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Filipino Veterans Chain Selves to Statue in Protest

June 17, 1997|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1946, Congress declared "inactive" the service Aniceto Montaos gave to the United States in World War II.

That is what brought Montaos, now 75, along with dozens of other Filipinos who fought with U.S. troops during the war, to protest in MacArthur Park last weekend. And that is why he chained himself Monday to a statue of his former commander.

Montaos, a native of the Philippines, fought in his homeland, which was a U.S. territory, with the 96th Infantry under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. On Buga Buga Hill in 1944, the inadequately supplied patrol he led was besieged for two weeks by Japanese troops.

"We were almost annihilated. One of my men was hit below the ear," he said. "[The bullet] came through his right eye, so that he lost an eye. His right eye was hollow. I still think about it."

Although Montaos and thousands of other Filipinos fought side by side with American troops and were initially promised full benefits and U.S. citizenship, Congress reneged by passing the postwar Rescission Act.

The act excluded all Filipino veterans, except those wounded or killed in action, from the full benefits offered by the GI Bill of Rights.

Since Saturday, as many as 40 veterans have been staging a sit-in--and for one man, a hunger strike--in MacArthur Park to fight for the rights they feel they were denied 51 years ago.

"It was an honor to serve under the American flag. My only regret is that MacArthur has died," Montaos said. "If he were alive today, I know that he wouldn't abandon us."

Angel de la Cruz, 72, who was also chained Monday to MacArthur's statue, has vowed to forgo food and drink only water until a bill pending before Congress, called the Filipino Veterans Equity Act, passes.

"The promise was that all benefits [given] to all American veterans would be given to us," he said. "Now they say whatever benefits you are claiming, you are not qualified for. That's why I'm here to do the hunger strike--to protest the injustice." Sitting under an umbrella next to a painting of MacArthur's landing on the Philippine shores of Leyte, de la Cruz said he had not eaten since Saturday but was feeling fine.

"I am hungry for that bill," he said.

*

The bill, written by Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) and Rep. Ben Gilman (R-New York), would essentially strike from the Rescission Act the language that disqualified Filipino veterans from benefits. The bill, introduced Feb. 26, has yet to be heard in the House. An identical bill is pending in the Senate.

Francisco Estrada, a spokesman for Filner, said the bill's major hurdle is its cost--an estimated $700 million to $1 billion.

"In this era of balancing [budgets] it makes it difficult to increase the costs of the Veterans Administration," Estrada said.

Although the Filipino veterans were considered American nationals during the war, those gathering in the park have since gained American citizenship under the Immigration Reform Act of 1990. But many of the veterans are still trying to prove their military service to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said Rene Junia, a Filipino community advocate who organized the sit-in.

"The ironic situation is that they were given citizenship by virtue of their service in the U.S. Army," Junia said. "But that same service is not recognized for benefits of the GI Bill of Rights." During the war, he added, the estimated 200,000 Filipino soldiers who fought with U.S. troops received 25% to 40% of the salaries that American soldiers were paid.

An estimated 70,000 of the veterans are still alive.

"The veterans have been patient for a long time, but they're running out of patience," Junia said. "They're in the twilight of their years. All the goodwill and trust is evaporating."

Bob Archuleta, a Los Angeles County commissioner of military veteran affairs, said the contribution Filipino troops made in the war was immeasurable.

"Any time a Filipino was caught helping an American, they were executed. Not only would they execute him, but possibly even the family," he said.

"The gamble they took to help America was immense."

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