I’ve just received news that Filipino veterans of World War II were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday, after a lengthy battle for national recognition of their U.S. military service and sacrifices nearly 75 years ago.
“The medal is the highest civilian award and [was] presented at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol to honor the 260,000 Filipinos who fought alongside American forces during the war and more than 57,000 Filipino troops who died.
“Their service began in 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt created the U.S. Army Forces of the Far East, offering full veterans’ benefits to Filipinos who enlisted. The Philippines at that time was a U.S. commonwealth, and Filipinos were U.S. nationals.
“But once the war ended, the benefits were quickly rescinded by President Harry Truman in 1946, and the Filipinos who served were stripped of their status as U.S. veterans. The Philippines was singled out from the 66 nations allied with the U.S. during the war.” – Walbert Castillo, USA TODAY
My grandfather would’ve been 101 years old today if he had received this news. I only know my grandfather through stories my grandmother told me. She lost him when he was 28-years-old. They had grown up together as distant relatives. Despite dying young, they knew each other well enough to have loved while they could.
Dominador Orejudos was a Philippine Military Academy graduate (the equivalent of West Point in the Philippines), a First Lieutenant in the United States Army Forces of the Far East (USAFFE), a Bataan Death March survivor, and later when MacArthur abandoned his troops and surrendered to Japan, he became a guerilla soldier in the jungles of La Union. He was executed by gunfire not far from a beach near San Fernando, La Union, as ordered by a commanding officer of his own guerilla unit who accused him of disobeying orders over a frivolous disagreement they had regarding the use of weapons. It was later revealed there might’ve been double-crossing within the unit itself where there were informants working with the Japanese who specifically wanted my grandfather dead for leading a guerilla unit against them. My grandmother had told horrific stories of Japanese soldiers coming over the house often searching for her husband, and torturing the family. The story goes one Japanese soldier was so taken by my mother’s infant adorableness that he immediately went from horrific tormentor to the sweetest man around a little baby girl.
Dominador died 5 months shy of V-J Day at the hands of his own men.
There’s a bittersweet feeling he isn’t here to see this recognition but also frustration and resentment that it took more than half a century to win this recognition for him and his fellow US soldiers.
While this recognition is happening under a Trump administration, it’s very significant to note this would not have been made possible had it not been for the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, established in 2014, that pushed for legislation to bestow the medal to the veterans, and President Barack Obama signed it into law on December 14, 2016.
I performed this poem at a Filipina women writers’ panel in 2014. This poem has taken a decade to be written. I had hoped to record as much as I could before my grandmother passed away herself. This is only a snippet of the soldier he had been.
Pay your respects
as the granddaughter cries for a funeral she did not attend
cries for an execution she could not stop
and with her whole body expunging its grief
she conjures up her grandfather
from the far white wall of her kitchen
like an old Ilokana espiritista
hoists him up from March 5, 1945 –
the day someone told him to get down on his knees
What were his big ideas?
Would she have even liked him?
Was he a nice guy?
His surviving brown brothers
line the blank skinny margins in American high school textbooks
as a white government smirks at them while they dissolve one by one
in their faded uniforms and empty pockets
and yet here she is in America living inside the irony
of why she is here and why he is dead.
America – the country whom his beloved country served
whom he served only to have his blood
on their hands
Is this the freedom
– God education capitalism success –
he would’ve wanted
or did he suddenly change his mind when
the bullets and knives hailed down like creeping crows?
His American grandchildren swallow the American Dream like
Kronos who swallowed his children whole
until the Dream would be severed from their heads and
tumble out of their minds.
They leaf through textbooks silencing his name
not considered a blonde-hair blue-eyed boy’s history
where Mac-Ar-thur is so much easier to pronounce than Ore-ju-dos
the J pronounced an imperialist H as in Hello Hell Hate Heathen
The granddaughter had hoped it wasn’t him, that his beloved Fely
was simply mistaken into believing it was him
as his wife never saw his face even after
his Bacnotan brothers exhumed his body from its shoddy shallow grave.
His Fely would properly deliver him into the womb of Pilipinas
in the gentle way he should’ve been laid to rest
after his own brown brothers took his life for reasons unknown
except he must’ve been a traitor
with his grand guerilla ideas
for his Pilipinas to be free
He was her husband cousin uncle and
like Antigone who sought to bury Polynices
murdered by their own brother, Eteocles
he too was killed by his own brothers
only to have his Fely his Antigone
reclaim his body and bring him home.
The granddaughter had always thought the Japanese murdered him.
It was Our war against them
until his wife revealed to her 59 years after his death
it was a Filipino USAFFE commander who executed him
over a petty disagreement on the battlefield –
he and his unit were ordered to use machine guns
while he argued being an expert at rifles.
They killed him over that, First Lieutenant Orejudos,
simply over that.
“Enemy” then flipped from the Japanese
to the Filipinos to the Americanos
to our people our families you me.
His daughter confirms the circumstances of his death
in Girl Scout whispers as if the men who bludgeoned him
will somehow rise again like duende from the dirt.
After sixty years of silence, his wife and daughter simply accept
there are bad bad people in the world
not worthy of mention
while their silence drapes the hard truth of
brown brothers dispensing their own.
We forget the dirty details how heroes like him
like Gregorio del Pilar and Jose Rizal
died under their own brothers’ hands
while brown children are taught to believe in
the American Dream Santa Claus and other fairy tales.
We blame Spain.
We blame Japan.
We blame the United States
when his wife and daughter tell the granddaughter quietly
who it was, truly,
who held the guns
who held the knives.
She sees him now, My Caesar,
my soldier, turning to his brothers before he falls
Et tu Filipino?
A young-old ghost, a body of only 28 years
whose spirit roves while the granddaughter cries in her kitchen.
He whispers as they both know the wrath of diasporic descendants
who want to believe in the myth of brotherhood
as this truth shatters these American dreams.
We are liars.
His hands air
His hair dust
His lips a soft icy brush
against her hair her cheeks.
The sweet scent of his sweat
and the dried streams of his blood swirl like ribbons
only to unravel the gift of a wild Ilokana espiritista
waking inside his American granddaughter’s bones.