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The Invisible Veterans 

Thousands of Filipinos fought and spied and suffered and died under American command to help us win World War II. The U.S. government says the soldiers who survived -- now elderly, often living in poverty -- aren't worthy of military benefits. Four storie

Wednesday, Jul 16 1997
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Shame of a Nation
Barefoot and armed only with an old rifle, Fernando Ayes fought in the jungles of Luzon and Leyte islands during World War II under the command of the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East. Ayes' unit, the Leyte Guerrilla Command, joined American and Filipino regular soldiers in a last-ditch defense of the Philippines from the island of Corregidor at the mouth of Manila Bay.

Even though they were under heavy bombardment by the Japanese, Ayes and the others in his platoon escaped from Corregidor before its fall. And even after U.S. forces formally surrendered the island and the Philippines to Japan, the Leyte contingent and more than 100,000 other Filipino guerrillas kept fighting. The members of the Leyte Guerrilla Command continued to harass the Japanese from the mountains of their home island until the war in the Philippines ended in 1945.

Yet according to the U.S. government, Ayes is not a military veteran. The 69-year-old receives no pension or other military benefits -- even though soldiers from all 66 other countries that fought under the U.S. flag in Europe and in Asia have received such benefits.

In 1946, to save money, Congress declared that Philippine soldiers who fought during World War II under U.S. command did not actually serve in the U.S. military. The Rescission Act of 1946 effectively nullified the war service of the 112,000 soldiers of the Philippine Commonwealth Army who were drafted into the U.S. armed forces under a 1941 presidential order, as well as more than 300,000 Filipino guerrillas who fought on behalf of the United States from 1942 on. (A small number of Filipino soldiers who had war-related disabilities and the spouses of dead soldiers were given benefits -- at half the rate paid to American GIs.)

Today, 70,000 Filipino veterans who fought for the Allies are still alive. Among them are survivors of the Bataan Death March, a 65-mile forced trek to the Japanese concentration camps after the U.S. surrender on the Bataan Peninsula.

Most of the veterans are in their 70s and 80s; roughly one-third are U.S. citizens living in the United States. More than 6,000 -- including Fernando Ayes, who shares a one-bedroom Mission District apartment with two other people -- live in the Bay Area.

Despite their numbers, Filipino veterans have had little success in pressing their claims. Other veterans' groups from other nations, including the Hmong, a Southeast Asian tribe whose members often acted as U.S. intelligence operatives during the "secret" portion of the Vietnam War prosecuted in Laos, have won benefits in recent years. But the Filipino veterans' groups have lacked the cohesion and public relations skills needed to spur congressional action.

The Filipino veterans hope this year will be different.
U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) has introduced legislation that would give benefits to Filipino veterans. Similar bills introduced over the past decade have died quickly and with little support, but this year 135 congressmen have signed on as co-sponsors of the measure.

So far, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, U.S. Rep. Bob Stump (R-Arizona), has refused to grant the Filipino Veterans Equity Act a legislative hearing. Filner needs only 18 more supporters to force a hearing against the chairman's will.

The Clinton administration has not supported benefits for Filipino veterans, citing the difficulty of determining eligibility and the potential costs of such a move (an estimated $700 million a year). Last October, Clinton did issue a proclamation "recognizing" the Filipino veterans of WWII. But the statement was little more than a presidential pat on the head. It had no impact on the Rescission Act, or the law's prohibition against benefits for the Filipinos.

Despite the government's apparent indifference to their situation, many -- perhaps most -- Filipino veterans remain deeply and almost perversely patriotic. As they explain why they should get military benefits, they will also tell you how proud they were to serve under the American flag during the war, and how proud they still are to have fought for freedom and democracy in the Pacific theater of the last great war.

The Spy: Concepcion Figueras, 74
After the Japanese army invaded the Philippines in 1941, thousands of families left their houses, fishing boats, and farms and fled to the relative safety of villages in the inland mountains.

Concepcion Figueras was 18 when her family went to live in the forest four miles outside Cordon, an inland town on northern Luzon Island. For four months, the people of Cordon crowded into tiny huts in the woods with little to eat or drink. Once a week, Figueras and several men would leave this forest village with sleds pulled by water buffalo and travel to Cordon to gather food.

They collected the little rice and corn that remained in the fields, working quickly by moonlight to avoid being discovered by the Japanese. Anyone caught would be killed immediately.

Later, in 1942, the Japanese ordered the evacuees to return to their towns -- under threat of death. Figueras and her family returned to Cordon, and she resumed her job as a clerk in the municipal offices.

One night early in 1943, a cousin came to talk with her and her father. Unknown to the Japanese, the cousin was a captain in the U.S. Army's 14th Infantry Division; he asked if she would be a spy for the guerrilla movement, under the American flag. Figueras looked at her father, who nodded his approval, and she agreed. Soon afterward, she resigned from her clerical job.

Concepcion Figueras was different than the other girls of Cordon; everyone in the town had known of the difference since she was a child. The other girls had long hair and wore dresses: Figueras wore her hair cropped short, and always wore pants. She was a lesbian.

She was short and wiry and, at age 18, fearless. She would dance with other women at the fiestas, always leading, undaunted by comments from observers.

About The Author

Tara Shioya

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