial Japanese Army and march some 60 miles to their prison camp at Camp O’Donnell in extreme tropical conditions without provisions for food, water, or shelter. The event became known as the Bataan Death March, one of the largest single surrenders in U.S. military history that resulted in the deaths of between 5,000 to 10,000 Filipino and between 250 to 650 American soldiers. Once inside Camp O’Donnell, approximately 20,000 Filipino and 1,600 American prisoners of war died.
Among the survivors was Cecilia Gaerlan’s father, Luis Gaerlan Jr., who served in the 41st Infantry Regiment of the USAFFE. Gaerlan learned the extent of her father’s service while conducting research for a historical novel she was writing.
“One day, I found this document about my dad’s regiment during their time in Bataan. It was so graphic. I asked my father, ‘How come you never told me about this? Is this true? Did this really happen?’ That’s when my father finally broke down,” Gaerlan said.
Inspired by her father, Gaerlan founded the Bataan Legacy Historical Society (BLHS) to preserve the stories of survivors and veterans like him and educate the public on the historical significance of Bataan and World War II in the Philippines.
“For many of the veterans I interviewed, they never told their families how bad their experience was. It was a matter of survival, so they had no alternative but to go on with their lives,” Gaerlan said. “But a lot of [post-traumatic stress disorder] then started appearing in their later years, and that’s when they started having nightmares. Sometimes this PTSD can go through several generations.”
Gaerlan and BLHS have been instrumental in advocating for a high school curriculum that includes the role of Filipinos during World War II. Their efforts came to fruition after years of community organizing when the California State Board of Education approved the revised U.S. History curriculum framework for the state on July 14, 2016. It is the first time that World War II in the Philippines will be taught to high school students, not only in California but in the entire United States.
“Education is number one. People need to learn about what happened so history doesn’t repeat itself,” Gaerlan said.
Gaerlan hopes the inclusion of this seminal part of World War II history in the state curriculum, combined with the oral histories of survivors, will raise more awareness about the justice movement for Filipino veterans whose benefits were rescinded in 1946.
An estimated 26,000 Filipino nationals were granted U.S. citizenship under a 1990 immigration law signed by President George H.W. Bush, but the measure did not include their children in the Philippines.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, creating a World War II Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund (FVEC). The act authorized the release of a one-time, lump-sum payment of up to $15,000 to eligible Filipino World War II veterans.
“Very slowly, my father got his citizenship, and then we applied for his benefits. He received the payment, but only a small percentage of those who applied were able to get the benefits because it’s so difficult to get into the system unless you have an advocate,” Gaerlan said.
As of December 2021, the Manila VA Regional Office received over 42,755 claims, but more than half were denied.
“The United States denied my lolo these benefits and essentially denied his efforts and military service to this country,” Pangilinan said. “He fought under the U.S. flag but wasn’t being recognized for it.”
Abergas was only 20 years old when the Imperial Japanese Army held him as a prisoner of war. He survived the Bataan Death March — as did Canare and Simba-Medel’s grandfathers — and helped with guerilla movements in Jaen, Nueva Ecija, Philippines.
Following the war, Abergas would spend the next 50 years fighting for U.S. citizenship and recognition of his military service. He documented everything about his time in the USAFFE — key dates, correspondence, where he was stationed, the names of those he reported to, and the orders he was given.
“Finding those military documents made me think that he wanted something tangible to show that he really did serve, that there is evidence somewhere proving he did all these things. It’s been about fifteen years since he passed, and I’m just realizing this connection that maybe this is something he wanted to live on after his passing,” Pangilinan said.
On April 11, 2021, Pangilinan’s family accepted the United States Congressional Gold Medal Award on behalf of Abergas for his active duty service during World War II. The award, Pangilinan says, is a step in the right direction but far from what was initially promised.
With only a few thousand Filipino veterans still alive and living in the United States, Pangilinan calls on the next generation to continue the fight and support the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2022.
Introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (CA-14), the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2022, or H.R. 9081, would authorize payment of a need-based death pension for survivors of Filipino veterans. Currently, the benefit is offered to some Filipino veterans of World War II, but not all. The Act would also direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to consider alternative military documentation when determining eligibility.
“Showing up to actions is very symbolic, but there’s still a lot of advocacy work to be done. We must contact our congressperson to see if they’re supporting H.R. 9081,” Pangilinan said. “You don’t necessarily have to have a personal connection to this, but it’s important to understand that it impacts our community and Filipino identity.”