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

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.

At a fund-raiser for the town's annual fiesta, for instance, people would place bids to dance with pretty girls. The year she became a spy, Figueras placed a bid and began dancing with one of the girls. She steadily bid upward, so she could keep dancing. Eventually, a man walked up to Figueras and demanded that she stop dancing with women. After he began yelling, she punched him in the eye.

The guerrillas knew they had chosen well. They assigned her to travel the Cordon region to learn where the Japanese were headquartered and the size and type of weapons they had.

To do her spying, Figueras would often travel dozens of miles in a day by foot and by bicycle. Sometimes she led a buffalo and a cart, spying while she sold fruits and vegetables.

The Japanese had captured other suspected spies around Cordon. Several of Figueras' friends had been taken from their homes by Japanese soldiers and never returned. But Figueras was secretive by nature -- aside from her father, none of her family or friends were aware of her new occupation -- and the Japanese soldiers knew and trusted her. She had, after all, been a clerk at the municipal offices overseen by the Japanese. Several of the lower-ranking soldiers would even bow as she walked by.

Every few days, a 10-year-old boy delivered her reports to the guerrilla camp, returning with further orders.

One day Figueras received orders to gather information about the Japanese airfield at Jones, four towns away from Cordon. The air base was heavily guarded. Figueras did not know how to get in.

Then she remembered an old school friend, a Filipina who was living with a captain in the Japanese army. At Figueras' request, the woman arranged a visit to the airfield.

The two women spent an entire day touring the site. In her mind, Figueras took note of the number of Japanese soldiers, the size and type of airplanes and weapons. Upon returning home that evening, she wrote a report detailing what was at the air base. From memory, she drew rough sketches of the planes she had seen. The boy took the reports to the guerrilla camp.

The next day, she received a dispatch from the guerrillas thanking her for the information -- and telling her to stay away from Jones. Five days later, U.S. forces bombed the airfield. It was a successful raid, and Allied successes were rare indeed during the first two years of the Pacific war.

Leyte Guerrilla: Fernando Ayes, 69
When Fernando Ayes returned to his family home on Leyte Island one March afternoon in 1942, his father was gone. Japanese soldiers had come to the house and taken him away, neighbors told the 17-year-old boy. The Japanese claimed he was a guerrilla.

Ayes ran to the town of Abuyog, six miles away. He arrived at the schoolhouse that served as the Japanese headquarters, breathless. He asked the sentry where his father was. "He's inside," said the guard, motioning him into the building with his rifle.

His father lay dead on the floor. He had been shot twice in the head. Ayes' heart filled with rage. He wanted to kill the guard, but he mastered his emotions, knowing he too would be shot if he followed his anger. "He was a member of the resistance," the Japanese officer said coldly -- though Ayes knew for certain that his father had never been in the resistance.

The boy hired a horse to carry his father's body home. He slung the body over the animal, and rode back to the house. He wept while he rode.

The news of his father's death traveled faster than Ayes did. His mother, who had been working at the family farm with Ayes' three sisters when the Japanese came, was dying with tears. At 17, Ayes was now the only man in the family.

One month later, he told his mother he would join the guerrilla movement to avenge his father's death. His mother and sisters went to live in a mountain village with an uncle. Ayes hiked 10 miles to the mountains and joined the Leyte Guerrilla Command.

The Leyte guerrillas were 600 Filipino soldiers who operated under command of the U.S. military. They lived in a camp by a river in the mountains. In the jungles, armed with old American shotguns, they would hide and wait for Japanese patrols.

On April 9, word came that the Bataan Peninsula had fallen to the Japanese. The U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) had defended the peninsula for three months, but ultimately a lack of food, medicines, and arms led to defeat.

All U.S. forces, including Ayes' division, were ordered to Corregidor, a small island at the mouth of Manila Bay that had become the headquarters of the USAFFE. Corregidor would be the last defense against the Japanese.

The men fought desperately in the jungles off the beaches at Corregidor. But the Japanese proved too strong. The Japanese had machine guns and cannons; the Filipino soldiers had only rifles. The Japanese were well-supplied; the U.S. forces had nearly run out of food and water.

Day and night, the Japanese bombarded Corregidor from the sea, air, and land. Orange flashes of Japanese artillery lit up the clear night skies almost constantly. After 10 days of fighting, the U.S. forces surrendered. The Japanese had taken the Philippines.

Ayes' unit did not surrender. Wounded, exhausted, and starving survivors hid in the jungle, found boats, and sailed to the island of Leyte, where they withdrew to the mountains and continued to resist. Of the 50 men in Ayes' platoon, only 17 were still alive when Corregidor fell and the Japanese seemed invincible.

Bataan Survivor: Leonardo Asuncion, 75
Leonardo Asuncion still has nightmares. He dreams that he is being chased by Japanese soldiers who have rifles with bayonets attached to them. The Bataan Death March is not something that fades from memory, even after 55 years.

On April 9, 1942, after three months of hunger, sickness, air raids, and retreat, the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East surrendered to Japan. The following morning, the Japanese ordered their new prisoners in the Philippines -- more than 70,000 Filipino and American soldiers -- to begin the infamous 65-mile trek from the Bataan Peninsula.

Asuncion, then 20 and a medic with the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East 1st Regular Division, was herded into a group of 50 men who fell under the direction of five Japanese soldiers. The 55 men set out from Little Baguio and headed north from the base of the Bataan Peninsula toward Japanese internment camps in central Luzon.

Barefooted and starving, with no food or water or rest, the prisoners marched for four days straight. Along the way, the group passed decapitated bodies of American soldiers.

It was one of the hottest months of the year. The temperature exceeded 100 degrees. Desperate with thirst, several prisoners pulled out of line to drink the free-flowing water from the artesian wells along the roadside. Those who did so were immediately bayoneted or shot.

Those who fell, and those who were injured or sick, were killed or left to die. Anyone who went to assist the fallen or ailing faced a similar fate. When a Japanese guard saw one prisoner helping two others who were barely able to walk, Asuncion says, the guard shot all three men and then laughed.

On the fourth day, Asuncion's group stopped overnight at San Fernando, a midway point, where the Japanese fed them a little rice and water. The next morning, they were loaded into a truck heading for the Japanese concentration site at Camp O'Donnel, still farther north.

Asuncion entered the Japanese prison camp on April 13, 1942. He and his fellow prisoners slept on bunk beds in long rectangular barracks made of bamboo and grass roofs. Meals were meager: sometimes rice and boiled sweet potatoes; sometimes rice and rotten boiled sweet potatoes.

He was first assigned to help carry 50-gallon drums of water to the camp from a nearby spring; the camp had no water system. Then Asuncion was put on grave detail. On the detail, he had to arrange the bodies of dead prisoners in 6-by-12-foot holes, sardine-style, for "maximum space conservation." When the holes were filled, they would cover the pile of bodies with a thin layer of dirt to keep the flies and dogs away. Often, he says, he would bury 10 prisoners a day.

He became progressively sicker, and by June 1942, he had contracted malaria, dysentery, and avitaminosis, a disease resulting from vitamin deficiency. The Japanese agreed to release him that month, certain that he would die. When his uncle came to take him home from camp, he was barely able to stand. He had to be lifted into his uncle's wagon.

After recuperating for a year and a half in his hometown, Gerona, Asuncion rejoined the fight against the Japanese. He became a guerrilla fighter under an American-led division, the 202nd Squadron in Western Tarlac, central Luzon.

Equipped with carbines, machine guns, and ammunition delivered by U.S. submarines, the 202nd Squadron would hide in the jungle late at night and ambush Japanese trucks carrying reinforcements and supplies to the northern part of the Philippines. Asuncion wanted to retaliate against the Japanese for what they had done to him, and to everyone else at Bataan. It was 1944, and no one was certain how much longer the war might last.

Boy Soldier: Marcelino Garcia, 68
Marcelino Garcia was 11 years old when the Japanese army arrived in the Philippines early in December 1941. That month, the Japanese destroyed more than half the U.S. Air Force on the ground, and landed troops on Luzon and Mindanao islands. By Christmas, the occupation of the Philippine Islands was virtually complete.

In Tagig, the coastal town on Luzon where Garcia's family lived, the Japanese military had seized horses, cars, trucks, and livestock. The townspeople were hungry. The Japanese had confiscated most of the rice in the town -- people ate boiled sweet potatoes and leaves to survive. Japanese sentries were everywhere.

But like most of the children in Tagig, Garcia did not think much about the war. The tall, quiet boy played basketball with his friends after school when the rains had gone. At night, on weekends, he helped his father fishing.

The boy paid little attention to the Japanese, until one November morning in 1942.

He and his mother were aboard a horse-drawn cart, riding to Santa Ana to sell the fish his father had caught that day. The cart stopped at a checkpoint just outside Tagig, where a Japanese officer ordered all passengers to line up and file past.

He stopped Garcia's mother and demanded to know the nature of her business in Santa Ana. Nervous and not understanding his questions, she hesitated. The officer stepped closer, and slapped her across the face twice, with the front and back of his hand.

The boy watched in angry silence as tears streamed down his mother's face. She set down her basket of fish and wiped her tears. Then she picked up the basket. Garcia followed her as she continued past the checkpoint, and stepped up on the cart.

Beneath his silence, a bitter hatred began to simmer. For days, the boy thought of nothing but what had happened at the checkpoint. He dreamt of revenge, but kept his thoughts to himself.

A few nights later, he and a friend were walking along a riverbank, when he felt the cold, thick muzzle of a gun pressed up against the small of his back. The two youngsters were blindfolded and taken to a boat. After a short trip across the water, the boys were led through the jungle to a house.

Inside, a man's voice told Garcia he knew what had happened to his mother and asked him to join the resistance movement. Garcia and his friend agreed without hesitation.

The blindfolds came off. The room was dark, lit only by a few candles stuck in bottles on the floor. Garcia could not see the faces of most of the men moving through the room in the darkness. But he recognized the man standing before him as Guillermo Casas, a guerrilla leader from his town.

The boys were inducted into M Company, 3rd Battalion, Hunters-ROTC guerrillas, one link in a network of underground organizations throughout the Philippines under the command of the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East. They were returned to their homes that night.

Garcia was happy: This would be his chance to take revenge on the Japanese. He might even be given a gun. He told no one what had happened, not his parents, none of his six brothers and sisters.

For three months, Garcia gathered information for the guerrillas: the location, size, and strength of the Japanese forces; how the Japanese were treating Filipino citizens. But the Japanese began tightening security in the area, and the guerrilla leaders feared that if Garcia were discovered, he might reveal information about the guerrillas because he was young. Casas decided that for security reasons, the boy should be moved to the guerrilla camp in the Sierra Madre mountains.

They hiked to the camp in darkness, climbing only at night, staying in place during the day to avoid being found by Japanese patrols. Garcia joined dozens of other guerrillas who had been living among the snakes, monkeys, and alligators in the jungle for months.

Garcia learned to use a rifle, though the first time he fired it the recoil hurt his shoulder so badly he wanted to give the gun back. Before long, Garcia became accustomed to the weapon, and regular soldiers taught him how to fight in combat.

With every shot he fired on a Japanese soldier, the 12-year-old worked his revenge on the enemy. His old Springfield was a tinkertoy compared to the modern Japanese guns and cannons. But Garcia didn't care; any weapon was enough to equalize his odds against the Japanese.

Barefooted and bareheaded, the guerrillas hid in the jungle; each had an antiquated firearm and a precious ration of 10 or 15 bullets for the Japanese. When the enemy would come near, the guerrillas would start firing. Skirmishes would typically last only about an hour before the guerrillas would run out of ammunition and withdraw.

They did not stay long in one place, moving their camp once every few days to avoid being discovered by the enemy. They lived on whatever food they could find -- bananas, dried wild boar, rice sometimes, more often sweet potatoes.

The guerrillas knew nothing about each other. Some had escaped the Japanese prisoner of war camps. Most were Filipinos, though some were Americans who had stayed behind after Corregidor to lead the guerrillas. But up in the mountains, they were all brothers in the harassment of the Japanese.

Marcelino Garcia was a boy when he went into the mountains. In a few short weeks, he became a soldier. Then he fought the Japanese relentlessly until 1944, when MacArthur returned to Leyte and began the recapture of the Philippines.

Shame in Our State
After the war, Fernando Ayes was called back to service in the New Philippine Scouts, the army that was formed after the U.S. recaptured the Philippines, until 1949. He then became a logging foreman on Mindanao, and later returned to his hometown on Leyte. A truck accident in Guam, where Ayes served under the U.S. Occupation forces, left him blind in his left eye and unable to walk without the use of a cane.

Now he shares a one-bedroom apartment on Mission Street with an elderly Filipino couple. Like many Filipino veterans, he relies on $750 a month in government assistance to make ends meet.

Marcelino Garcia finished high school while continuing to help with his father's fishing on weekends and holidays. He went to college for two years and studied radio engineering, but then had to quit because he needed to work to support his family. He took an assembly line job at an electronics factory in Manila, where he worked until he retired in 1991. He came to the United States that year, and he and his wife now live with their daughter in Daly City. They are supported by their five children.

Concepcion Figueras became a clerk for the Philippine army in Manila. When her father took ill a few years after the war ended, she returned to her hometown, Cordon. She took a clerical job for the municipal government, and later helped her sisters manage their farms when they immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. She followed them in 1992.

For more than 40 years, she lived what she calls a life "with all the vices." She became a born-again Christian in 1987, finding Jesus during a four-day revival in Cordon. Now, she resides in a residential hotel in the Tenderloin, living on $700 a month in SSI.

After World War II, Leonardo Asuncion returned to farming in Gerona, in central Luzon, where he lived until he immigrated to the U.S. in 1994. He lives with his youngest daughter in Van Nuys, and relies on $650 a month in SSI to pay his rent and other expenses. His wife is still in the Philippines; he wants her to join him, but her petition for a visa was denied. He calls her every Friday.

Since June 14, he and 30 other veterans have been protesting at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles to raise support for the Filipino Veterans Equity Act, Rep. Filner's bill. Every other night for the past three weeks, Asuncion has been sleeping at the park with a dozen other vets. The youngest of the protesting veterans is well into his 60s.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.