UNDER the banner of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP), 25 Filipinos Americans from across the U.S., including a living World War II veteran, were among the more than 5,000 participants who converged in White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on March 19 for the Bataan Memorial Death March (BMDM). Six Filipino military personnel, representing the Philippine Department of National Defense, also joined the marchers who either ran or walked the 26.2 miles or 14.2 miles of rugged terrain of gravel and sand.
It was the third annual event attended by Senior Chief Petty Officer Remigio ‘Ray’ Cabacar, 95 (U.S. Navy Retired), of Ft. Washington, Md. who braved a cold Sunday morning to see the marchers off with high fives and fist bumps. He is one of only two living veterans in the Washington, D.C. area.
Considered one of the toughest of its kind in the U.S., BMDM honors the sacrifice of approximately 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers who endured the grueling 65-mile march to prison camps in April 1942. Of the estimated 10,000 who died during that ordeal, about 9,000 were Filipino soldiers.
The presence of Filipino Americans in this annual marathon, which was first held in 1989, has been significantly highlighted every year since 2017 when the Philippine Flag and the Philippine National Anthem were prominently displayed and sang at official ceremonies. The 2017 event was historic as it was also the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March.
At this year’s opening ceremony, WSMR Commander Brig. Gen. Eric Little reminded the marchers that “While you’re marching through the high desert this morning, likely into the afternoon, remember those who were forced to participate in a very different march 81 years ago, many to the death. When your feet hurt, knees, hips, whatever the body part think about them. Use that as fuel to reinforce your remembrance of these great heroes. We, everyone marching, really are privileged with the opportunity to honor their sacrifice today.”
Humbling and inspiring
A first-time marcher, Joe Garbanzos of San Diego, CA. says of his experience as a non-military participant: “I was humbled by the sacrifice made by veterans and their families, and inspired to see sprite living veterans in their 90’s braving the freezing desert morning to see the marchers off. I was also amazed to see inter-generational marchers – young men and women, X-gens, proudly marching in honor of their ‘lolos.’ It tugs one’s heart.”
Garbanzos, a FilVetREP board member, is a community advocate in healthcare and livable communities and AARP’s California State President.
Christy Poisot of Houston, Texas, granddaughter of World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor Francisco Panis, has been marching in White Sands for six times now. “I am involved with FilVetREP because I was in search of myself and how my grandfather’s story of survival was never really told,” she says. “Our participation in a major national event like this helps create greater awareness of these stories which, some veterans tell me, are never meant to be told.” Poisot is National Vice President of the Filipino American National Historical Society and FilVetREP Regional Director.
Congressional Gold Medal ceremony
Since 2018, FilVetREP’s education project and a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony have been part of BMDM’s official activities, held at the Las Cruces Convention Center. This year, more than a hundred people saw a presentation of FilVetREP’s online education program, “Duty to Country,” and witnessed the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to six recipients.
The two living veterans honored were 97-year-old Lt. Nino A. Sylmar, who served in the Recognized Guerrilla Forces and a Bataan Death March prisoner of war; and Lt. George Bach, 96, a platoon leader in the Philippine Scout Detachment, Army Forces Western Pacific.
The other awardees include: Staff Sergeant Harley Shaw (deceased), a U.S. enlisted soldier in the 200th Coastal Artillery Regiment and a Bataan Death March survivor. Her great niece, Deborah Apgar, accepted the award. Technical Sergeant Geronimo Secretario (deceased) served as a mess sergeant serving the 45th and 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts, a Bataan Death March survivor, and a member of the Recognized Guerrilla forces. His son Magdelino Secretario Sr. accepted the award. Sergeant Rafael Pamintuan (deceased) was with the 554th Ordinance Medium Automotive Maintenance Company of the Philippine Scouts. His son, Rafael Pamintuan, Jr., accepted his award. Private Emilio Y. Alzona (deceased) served under the 24th Field Artillery Regiment of the Philippine Scouts and a Bataan Death March survivor. His niece, Cezarina C. Alzona, accepted his award.
The award ceremony was the 102nd since that epic day of October 25, 2017, when Congress formally recognized the more than 260,000 soldiers who served under the U.S. flag. It was also the third award ceremony in Las Cruces. In 2018 and 2019, FilVetREP honored seven living World War II veterans and 32 descendants with the medal. More than 3,000 medals have been awarded so far.
In his remarks, FilVetREP Chairman Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (ret) noted that, although it took nearly 75 years to secure U.S. recognition for the 260,000 men and women who served, “this moment will be long remembered and eternally enshrined in our minds and historical record.” The law’s passage, he added, “finally recognized their wartime accomplishments, restored their honor and dignity, and claimed their right to be called veterans.”
Reynaldo B. Mapagu, Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) Administrator, who led a delegation of Department of National Defense officials, also spoke at the CGM ceremony. He noted that only 1,367 veterans are still alive today. To date, PVAO has conducted 23 awarding ceremonies in various parts of the Philippines. Of the total 666 awardees, 319 are living veterans. “We will continue to find ways to ensure that the benefits that our veterans deserve are more accessible and more responsive to their needs while they are still with us,” Mapagu said.
The next mission
FilVetREP’s next mission, Taguba asserted, is to have Congress rescind the Rescission Acts of 1946, that denied veterans their status of active service and deprived them of rightful benefits. “FilVetREP is launching a national repeal campaign to close a dark chapter in U.S. history that has created a lifetime of indignation and injustice that still lingers to this day. They accomplished their mission. We must now accomplish ours,” Taguba said.
FilVetREP is also supporting a campaign to honor Telesforo Dela Cruz Trinidad, the only Filipino in the U.S. Navy to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in 1915 aboard USS San Diego. The U.S. Navy has already approved naming a ship after Trinidad and funding its construction. Once completed in the Fall of 2026, it will become part of the active Navy Fleet. Col. Nonie Cabana, USAF (Ret), a FilVetREP board member and Founder/President/CEO of the USS Telesforo Trinidad Commissioning Committee, said the commissioning ceremony will be held in San Diego, CA. in 2028.