Eight of those veterans ranging in age from their early 80s to mid 90s gathered at a reception for a photography exhibit on the second floor of the Jersey City Five Corners Branch Library last week.
The photographs showed various images of the World War II-torn Philippines during the 1940s. The exhibit started last Monday, July 7, and ended this past Friday, July 11.
The event was organized by the New Jersey chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Filipino culture.
But the event was an opportunity for the veterans to not only share their stories with those who wanted to listen, but also to bring awareness to the S-1315 bill.
Also known as the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007, the bill currently pending in the U.S. House of Representatives would provide benefits to World War II Filipino soldiers who were deprived of veterans' benefits after the Philippines gained its independence from the U.S. on the Fourth of July, 1946.
Didn't get same benefits
According to local resident Linda Mayo, a liaison officer with the Filipino American National Historical Society present at Monday's event, there are an estimated 20 Filipino veterans living in Hudson County right now, down from 148 in 1990.
One of those surviving veterans is 83-year old Victorino Martin, who was a 17-year-old military scout helping the Americans during the war.
"We hope the American government will come through and give us our benefits," Martin said. "Like Douglas MacArthur said, "I shall return.' "
War was hell; they survived
Mentioning Philippines and World War II in the same sentence evokes the brutal Bataan Death March, a 60-mile march through the central part of the Philippines made by over 77,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war (POW) in April, 1942.
The forced transfer was marked by beatings and killings by the Japanese of an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Filipinos and 600 to 650 American prisoners of war.
But many of these prisoners of war escaped either while on the march or before they were made to march.
Escaping a possible death was 91-year-old Alfredo Diaz, who in April 1942 was a sergeant major in the 94th U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery.
Diaz, who has lived in Jersey City since 1986, was one of 66,000 Filipino soldiers who were surrendered by U.S. forces to the Japanese before the brutal march.
But Diaz and five of his fellow soldiers managed to escape the Japanese.
Last week, Diaz looked at photos hung on a wall, images of not only the Bataan Death March, but also of major military actions as the Battle of Corregidor.
"I think of the brutality of the Japanese, about 'Erlinda,' who was raped and killed by Japanese soldiers, whose name became our battle cry" Diaz said.
Diaz, who also is the vice-president of the Hudson County-based Philippine American Veterans Organization (PAVO), said he hopes the S-1315 bill will be approved this year.
"Since 1946, when the U.S. Congress declared that we couldn't receive benefits, we have been fighting to get those benefits, which is so important," Diaz said.
Understanding their struggle
Linda Mayo, a native of the Philippines, said she first got involved with the veterans in 1992 after being appointed by then-Gov. Jim Florio's to the state's Ethnic Advisory Committee. She remembered a ceremony Florio held in 1992 in honor of the soldiers who served in the Philippines.
"They were no Filipino veterans represented at the event, and I told Florio that more Filipinos died over there than Americans," Mayo said. "And ever since, I have been an adopted mother to them."
Jersey City native Guy Catrillo, who also attended the event, has been working with the veterans to help them get their benefits in the past 20 years.
"My uncle Carmine fought in the Philippines in World War II, and he would tell me stories of how they were honest and brave people," Catrillo said. "There are not many of them left and we should do what we can to help them now."
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