CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL
By JUN MEDINA
WASHINGTON — Identical bills have been filed in the US Congress bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor, on American and Filipino troops who defended the Philippines’ Bataan Peninsula during the Second World War.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) introduced S.2004 on Dec. 15, and Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) sponsored H.R. 3712 on Dec. 16 seeking belated albeit fitting recognition to thousands of soldiers whose heroic stand delayed the advance of the Japanese invaders and bought time for the United States and Allied forces to regroup and eventually defeat the Japanese Imperial Army.
Those who joined Udall as the bill’s principal sponsors in the Senate were Democratic Senators Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
At the lower chamber, New Mexico Congressmen Steven Pearce, a Republican, and Ben Ray Lujan joined their fellow NM legislator Heinrich in pushing the Bataan defenders’ bill.
“By maintaining their position and engaging the enemy for as long as they did, the troops at Bataan were able to redefine the momentum of the war, delaying the Japanese timetable to take control of the southeast Pacific for needed war materials,” the proponents noted.
“Because of the Bataan defenders’ heroic actions, United States and Allied forces throughout the Pacific had time to regroup and prepare for the successful liberation of the Pacific and the Philippines.”
Supporters of the initiative have started an online signature drive to muster the required two-thirds signature of senators and congressmen to move the bills forward in the legislative process.
‘Daunting but doable’
“It’s a daunting but doable task,” said Maria Embry, a volunteer lobbyist of Antioch, California, in a phone interview.
“The signature drive started at the start of the New Year and it’s beginning to take traction, and we’re getting the support not just of the ethnic Filipino community but also from people from diverse backgrounds who believe in the justness of this effort,” added Embry, the prime mover of the signature campaign.
One of the early supporters of the signature drive, Embry said, is Jose Calugas Jr., the son and namesake of the late Jose C. Calugas Sr. of Iloilo, the first of only two ethnic Filipino WWII heroes to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor (the military equivalent of the Congressional Gold Medal), for his heroic exploits in Bataan.
Since the honor’s inception in 1776, Congress has bestowed about 300 gold medals for heroism and distinguished achievement. The award first honored military leaders, but its scope was later broadened to include civilian achievers, like legendary actor Bob Hope, Walt Disney, Charles Lindbergh, Robert Frost and Marian Anderson.
Just before Christmas, the award was bestowed on the 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terror attacks following the unanimous passage of the Fallen Heroes of 9/11 Act by Congress which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 23.
Other multiple or group honorees include the Navajo Code Talkers, who transmitted secret communications on WWII battlefields and the Tuskegee Airmen, the country’s first black military airmen.
Today, only a few thousand of the defenders of Bataan are still alive. They represent, the bills note, “the best of the United States and the Philippines… [And] the people of the US and the Philippines are forever indebted to them.”
Thousands of Filipinos died side-by-side with their American comrades defending democracy and freedom in Bataan, Embry stressed, adding that “it is only fitting and proper that their sacrifices and heroism be recognized.”
According to the bills, more casualties and sufferings were endured by the joint American and Filipinos forces even after the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942.
Sick, starving and exhausted, the troops were taken prisoner and forced by the Japanese to march 65 miles without food and water in what came to be known the as infamous “Bataan Death March.”
During this forced march, thousands of soldiers died, either from starvation, lack of medical care, sheer exhaustion, or abuse by their captors.
Those who made it to the Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac, had to contend with appalling prison conditions, leading to increased disease and malnutrition among the prisoners, the bills said.
“The prisoners at Camp O’Donnell would die at a rate of nearly 400 per day because of its poor conditions… Nearly 26,000 of the 50,000 Filipino Prisoners of War died at Camp O’Donnell, and survivors were gradually paroled from September through December 1942,” the bill said.
Among those paroled was Calugas, who secretly worked with and passed on information to guerilla forces while being forced to work at a labor camp until American liberation forces under General Douglas MacArthur returned 1945.
If passed and signed into law, the bill will memorialize the defenders of Bataan in a gold medal to be minted by the Department of Treasury in honor of the American and Filipino troops as tangible recognition for their sacrifices and service during the war.
Embry acknowledged that getting at least 290 sponsors in the House and 66 in the Senate, the two-thirds majority needed to move gold medal bills, is the real challenge.
Still another hurdle is the fact that the House has passed a rule limiting Congressional Gold Medals to two a year, in line with the limit for commemorative coins.
But Embry said she is delighted by the fact that other groups, including the Latinos and even mainstream Americans have signified their support for a cause with such universal appeal as honoring war heroes.
She said moves to honor the heroes of Bataan with the Congressional Gold Medal started in 2008. At the time, the role of the Filipinos was not as well articulated as it is in the present version of the bill.
“I think the sponsors better appreciate the sacrifices of the Filipinos, who shed their blood in the battlefields of Bataan in defense of honor and freedom,” Embry said.
Asked about the chances of the bill being passed by the current 112th Congress, Embry said she and other supporters of the initiative are optimistic because, first, it meritorious; and second, it won’t require a big budget other than the projected $30,000 the engravers of US Mint would cost to design and make the appropriate medal.