The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 159 | The Occasional Digression

Leaving Proof 159 | The Occasional Digression
Published on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 by
To commemorate Veterans Day, we pay tribute to a real American (and Filipino) hero on today’s Digression.

A Veterans Day Tribute

My paternal grandfather, Ángel Dimalanta, was born in 1916 in the Philippines (then an unincorporated territory of the United States), the fourth in a brood of ten, the son of an itinerant merchant from Southern China and his Filipina wife. My great-grandparents raised their children to be fully integrated members of early 20th-century Philippine society despite their mixed ancestry (my great-grandfather took a Tagalog surname before he married): They were christened with Spanish and English first names, raised as Catholics (though they practiced a syncretic version that combined Catholicism with Taoist beliefs and rituals), and spoke fluent Tagalog (along with their father’s native Hokkien). After the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the Philippines in 1941, the young Ángel was conscripted into the USAFFE—the United States Army Forces in the Far East—to take part in the defense of the Commonwealth.

A spirited defensive campaign and superior numbers notwithstanding, the USAFFE were outmaneuvered and pushed to their limit by the Japanese, who had mobility, logistics, technological superiority, and the fanaticism of empire on their side. By early 1942, Ángel was a provisional member of “The Battling Bastards of Bataan,” fighting a doomed, delaying action to cover General Douglas MacArthur’s strategic withdrawal to Australia while contending with malnutrition, dysentery, a lack of supplies, and obsolete weapons. His unit was issued late-19th century Krag-Jørgensen and Mauser rifles that were ill-suited for use in the torrential rains and humid tropical jungles—they would use strips of cloth to wad up their rifles’ muzzles to keep water from getting into the barrels while on patrol and more than one soldier suffered self-inflicted injury (or worse) by forgetting to remove the improvised stopper before firing at the enemy.

It took an improbable three months for Bataan to fall to the Japanese thanks to the skill and tenacity of the “Bastards”—drawing Japanese military resources away long enough for MacArthur to reach safety and guerrillas to establish footholds elsewhere in the country—but fall it did, and Ángel soon found himself as one of the 75,000 captured combatants forced on the infamous Bataan Death March, a brutal 128-kilometer trek from Bataan to the prisoner-of-war camp at Camp O’Donnell that saw up to 10,650 marchers (estimates vary) die from exhaustion, starvation, dehydration, injury, disease, torture, and summary execution along the way. An estimated 29,200 more died at the camp itself.

Despite his experiences during the war, my grandfather never struck me as being personally bitter or angry at the Japanese. Oh, he was proud of his service—a Type 94 shin guntō sword he “permanently borrowed” from an Imperial Japanese Army officer near the close of the war took pride of place among his personal effects and he took part in Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) parades whenever he could. But one of the things he always stressed to us when telling stories of the war was he would never have survived the Bataan Death March and his internment if not partially for the efforts of kindly Japanese soldiers who would secretly hand prisoners extra rations when their superiors weren’t looking. Maybe it was his faith that gave him ability to forgive his captors and tormentors and let bygones be bygones after the liberation of the Philippines in 1945, even with all he had seen and suffered. I remember him receiving a letter from a Japanese WWII veteran sometime in the late 1980s, asking to meet him in person to apologize and ask for forgiveness. My grandfather spent the next several days picking out a suit for their meeting at a local restaurant and worriedly working out what to say to his Japanese counterpart. In the end, they never did talk all that much. They bowed to each other, smiled, shook hands, patted each other’s back, and took pictures, nothing but tearfully happy for the opportunity to personally lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

The Rescission Act, passed by US Congress in 1946, stripped the Filipinos who fought in the defense of United States and the Commonwealth of their military benefits, despite the fact that during World War II, these soldiers were American nationals defending US territory from foreign invaders. It would take almost fifty years after the fall of Bataan for the US government to recognize my grandfather’s contributions as a member of the USAFFE. He was one of the select surviving Filipino USAFFE veterans to be granted American citizenship based on a provision in the Immigration Act of 1990. True to form, he was nothing but gracious and thankful for the military honors and partial benefits he finally received in recognition of his military service, extremely delayed and ignominiously mitigated as they were (the shameful treatment of the Filipino-American USAFFE veterans by the US government has given rise to the term “second-class veteran,” see the post-script below).

YAY, CAKE! Celebrating my fourth birthday with my brother and my grandparents at their small diner.

Ángel Dimalanta, WWII veteran, a hero who fought valiantly in the defense of the United States and the Philippines, a survivor whose compassion and humanity never wavered in the face of all that he had to endure, died earlier this year at the age of 95. But he was so much more than that. In business, he was a fair dealer who earned the respect and admiration of all who worked with him and for him. He was a pillar of the community, always ready to lend a hand and anything else to those in need. He was a loyal brother, a loving husband, and a father whose love for his children knew no depths. And he was my grandfather, my lolo, who taught my brother and I to treat everyone with respect regardless of their background and standing, who loved watching Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies with us on Sunday afternoons, who drove his battered Isuzu pick-up truck on mountain trails like they were speedways. He was and is a great man, and I would like to take this opportunity to honor his memory as well as thank all those former and current members of the armed forces who have served and sacrificed so much so that we can live in relative peace.

Post-script: Despite decades of campaigning and lobbying, thousands of Filipino-American USAFFE veterans, many now in their mid-nineties, have yet to receive any benefits related to their military service or have their military service recognized by US government agencies. House Resolution 210 (otherwise known as the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2011) has been languishing in the bowels of the legislature for months and is for all intents and purposes a dead bill despite having 96 bipartisan co-sponsors and strong and vocal support from veterans of the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. If you live in the United States, please take the time to let your elected representative know that these veterans deserve to be recognized by their government for their service and sacrifice for the country before it is too late.

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