They are sometimes called the invisible veterans -- soldiers who defied death fighting for the United States, only to be denied U.S. benefits at war's end.
Now in their 80s, these Filipino veterans, effectively drafted in World War II to fight alongside the U.S. military against Japan, are dying, about 10 a day, while they still hope to win veterans benefits for their service. Their number has dwindled to about 6,000 in the United States and 12,000 in the Philippines.
For 17 years, they have asked Washington for benefits. Now, for the first time, a bill to grant full pension payments to Filipino veterans has cleared the House and Senate veterans affairs committees, raising hopes it could pass this year.
"The stars are in alignment, and we've come so far already," said Ben de Guzman, campaign director for the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity. "But the window of opportunity is closing."
Time is running out for veterans like Peping Baclig, 85, a U.S. citizen and community activist in Los Angeles, who was captured by the Japanese and survived the Bataan Death March in 1942.
The bill has drawn opposition from some veterans groups, which say the plan would fund the Filipino benefits -- which would cost $500 million to $900 million over the next 10 years -- by taking money from a program for disabled veterans whose disabilities are not combat-related. And some opponents of the bill argue that it is overly generous to veterans based in the Philippines, where a lower standard of living would elevate their health and death benefits. They also note that the United States is no longer responsible for the Philippines, which was granted independence in 1946.
"While these Filipino troops may have fought bravely, side-by-side, with American soldiers, they should be looking to the Philippines for veterans benefits," Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) wrote in a column for the Times-Gazette of Hillsboro, Ohio. "They fought in the Pacific theater, presumably on behalf of their native country. . . . The United States has obligations to American veterans. We should not be held responsible for the benefits of the Philippines."
But many Filipino veterans object to being characterized as foreigners. They point out that they served under the American flag, and many were granted U.S. citizenship after the war.
"America is our mother country," Baclig said. "She taught us about democracy and then denied the very principle for which we fought. We fought for the American flag."
Baclig was 20 when he was inducted into the Philippine Commonwealth Army, part of a contingent of 250,000 Filipino soldiers ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve with U.S. armed forces. Battling the Japanese, the Filipino soldiers suffered enormous casualties in some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theater.
Baclig endured the Bataan Death March, during which at least 10,000 prisoners died while forced to march 90 miles in the tropical heat without food or water. Many soldiers who reached for water were killed. Others who collapsed were bayoneted or shot to death. Baclig survived by drinking water from a corpse-filled canal.
Five months after Japan surrendered, Congress passed an amendment denying the veterans benefits, saying that the wartime service of most of the Filipinos "shall not be deemed to be . . . service in the military . . . of the United States." President Truman signed the measure reluctantly because he supported other veterans programs in the bill, and he urged Congress to revisit the issue later. "I consider it a moral obligation of the United States to look after the welfare of the Filipino veterans," he wrote.
The issue has long been championed by members of Congress from California, home to more Filipinos than anywhere outside Manila.
Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), a former historian at San Diego State University, first heard about the issue when he left academia for politics and served on the San Diego City Council. Filipino constituents "educated me on the issue," he recalled. On winning a seat in Congress in 1992, Filner took up the cause to "clear up the historical record" and as "a moral necessity."
Now chairman of the veterans affairs committee, Filner was instrumental in pushing the bill through the panel. He characterizes as "false" the claims that the bill would take money from one group of veterans to pay another. "We put in this budget a $13-billion increase in veterans healthcare based on the expectation that certain bills would be coming through, including this one," he said. "We have the resources to do this. . . . And 62 years after the benefits were taken away, it's about time for justice."
Equally passionate is Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose). He was born in California in 1941 and was a baby when he and his family were forcibly uprooted from their home and shipped to an internment camp in Colorado during World War II, when the loyalties of Japanese Americans were questioned. In 1988, the U.S. government apologized and agreed to pay reparations to Japanese Americans who were interned during the war. Now Honda hopes to restore benefits to Filipinos who fought Japan alongside U.S. soldiers.
"I feel ashamed that we haven't done that," he said. "When our government makes a mistake, it is incumbent on us to correct it."
Over the last few years, Congress has taken some steps to address the issue. In 1990, U.S. citizenship was offered to the veterans living in the United States. In 2000, Congress passed a law allowing them to be buried as American veterans in U.S. military cemeteries. In 2003, they received some health benefits. Now they are seeking pensions that other veterans receive.
"My father was a Filipino soldier who was drafted by FDR," said Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans. His father was buried at Riverside National Cemetery but during his lifetime could not get care at a Veterans Affairs hospital for any illness unrelated to his military service, Lachica said. Most Filipino veterans in the U.S. receive Social Security disability payments but hope to receive veterans pensions, he said.
Baclig said the pension and other benefits were less important to him than the official acknowledgment of his service to his country. "It's the recognition," he said, "the gratitude."