Tuesday, March 21, 2017, found me in Washington, D.C., attending my ninth meeting as a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee since I joined the group in February 2016. Every meeting of the CCAC is a remarkable experience, but on a personal level, for me and my family, this particular one had special significance. I feel honored to have been part of it.
One of our main agenda items was to meet with representatives of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (www.FilVetREP.org) and discuss an important project. After more than 70 years, Filipino veterans of World War II will be recognized by the United States with a Congressional Gold Medal. This is a symbolic gesture—a single gold medal will be minted, to be deposited for posterity in the Smithsonian—and it comes after several generations of Filipinos have struggled for official recognition of their wartime service.
“The Filipino WWII soldiers accomplished their mission to protect our freedom. We must now do our mission to support them.” This is the stated goal of FilVetREP. The group quotes the U.S. Army soldier’s creed:
I am a warrior and member of the team.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
More than 260,000 Filipinos in the islands and from the United States volunteered and served in the U.S. military during World War II. Nearly 60,000 of them were killed in action. At the time the Philippines was a commonwealth of the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress promised a simplified naturalization to U.S. citizenship and regular military benefits for those who served. Filipino resistance to the Japanese invasion, and subsequent guerrilla fighting to oppose the occupiers, helped win the war for the Allies in the Pacific Theater. Unfortunately, after the war Congress revoked its promises by passing the 1946 Rescission Act. This act declared that the Filipinos’ participation in the war was not considered “active military service,” and it retroactively annulled their rights, privileges, and benefits as veterans.
Individuals and groups petitioned Congress for many years after the war, seeking to overturn the Rescission Act and gain recognition for Filipino veterans. The mission of FilVetREP is: “To raise awareness through academic research and public education and obtain national recognition of the Filipino-American WWII soldiers for their wartime service to the United States and Philippines from July 1941 to December 1946.”
In 2009 Congress set aside $198 million to provide lump-sum payments of $9,000 or $15,000 to each surviving Filipino veteran. (Some 16,000 to 18,000 are still alive. Now in their 80s and 90s, an estimated 10 to 15 of them pass away every day.) Back in 1946 Congress had offered a little bit more ($200 million) as “compensation” to the Philippines—on the condition that Filipino veterans forfeit their rights under the G.I. Bill of Rights. The Philippine government refused this offer. Congress’s goal, simply put, was to save money: the value of the veterans’ benefits was estimated at $1 billion, or even more. General Omar Bradley reported to President Harry Truman that it would take $3 billion to fulfill America’s obligations to its Filipino military veterans. That analysis was made in 1946. It would have included death benefits, disability benefits, payments made to orphans and widows, mustering-out pay, on-the-job training for disabled vets, ongoing medical care, burial gratuities, and other benefits normally granted to U.S. military veterans.
In 2015, the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act finally recognized the dedicated service of these vets—long after many of them had passed away. “The United States remains forever indebted to the bravery, valor, and dedication that the Filipino Veterans of World War II displayed,” Congress stated in the text of the Act. “Their commitment and sacrifice demonstrates a highly uncommon and commendable sense of patriotism and honor.”
The Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee
How is the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee involved in this overdue recognition? The CCAC is a congressionally established public committee that advises the secretary of the Treasury on designs and themes for U.S. coins and medals. The scope of this mandate includes Congressional Gold Medals, our legislature’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
Congressional Gold Medal bills are approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, then signed into law by the president. The bill for the Filipino veterans’ Congressional Gold Medal was signed by President Barack Obama. Then, officials of the United States Mint met with the sponsors of the authorizing legislation and members of FilVetREP to begin discussion of possible designs for the medal.
I had a chance to speak with Major General (ret.) Antonio Taguba before the part of our CCAC meeting that focused on the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal. (This was the second item on our agenda, following several hours reviewing World War I armed forces medals.) General Taguba was the second officer of Filipino heritage to attain the rank of general in the U.S. Army. He serves as chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. He was accompanied by the group’s general counsel, Erick Soriano; executive secretary Jon Melegrito; Marie Blanco, chief of staff of Senator Daniel Inouye; and Craig Shimizu, staffer for Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. We had a nice chat and General Taguba updated me on his group’s fundraising efforts and record-gathering. They plan to purchase bronze duplicates of the Congressional Gold Medal to present to surviving veterans and to the families of those who have passed.
Addressing the committee, General Taguba spoke about the history of the war, President Roosevelt’s mobilization of the Philippines starting in July 1941, the actions of Filipino soldiers and guerrillas, and the 1946 Rescission Act. He then showed us a short version of the video documentary “Duty to Country,” narrated by Joe Mantegna, which can be seen online at www.FilVetREP.org.
My Personal Connection to the Filipino Veterans of World War II
During a committee recess I gave greetings to General Taguba from my mother-in-law, whom he had met before. Her father was a Filipino veteran of World War II, and she is active in education and recognition efforts. He knew in advance that I would be reading a letter from her into the record of the committee’s meeting.
I explained to the committee that this subject is an important and very emotional one for the Filipino side of my family, and for many other Filipino and American families. The following is my mother-in-law’s statement to the committee. Her father was a doctor before the war, and he joined the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) when President Roosevelt ordered its organization in July 1941.
The Members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, Washington, D.C.
Mr. Dennis Tucker
Dr. Erlinda Rojas Santos, Denver, Colorado
Daughter of Major Teofilo R. Rojas Sr., U.S. Army Forces in the Far East
(Deceased Filipino WW II Veteran / POW)
As the sole survivor of the immediate family of Major Teofilo Rino Rojas, I wish to express our gratitude to the CCAC and the United States Mint for your important participation toward the design of the long-deserved Congressional Gold Medal of recognition for the Filipino veterans of World War II. It is a bitter-sweet victory to finally anticipate this gesture of respect and honor for those who served and died, after waiting almost 75 years for the approval of the United States Congress.
My late mother Rosario, brother Teofilo Jr., and I suffered also the rigors and dangers of the war, and the painful memories are still clear in my mind. My sister Vicenta was born in 1945 in a hut in the marshes far from the edges of the Maguindanao River in the province of Cotabato in Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, as we fled farther and farther away from the pursuing Japanese armies that patrolled even in the dead of night. Daddy was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, a mountainous province in central Mindanao, far from us. After the Liberation our dad reverted to civilian life from his military service, as he requested to return to his private clinical practice as a dental surgeon. My younger brother Cornelio was born in 1950. Sadly, all of my family members are now gone and I am alone to savor a tinge of hope for a long-awaited glory for my father, who went through immeasurable danger. The wartime distress and injury that lingered on through the rest of his life necessitated his trips for medical exams and hospitalization at the Veterans’ Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City, Luzon, where he died in 1988. His casket was draped with the American flag. His veteran buddies had often convened in meetings at our home to plan measures to address their needs to the United States government. Over the years their lights also were dimmed, in death or terminal illness.
How proudly my dad would have stood in his military stance were he around to receive personally this medal. Surely a tear would be shed—a moment to crown his service as a member of the Medical Corps of the United States Army Forces in the Far East! As an orphan and a widow, 81 years plus in age come that awarding ceremony, I shall be a forlorn figure, hopefully still able to receive on his behalf the bronze duplicate of the coveted Congressional Gold Medal in my trembling hands, with prayerful thanks.
Dr. Erlinda Rojas Santos, daughter of Major Teofilo Rino Rojas
It was difficult for me to read this letter without being overcome with emotion, knowing the history of this part of the war and the Rescission Act of 1946, and the sad way it touched so many lives.
CCAC Discussion of the Medal’s Design
Several CCAC members—all of whom are well educated in American history—remarked that they weren’t aware of this aspect of World War II. The tragic extent of Filipino losses in the Bataan Death March (which killed some 10,000 Filipinos and 700 Americans), the injustice of the Rescission Act, and other stories never entered the mainstream narrative of the war’s history. Committee member Mike Moran noted that his home state of Kentucky’s public schools don’t emphasize or even specifically mention the sacrifice of Filipinos in Bataan.
Committee members described the Congressional Gold Medal as being long overdue.
Erik Jansen asked that the design of the medal take a symbolic approach, featuring “no guns, no soldiers charging hills.” Dr. Herman Viola also recommended that it avoid combat scenes, focusing instead on the richness of Filipino culture. Robert Hoge suggested that the medal show the horror of war juxtaposed with a view of the paradise destroyed by warfare. Donald Scarinci advised the members of FilVetREP to reach consensus amongst themselves on a desired design or two or three, and then to “trust the Mint’s artists and have confidence in their talents.”
Heidi Wastweet encouraged the use of symbolism, and cautioned against trying to include too much detail. “Including one regiment or battle excludes others,” she noted. She also recommended against showcasing the 1946 revocation of the veterans’ rights. “Focus on what they did,” she said, “and not what they were denied.”
Jeanne Stevens-Solmann described this as “an unusually emotional gold medal, and well deserved.” She asked that the Mint’s artists address it “with amazing care,” noting the “huge responsibility to portray what’s happened in the 75 years that have passed with nothing happening.” From a design perspective, she said that “Sometimes the text can be the art,” suggesting that lettering in a spiral or other artful form, as part of the design, can be used to represent life.
Committee Chair Mary Lannin suggested the symbolism of the sun, which brings life—perhaps showing a Bataan prisoner marching toward the sun.
Mike Moran suggested that the medal should focus on the individual aspect of the war. My own suggestion was to show a young Filipino soldier in 1941, at the time that President Roosevelt activated the USAFFE, and the same soldier, much older now and finally recognized by Congress, in 2016.
Next Steps for the Congressional Gold Medal
General Taguba and his colleagues from the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project heard our committee’s recommendations on designs and concepts. They will discuss ideas internally and come to a consensus on what they’d like to see on the medal. The Mint’s artists will use that guidance to create design proposals (sketches). Some months from now, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (which also advises on coinage and medal designs) will each review these sketches in conjunction with representatives of FilVetREP.
In practice, by the time a Congressional Gold Medal’s honored organization or sponsoring group decides what designs it wants on its medal, the CCAC will advise only on technical aspects (e.g., if fine details of a design would be too small for minting), rather than on the theme or specific elements used in the design.
After reviewing potential designs, the CCAC and the CFA will each give our formal recommendations to the secretary of the Treasury. He will then make the final decision on the medal’s obverse and reverse designs. The designs will be sculpted by engravers at the Philadelphia Mint, and then struck in gold. The single gold example of the medal will be presented to the Smithsonian Institution for display (and to share with other museums and groups for education), and three-inch bronze examples will be available for purchase by the general public.
While we await the final version of this important and long overdue medal, we can learn more about Filipino veterans of World War II at www.FilVetREP.org. ❑
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