By Roy Mabasa
After more than 70 years, Filipino veterans who fought side by side with the Americans in World War II finally got yesterday their long-overdue recognition – a Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) award from the United States Congress.
The ceremony took place at 9 a.m. Wednesday (9 p.m. in Manila) at the Emancipation Hall at the United States Capitol building with officials of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in attendance.
At least 20 surviving veterans were present to receive the award, together with some 400 family members of other WWII veterans who flew in from around the United States and from the Philippines, South Korea, and Canada. The whole Capitol area was closed to visitors from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. except those invited to attend the ceremony.
“Their bravery, heroism and dedication played an integral part in leading Allied powers to victory over Nazi and fascist forces,” US House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) said in an earlier statement announcing the award to the Filipino veterans.
Known as the “Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015,” Public Law No. 114-265 honors Filipino WWII veterans for their achievement which had an impact on American history and culture. The Congressional Gold Medal award is the highest civilian honor the United States can award.
Some of the world leaders and famous personalities who have been bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal are George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Neil Armstrong, Tony Blair, Charles Lindbergh, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
The bipartisan, bicameral ceremony was led by Speaker Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Kentucky), Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California).
In July, 1942, in response to the call of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, some 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers served and fought with US soldiers in World War II.
Of the 260,000, more than 57,000 were killed in action and thousands were wounded. There are today about 18,000 Filipino WWII veterans still alive. About 2,000 to 6,000 of them are living in the United States.
Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP) chairman Maj. Gen. (ret.) Antonio Taguba said, “We secured the Congressional Gold Medal to honor our veterans and demonstrate our deepest gratitude for their supreme sacrifice.”
Taguba, a Philippine-born retired major general in the US Army, is known for his explosive investigation on alleged abuses committed by American soldiers inside the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq during the George W. Bush administration.
Only one gold medal will be minted and permanently housed in the Smithsonian Institution. In the evening, the FilVetREP will lead the presentation of bronze replicas of the CGM to living veterans and designated next of kin.
FilVetREP is an all-volunteer national initiative composed mainly of Filipino-Americans who lobbied for the recognition of Filipino and American veterans in the United States and the Philippines for their wartime service in World War II.
The US Congress provided the funds to mint a single gold medal with the design endorsed by the US Commission on Fine Arts (CFA). The design shows three veterans – a Filipino Scout, an infantryman, and a guerrilla. The reverse shows the flags of the US and the Philippines and a list of some of the major battles in the country such as Bataan, Corregidor, Leyte, and Southern Philippines.
CFA Secretary Thomas Luebke, in a letter to US Mint Acting Deputy Director David Motl, said the commission members recommended designs for the medal with some changes recommended by US Mint Sculptor-Engraver Donald Everhart II Everhart with regards to the historical accuracy of the helmets and uniforms, as well as a revised pose for the central figures so that all three soldiers are looking in the same direction.
The law honoring the Filipino veterans was signed by then US President Barack Obama last January. At a meeting on Feb. 15, a team of US mint and FilVetREP personnel, briefed the artists and illustrators on the story of the Filipino World War II veterans.
Assisting the CFA in reviewing the designs was the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC). The secretary of the treasury made the final decision on the design. The US Mint’s engraving staff then began the sculpturing and tooling work.
The Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015 directed the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore to make arrangements for the award, on behalf of the US Congress.
The medal, the cost of which will be charged against the US Mint Public Enterprise Fund in an amount not to exceed $30,000 (about P1.4 million) will be on display at the Smithsonian, which will make the medal available for display elsewhere, particularly at locations associated with the Filipino war veterans.
Meanwhile, Malacañang lauded the awarding of the US Congressional Gold Medal on Filipino veterans of World War II, saying it would help deepen the relations between the Philippines and the United States.
“The US Congressional Gold Medal bestowed to our Filipino veterans is a testament to the indomitable Filipino spirit, heroism and sacrifices displayed by our veterans in enduring a war for our country’s freedom and future,” Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said.
“This is a positive development and contributes to further strengthening the deep and long-standing ties between the Philippines and the United States,” he added.
The US Congress was expected to present the medal in honor of the Filipino veterans following a long battle for recognition of their sacrifices several decades ago. The medal, reportedly the highest civilian award, will be presented during a ceremony at the US Capitol.
Abella also urged the public to pay tribute to the war veterans and show gratitude for their sacrifices.
“Let us take time in honoring our veterans who bravely fought for our freedom and for their abiding loyalty to the flag and country. We also ask our younger generations to give our veterans the utmost respect and gratitude they truly deserve,” he said.
“We hope this serves as a reminder for all, in particular those in government, to continuously work hard and never waver in efforts to secure the greatest common good for our nation,” he added. (With a report from Genalyn D. Kabiling)