WASHINGTON — About two dozen Filipino veterans of World War II were on hand Wednesday to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award, nearly 75 years after they fought with the U.S. to defeat Japan.
The medal honors the 260,000 Filipinos who fought alongside American forces during the war and the 57,000 Filipino troops who died.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the award is "long, long overdue."
The ceremony at the U.S. Capitol was more than a "feel-good story of delayed recognition," said Ryan, R-Wis. He said the medal is to “immortalize the legacy of these great liberators who have paved the way for generations to follow.”
Also present were many family members of Filipino veterans who already died, along with other congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
One veteran, Celestino Almeda, at age 100, received a standing ovation after speaking to the crowd.
“To my fellow soldiers present and those who couldn’t be here, thank you for sharing this beautiful day," Almeda told the gathering. "As the saying goes, ‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.’”
Another Filipino veteran, Remigio Cabacar, 90, said he was happy his family was there to celebrate the long-awaited event.
“Amazing. Wonderful. Finally. We received what we deserved, the Congressional Gold Medal,” he said.
Margrit Baltazar, whose late husband Jesse Baltazar had survived the notorious Bataan Death March, said: “It’s sad. I miss him very much, but I’m also very honored.”
Baltazar said she could picture her husband giving a speech at the ceremony because he enjoyed talking about the service and sacrifices that the Filipino veterans endured during the war.
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.
After the war, the benefits were quickly rescinded by President Harry Truman in 1946, and the Filipinos who served were stripped of their status as U.S. veterans.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.
As Ryan said at the end of his remarks: “Let this ceremony serve to ensure that those who fought for freedom are never forgotten and are always remembered.”