WASHINGTON, DC — Ninety-four-year-old Pat Ganio traveled more than 700 miles, from his home in Jacksonville, Florida to Washington, DC, to meet old comrades at the World War II Memorial on a chilly afternoon to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of Bataan Day, officially celebrated in the Philippines on April 8 as “Araw ng Kagitingan” (Day of Valor). But this time, only three of his comrades made it.
There used to be dozens of them at gatherings, after the national memorial opened in 2004. At the first Bataan Day held at the memorial plaza the following year, Ganio and members of the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans (ACFV), which he led, turned out in large numbers to lay a wreath in memory of those who served.
On other days, they walked the halls of Congress, urging senators and US representatives to pass veterans legislation, such as the equity bill or family reunification measures.
For many years, ACFV actively lobbied Congress to restore Filipino World War II benefits taken away from them by the Rescission Act of 1946. And Ganio was a constant presence, at congressional hearings, or at White House pickets.
Now disabled, he sat on a wheelchair under a gray sky while war buddies Celestino Almeda, 97, Remigio Cabacar, 87, and Rudy Panaglima, 81, came over to greet him. It was a happy reunion. But unlike Ganio, these old soldiers are still able to get around and make it to the memorial.
Clearly saddened by thoughts of comrades who are ailing, or who have passed on, they lightened up with smiles only when dozens of tourists came by to pose for pictures and to thank them for their wartime service.
It was a brief moment of cheer. Soon after, as a color guard led the wreath-laying ceremony and a young man, the grandson of a Filipino veteran, played taps, the four friends and comrades-in-arms watched in silence. It’s been nearly 70 years since they last heard the guns of war, after thousands had died, when liberation finally came.
“Of those who survived the battle, about 500 Filipino veterans die each day now,” said Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret.) during a commemoration program held at the Philippine Embassy later that evening. Himself the son of a veteran, Taguba recalled there were 260,000 when the war started in 1941. Today, only 16,000 to 17,000 remain.
“But for all their sacrifices and wartime service, they have yet to receive their well-deserved recognition from this country,” Taguba said. “We started fighting for their rightful benefits. Then we worked for family reunification measures so their loved ones can join them here. Today, it’s about getting recognition for our veterans.”
Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, right, hands out brochures of the FilVetREP campaign to Filipino veterans and sons and daughters attending the Bataan Day commemoration program at the Philippine Embassy.
Congressional Gold Medal
As dozens of family members – sons and daughters and grandchildren of veterans – listened, Taguba outlined “an international campaign” to seek the Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino World War II veterans with a Proclamation recognizing their services.
He added that the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP), formed for this purpose, will also develop and implement an education program for secondary school children.
“We want future generations to remember not only Bataan and Corregidor and how they fought to the end,” Taguba said. “We want our children and our children’s children to know that they are enjoying a life of freedom today because of the great sacrifices made by their grandparents.”
‘Important piece of paper’
Taguba noted that the Proclamation from Congress could be “the most important piece of paper hanging on the wall because it’s proof of their service to this country. And I know that some will take it with them to their grave. For families and survivors of veterans who died, this piece of paper will tell their story of how they have willingly, unquestionably and with dignity and undivided devotion gave their life to a country they were not even born in.”
In his remarks, Patrick Chuasoto, Philippine Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, said the Philippine government will to continue to fight for veterans benefits and collaborate with FilVetREP to secure the Congressional Gold Medal.
“The bravery of our Filipino soldiers always inspires us,” he said. “The Philippines was the last country to surrender in the Pacific campaign because our soldiers never gave up fighting. Never forgetting what they did is the best way to protect our children and their children from the horrors of war.”
Comrades-in-Arms, from left, Remigio Cabacar, Celestino Almeda, Rudy Panaglima and Pat Ganio wait for the wreath-laying ceremonies to begin. Standing behind Ganio is Dick Aquino, son of a veteran.
Rey Regis of Oxon Hill, Maryland, a retired US Navy veteran who attended both wreath laying and commemoration ceremonies, was glad to hear about what’s being done for veterans. His father, Esteban (now 86) fought with the guerillas in Tacloban, Leyte, and witnessed the amphibious invasion led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur that launched the liberation of the Philippines from three years of Japanese occupation.
“We cannot progress into the future without remembering the past,” he said. “I can’t begin to equate my own experience with what my father went through, because what he did was a great sacrifice. By learning what service means as exemplified by their selfless devotion to duty, we can strive to make this world better.”
Regis has a 27-year-old daughter who has followed her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by serving in the US Air Force.
Taguba’s announcement of an education program in secondary schools also delighted Bayani Pioquinto of Ft. Washington, Maryland., a federal employee at the Dept. of Commerce. His father, Vicente, was a Death March survivor who died in 2003.
“The story of Filipino World War II veterans must be required in schools,” he says. “Young people need to learn about their sacrifices as part of our nation’s history. By instilling in our children a sense of pride, we make them civic-minded citizens and better prepared to be future leaders of this country.”
Bataan Day at the Philippine Embassy ended with a viewing of film clips of the war, the Death March and recollections by veterans who survived. One segment cited a quote by Gen. MacArthur who praised the Filipino soldiers in Bataan for fighting in a battle they were never expected to win: “No Army has ever done so much with so little and nothing became it more than its last hour of trial and agony.”
Ganio, despite an exhausting 12-hour drive that day, remained riveted to the screen, which flashed battlefield scenes that seem so distant now. His three other comrades sat beside him in the darkened room throughout the evening.
Seated directly behind them was Ben Hur Cabiao, son of a Filipino veteran from Camiling, Tarlac, who died at 74. “They gave their very best to defend freedom,” he said as the lights came back on. “Their selflessness is truly inspiring and enlightening, something we should all try to emulate.”