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Filipino veterans demonstrating for equity and justice in front of the Veterans Building in San Francisco, California.

LONG ROAD TO DIGNITY

By RICK ROCAMORA

FEBRUARY 18, 2021

On February 18, 1946, United States President Harry Truman signed the Rescission Act, a law that stripped Filipino veterans who fought in World War II of benefits that were promised to them for their service.

In 1941, before the outbreak of the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered that all military forces in the Philippines be brought under American control. In turn, tens of thousands of Filipinos enlisted, with the promise of full benefits as members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

For Filipino veterans who were discriminated against by the Rescission Act, the past 75 years have been the equivalent of a lifetime of indignity.

Truman himself expressed some concern about the provisions upon signing the bill. “I consider it a moral obligation of the United States to look after the welfare of Philippine Army veterans,” he said in a statement. “They fought, as American nationals, under the American flag, and under the direction of our military leaders. They fought with gallantry and courage under most difficult conditions during the recent conflict.”

Through the years, American politicians have also paid tribute to the gallantry of Filipino soldiers who fought side-by-side with American troops in the Pacific.

“Valiant Filipino soldiers fought, died and suffered in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, defending beleaguered Bataan and Corregidor, and thousands of Filipino prisoners of war endured the infamous Bataan Death March and years of captivity,” U.S. President Bill Clinton said in 1997. “Their many guerilla actions slowed the Japanese takeover of the Western Pacific Region and allowed U.S. forces the time to build and prepare the allied counterattack on Japan. Filipino troops fought side-by-side with U.S. forces to secure their island nation as a strategic base from which the final effort to defeat Japan was launched.”

In 2006, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a privilege speech in Congress highlighting the plight of the veterans. “Thousands of Filipino veterans came to the U.S. seeking equity and have waited 60 years for the promise to be honored. After fighting for more than half a century for their right to U.S. citizenship, other issues related to their health and recognition remain to be addressed. Many live alone in poverty. It is a national tragedy to see our veterans suffer from neglect, despair and hopelessness.”

Despite the recognition from leaders, the Rescission Act of 1946 has remained a law and a stain in the common history of United States and the Philippines.

Veterans from 66 other countries have been given full recognition, with compensation for their injury, loss of lives, and being prisoners of war.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included an insertion for lumpsum payments for the Filipino veterans.

Veterans who are not U.S. citizens were entitled to a one-time compensation of $9,000, while U.S. citizens were entitled to a one-time compensation of $15,000. Only living veterans were eligible for the compensation. But as of 2019, only 18,983 claims have been processed, while 23,772 were rejected.

The clamor remains to repeal the Rescission Act of 1946. It no longer includes a call for monetary compensation, because the 2009 law specifically dictated that Filipino veterans could no longer make further claims against the U.S. government.

But it is only the latest in a long list of indignities suffered by Filipino veterans. Over the years, I documented their life in America waiting for the passage of an equity bill that will correct the decades of injustice.

Very few are still alive, but their images of living in deplorable conditions while waiting for America to correct her mistakes will remain as clear evidence of the neglect that they suffered while waiting to restore their dignity.

America calls the soldiers who fought in the World War II as the Greatest Generation, but it forgot the Filipinos who lost life and limb fighting the Japanese under the direction of U.S. officers and the American flag.

The U.S. has done corrective measures for past mistakes. It is about time that America restore the dignity of Filipino World War II soldiers after 75 years.

The exhibit "A Long Road to Dignity" with images from Rick Rocamora, Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, Life Collection, the Filipinas Heritage Library, and “Little Brown Man in San Francisco” by Howie Severino is on display online at the Filipinas Heritage Library.

Purple Heart awardee Felizardo Ticao. “ Sometimes people would question if I was really a war hero. To convince them, I show the authenticity certificate that I kept in my cap.”

Sergio Quinial holds a picture of himself in his Army uniform at age 21. He hand-carried it on his trip to San Francisco to take his oath as a United States citizen.

Floro Bagasala operated chess games along Market Street near the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco, California to earn extra income for his family. He ran the chess games from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. To make money, he would sell Marlboro cigarettes, bought from visits to the Philippines, for 25 cents each to chess players and chess enthusiasts watching the games.

Menardo Divina inside the studio apartment he shared with five other veterans. “Mushrooms are already growing on the carpet and all of us are taking cough and cold medications all year because of upper respiratory problems. But since we cannot afford to rent a bigger place, we suffered the consequences of the mildew all day.”

Pablo Abunada gets a free meal at Glide Memorial Church almost every day. To save money, many veterans take advantage of soup kitchens for the elderly and homeless population in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, California.

Pat Ganio (left) and other veterans with Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) doing their lobbying work for equity at the United States Congress.

Rick Rocamora is an award-winning documentary photographer and author of four photo books; Filipino WWII Soldiers: America’s Second Class Veterans; Blood, Sweat, Hope and Quiapo: Rodallie S. Mosende Story; Human Wrongs; and Alagang Angara. His work is part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the U.S. State Department Art in Embassies Program, and private and institutional collectors. His work is widely exhibited in national and international museums and galleries, published in print and online and aired in various broadcast news outlets.

In the Philippines, his work had been exhibited at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Ben Cab Museum, Vargas Museum, and Ateneo Art Gallery. His exhibition,
Bursting at the Seams: Inside Philippine Detention Centers won national and international awards for Filipinas Heritage Gallery of the Ayala Museum. Before pursuing a career in documentary photography, he worked in sales, marketing, and management positions for the US pharmaceutical industry for 18 years.

His next book,
Long Road to Dignity, focuses the spotlight anew on Filipino veterans of World War II.