MANILA // The three elderly veterans were already on their way to the capital by the time dawn broke over the countryside where they once waged a guerrilla war against occupying Japanese troops. They drove over rough roads until reaching the main motorway, finally arriving about noon at the US Embassy in Manila. The eight-hour drive from the northern town of Isabella was the final leg of a journey that began almost 70 years ago.
Jose Gamozo, 92, Gagarin Rosete, 86, and Dominador De La Cruz, 85, had come to file claims for benefits promised them by the US government during the Second World War. More than 200,000 Filipinos signed up to fight the Japanese alongside American soldiers, and they were promised the same post-war pensions and benefits as their US counterparts. But in 1946, Harry Truman, the US president, signed a bill rescinding that offer. Decades of lobbying by veterans and supportive US congressmen failed to convince successive administrations to live up to the pledge, leaving many veterans feeling betrayed.
That has finally changed - at least in part - with the election of Barack Obama as US president. Included in his recent $787 billion (Dh2.89 trillion) economic stimulus package was $198 million for payments to surviving Filipino veterans. "He is like a Filipino!" Mr Rosete said. "We are happy to be given this after 70 years of waiting," Mr De La Cruz said. "They remember us, that we fought under US command for the US government."
Mr Gamozo said nothing, but his black cap with the emblem of a Philippine flag made the only statement he needed: "WW-2 Veteran Guerilla," it said. Not everyone is satisfied with the offer of $9,000 to Filipino veterans and $15,000 to those who have become US citizens. Only veterans themselves can collect the payments; the spouses and families of those have died cannot claim benefits. About 19,000 Filipino veterans are still alive and eligible for the offer, according to US and Philippine officials.
The compensation package "discriminated against the 80,000 surviving spouses of Filipino soldiers who died fighting the Japanese invaders", wrote Godofredo Peteza, of the Veterans Federation of the Philippines, in a letter to Manila's Daily Inquirer newspaper. Mr De La Cruz agreed that payments should be extended further. "Remember, there were about 200,000 strong Filipinos that fought during the war," he said.
The American Coalition for Filipino Veterans argues that Filipinos who served with US forces should be entitled to the same benefits as US veterans, including access to medical centres and nursing homes run by the US department of veterans affairs. The coalition also wants a monthly pension of $300 for Filipino veterans. The Philippines was a US territory until gaining independence at the end of the Second World War, which killed an estimated one million Filipinos.
When he signed the Rescission Act in Feb 1946, Truman acknowledged the "bravery and loyalty" of Filipino soldiers. But in a letter, preserved in the Harry S Truman Library and Museum, he argued that the government could not afford to make the promised payments to those soldiers. "There can be no question but that the Philippine veteran is entitled to benefits bearing a reasonable relation to those received by the American veteran with whom he fought side by side," Truman wrote to members of the Senate and House of Representatives. "From a practical point of view, however, it must be acknowledged that certain benefits granted by the GI bill of rights cannot be applied in the case of the Philippine veteran."
Mr Rosete recalled the day he heard that the US government had reneged on its promise. "We were hurt because it was like we'd never been fighting [alongside US soldiers]," he said. Despite the blow, Mr De La Cruz said he and other veterans did not turn against their former allies. "We were not angry," he said. "We were just hopeful that they would give us the compensation some day." Mr Rosete said in addition to the payment, he had one more request: "The Americans - we do hope that they acknowledge our hardship."
With that the ageing former soldiers crossed the street, Mr De La Cruz taking Mr Gamozo by the hand to steady him as they walked towards their vehicle to make the long journey home. firstname.lastname@example.org