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Asian Americans lobby to name U.S. Navy ship for courageous Filipino sailor

Telesforo Trinidad in 1939
Telesforo Trinidad, a Filipino man who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in the U.S. Navy, in a photo taken in 1939.
(Trinidad Family)

Asian Americans, veterans and civilians in the U.S. and the Philippines are campaigning to name a U.S. Navy warship for a Filipino sailor who bravely rescued two crew members when their ship caught fire more than a century ago, earning him a prestigious and rare Medal of Honor.

Supporters say naming a ship for Telesforo Trinidad would honor not only the sole Asian American in the U.S. Navy granted the nation’s highest award for valor, but also the tens of thousands of Filipinos and Americans of Filipino descent who have served in the U.S. Navy since 1901, when the Philippines was a U.S. territory.

“I don’t believe it’s a long shot at all. It may be a long timeline, but we’re hoping it’s not,” said retired Navy Capt. Ron Ravelo, the chair of the campaign. “We’re going to be making Navy ships into the foreseeable future, and there’s no reason one of those can’t bear the name of Telesforo Trinidad.”

Trinidad, who died in 1968 at age 77, was so eager to join the U.S. Navy that he stowed away on a lifeboat from his home island of Panay to the main island to enlist, said grandson Rene Trinidad. In 1915, while on patrol on the USS San Diego, he risked his life and suffered burns to rescue two crewmates when boilers exploded, killing nine. He received the medal that year, at a time when the honor could be awarded for noncombat valor.

USS San Diego in 1915
The USS San Diego was the flagship of the Pacific Fleet in 1915.
(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
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Rene Trinidad, a real estate agent in Southern California, recalls his grandfather as a man of few words.

“He let his actions speak for himself,” Trinidad said, “and I suppose that’s why he did what he did.”

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The campaign has grass-roots enthusiasm, and support from Democratic Congress members who sent a letter last month to Thomas Harker, acting secretary of the Navy.

Traditionally, different types of ships have different naming conventions, but there are exceptions, said Samuel J. Cox, retired rear admiral and director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, which suggests names and has previously submitted Trinidad’s for consideration. The secretary of the Navy has final authority and discretion to name and rename ships, Cox said.

Some memorialize states, U.S. cities, naval heroes or distinguished Americans. The number of Navy ships receiving names varies widely by year but averages about eight, of which three or four are named for people, Cox said.

“There simply are far too many heroes compared to the number of ships to be named,” he said.

The Navy says it will stop recruiting Filipino nationals Dec. 31, ending a unique program that each year afforded about 400 of the brightest young men in the Philippines an opportunity to escape grinding poverty by joining the service.

Norman Polmar, author and naval analyst, agrees.

“And I hate to say this, I’m getting a little pain when I say this: Increasingly it becomes political — what party you’re in and who’s in the White House, and occasionally the White House gets involved,” Polmar said.

Former U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus drew controversy after naming naval ships for former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona; the late gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk of San Francisco; and the late farmworker activist Cesar Chavez. The honoring of Giffords, who was shot and severely injured by a gunman in 2011, broke more modern traditions that the person honored must be deceased or elderly.

Critics also said there were plenty of heroic service members to choose from. Mabus said his picks also demonstrated heroism.

Filipino sailors in old photo
Filipino sailors pose for a photo in 1923.
(Filipino American National Historic Society)

In January 2020, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly named a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier after Doris “Dorie” Miller, an African American enlisted sailor who received the Navy Cross for his actions during Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

The naming did not sit well with critics who said that, while Miller deserved to have a ship named after him, it ought not to have been an elite aircraft carrier, which normally bears a president’s name. There’s also ongoing debate over ships named for figures of the Confederacy.

Cecilia Gaerlan, a board member of the campaign on Trinidad’s behalf, said the group would like a surface combat vessel, such as a destroyer or frigate, named for the fireman second class. The naming would be a symbol of the navy’s commitment to “diversity, equality and inclusion during this time of national racial tensions and unwarranted violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-San Diego) said in a May letter to Harker signed by 10 others.

There are other Navy vessels named for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including the destroyer USS Daniel Inouye. The former senator from Hawaii received the Medal of Honor as part of the celebrated 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up of Americans of Japanese descent whose families were incarcerated in camps during World War II.

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There has been a U.S. Navy ship named for a Filipino person, but Gaerlan says the USS Rizal, a destroyer in service from 1919 to 1931, was donated by the Philippine legislature and honors José Rizal, a national hero who never served in the military.

More than two dozen Asian and Pacific Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor since its creation during the Civil War, mostly in the U.S. Army, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. There are roughly 3,500 recipients in all.

Telesforo Trinidad, born in 1890, enlisted in 1910 in the Insular Force established by then-President McKinley and served in both world wars. More than 250,000 Filipino soldiers served in World War II, and thousands died during the 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

Rene Trinidad, 65, said it goes against his cultural upbringing to call attention to his grandfather’s heroism, but his late father wanted the recognition for his own father, who overcame hardship, earned a medal and worked hard to provide for his family. Two sons followed him into the U.S. Navy.

“The bottom line is that Filipinos be recognized for their contribution to the United States, and that every Filipino should be proud of that as well,” he said.


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