Veterans Day 2015: Of bravery, freedom and correcting history: Honoring all who served

Veterans Day 2015: Of bravery, freedom and correcting history: Honoring all who served

A LOT of people in the United States do not know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  For one, they mistakenly believe that Veterans Day is the day that America honors military personnel—either who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in combat.  It is, in fact, Memorial Day, that honors America’s war dead.

On the other hand, Veterans Day, honors ALL American veterans—both living and dead.  The day is largely intended to thank the living veterans for their dedication and loyal service to the US.

History of Veterans Day

Unknown to many, “Veterans Day” was started and internationally known as “Armistice Day” to commemorate the ending of World War I, or the “Great War.”  An unknown soldier was buried in the highest place of honor in both England and France and these ceremonies took place on November 11, celebrating the end of WWI at 11am, November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month of the year).

It was only in 1921 when the US followed France and England—by putting to rest the remains of an unknown WWI soldier, in Washington, DC.  The site became known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and is now called the Tomb of the Unknowns, located in Arlington National Cemetery.  November 11 was known as Armistice Day through the act of Congress in 1926.  Twelve years later, a similar act made the day a national holiday.

It was in 1947 when Raymond Weeks of Alabama, organized a “Veterans Day” parade on November 11 to honor all of America’s veterans for their service.  Shortly thereafter, Congressman Edward H. Rees of Kansas introduced legislation to change Armistice Day to Veterans Day in order to honor all veterans who have served the US in all wars.

The bill was signed in 1954 by President Dwight Eisenhower, making November 11 as Veterans Day.

The war to end all wars:  After WWI

World War I was thought to be the “war to end all wars.”  However, that belief was shattered when WWII broke out in Europe and Asia-Pacific Islands, with more than 400,000 American service members died.

On December 7,1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and eventually started a military campaign to invade Asia and the Pacific Islands, including Guam, Wake Island, the Dutch East Indies, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma and the Philippines.

The Philippines during the outbreak of WWII was a Commonwealth of the United States, and when President Franklin Roosevelt declared war against Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the ravages of war did not come to the US.  Instead, the war was fought in the Philippines, where thousands of Filipino and American soldiers died and million civilians perished.

The US Army Forces of the Far East (USAFFE, consisted of 12,000 Philippine Scouts, 19,000 Americans and 118,000 Philippine Commonwealth troops) were able to disrupt the timetable of the Imperial Japanese Army and prevented them from reaching Australia.  This delay enabled the US and its Allied Forces to harness the necessary resources to turn the tide of war that led to their ultimate victory.  Without Bataan, the war would have lasted much longer or worse, our political landscape today could even be different.

However, the US could not fight the war in two fronts and the troops in Bataan were abandoned.  While President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to save Europe first, the defenders of Bataan fought without any air or naval support, food, reinforcement and ammunition.  Weak, hungry and with no support, the soldiers surrendered on April 9, 1942, most of them suffering from disease and starvation.  They were forced to march some 60 miles in searing heat, with no provisions for food, water or shelter.  This became known as the infamous Bataan Death March, where approximately 10,000 Filipinos and 750 American troops died.  Once inside their prison camp at Camp O’Donnell, another 25,000 Filipino and American soldiers died.

During the liberation of the Philippines in 1945, the Filipino people paid a heavy price.  Manila, once called the Pearl of the Orient, became the second most devastated city in the world after Warsaw.  Approximately 100,000 civilians died in Manila between February and March 1945.  By the end of the war, approximately 1,000,000 Filipino civilians perished.

Bataan Legacy Historical Society (BLHS) and AB199

Only remembered as the largest single surrender in US military history, the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942 has been hidden away in US history because of the stigma of defeat.

The Filipino soldiers’ role during WWII and the suffering of the entire Filipino nation are not mentioned in US history books.  Furthermore, five months after the war ended, President Truman signed the First Surplus Rescission Act in February 1946, which deemed the service of the Filipino soldiers as not full-time, thereby disqualifying them from receiving their rightful benefits.  Many have died without receiving their benefits.  Only handful now are still alive and waiting.   There are only a few of them left and with each passing goes a piece of this history.  Once they are all gone, this seminal point in history will be forever lost.

Bataan Legacy Historical Society (BLHS), a nonprofit organization, was conceived and created to address the lack or even absence of information about the Filipino defenders of WWII.  In 2011, the California legislature passed AB199, a bill which encourages the inclusion of the Filipinos’ role during WWII in the Social Studies curriculum for Grades 7-12.  Unfortunately, after its passage, its implementation has not taken place.

“While the bill had the intention of giving credit to the Filipino soldiers of WWII, the tenuous verbiage in the bill (“encourages” instead of “requires”) is probably one of the main reasons why it has never been implemented,” wrote BLHS Executive Director Cecilia Gaerlan.

Working hard to make this happen, BLHS last year initiated a petition to the California Department of Education through to implement this legislation.   The long and arduous process involves submitting a curriculum framework, edits and discussions to the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), an advisory body to the California State Board of Education (SBE) on matters related to curriculum, instructional materials, and content standards.

“While the Department of Education clearly intends to implement AB199, the process of revising the curriculum framework is a long, arduous process involving ten steps,” explained Gaerlan.  She also added that her last meeting with IQC was only Step 6.

During BLHS’ first annual conference last October 24 at the San Francisco Public Library, organizations, Filipino and American veterans (with their friends and families), community leaders and politicians were present to show their support.

“I oversee the education of 6 million students in 10,000 schools, so I am very determined to make sure that history is very accurate,” said California Department of Education State Superintendent Tom Torlakson during his speech.  He also stressed the importance of knowing history and how to avoid its mistakes.

Others who also showed their support for Filipino veterans were Congressman Mike Honda, State Assembly Assistant Speaker Pro Tempore David Chiu, Chief Johnny Johnson of the USS San Francisco, Major Gen. Richard Keith, 11th Airborne/511th Parachute Infantry, Major Gen. Eldon Regua of the National Filipino Veterans & Education Project and Philippine Consul General in San Francisco Henry Bensurto, Jr.  BLHS is also coordinating closely with other organizations that support and advocate veterans and civilians who were affected by wars such as the Battling Bastards of Batan, Filipino Veterans Foundation, Veterans Equity Center, Memorare Manila 1945, Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Foundation, Roderick Hall Collection on WWII in the Philippines, Maywood Bataan Day Organization, Bay Area Civilians Ex-Prisoners of War (BACE-POW) and the McMicking Foundation.

Lastly, Gaerlan added that in order to fully comprehend WWII in the Philippines, we should go beyond the mandate of AB199 and present the war not just from the Filipino soldiers’ point of view but from all facets — including the American soldiers, civilians and other nationalities that were affected.  In fact, although AB199 is only for California’s curriculum, it is a start.  Putting the word out has gotten the attention of organizations (even non-Filipino groups) in other states, and even in the Philippines.

“To portray history accurately, we must include the Americans,” she said.  “It is only in presenting a comprehensive view can we fully understand the impact of the war and the sacrifices that were made in order to bring the freedom that we are enjoying today.”

For more information about Bataan Legacy Historical Society, log on to

*Photos by Bob O’Brien and Don Downey. 

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