Lives of great men all remind us
__We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
__Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
__Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
__Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
__With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
__Learn to labor and to wait.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Filipinos and Americans celebrate May as Filipino American Heritage Month and commemorate Memorial Day in the United States also in the same month by recalling and paying tribute the valiant Filipinos who fought side by side with the Americans during the wars – World War I, World War II, Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The celebration is close to my heart as many of my relatives were among those who dedicated their lives during those wars, some perished, some survived. Sadly, I learned about their exploits only recently while preparing two books – one on my grandfather Carlos S. Bulosan and his hometown, Binalonan in Pangasinan, and the other on struggles and achievements of Filipinos in America.
One of the most colorful war veterans from Binalonan, which is also my hometown, was Eligio Jovellanos Tavanlar. He was one of the first Filipinos who trained at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. Tavanlar was a cadet at the premier US military school from 1926 to 1929 when the Philippines was a US colony and by law was entitled to one or two slots in the school. It was unclear if Tavanlar graduated from the USMA but there are documents showing that he also attended Yale University from 1929 to 1931 and then returned home to the Philippines.
While there is scant information on the military career and war record of Tavanlar, Philippine government documents showed that he served in various capacities, including as military adviser during the administrations of Presidents Elpidio Quirino and Ramon Magsaysay who was Defense Secretary prior to moving to Malacanang. Aside as military adviser to President Magsaysay, Tavanlar occupied key positions in the Magsaysay government, including as Undersecretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He moved on as agrarian reform consultant of President Ferdinand Marcos.
As a West Pointer, Tavanlar leads the distinguished military men from Binalonan. The town also produced war heroes, one of them was a relative on my grandmother’s side, Major Ruperto D. Sampayan, who was among the thousands of Filipinos who answered US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call for enlistment to fight in the war. Sampayan ended up with the First Filipino Regiment of the US Army. As a US Army man, Sampayan fought in the battles of New Guinea and the Philippines which led to the liberation of the country from the Japanese Imperial forces.
Sampayan migrated to the United States on August 7, 1942, six years after Carlos Bulosan left Binalonan and landed in Seattle, Washington, based on the records of the Superior Court of California where his Alien Registration No. 496870 under Petition No. 8725 was filed. The record showed he was 32 years old then with registered address in San Francisco, California. Sampayan migrated to America presumably to follow several relatives who had gone to US before as US nationals and without restrictions on entry to the US from 1898 to 1934 (when their status was revoked to that of aliens).
Sampayan’s arrival in US came eight months after World War II broke out following the surprise bombing by the Japanese Imperial forces of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The outbreak of the war prompted many Filipinos and other nationals to enlist in the US Army. Earlier, they were barred from enlisting in the US Army because they were neither citizens nor resident aliens. But to support the US forces in the war, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked to lift the law on the ban and authorized the enlistment of foreign nationals, including Filipinos. Thus, the First Filipino Infantry Regiment made up of Filipino Americans from US and Filipino veterans of the Battle of the Philippines was formed and activated on July 13, 1942 at Camp San Luis Obispo, California initially under the auspices of the California National Guard. Later, the Second Filipino Infantry Regiment was born and saw action in other theaters of the war like Europe where a Filipino, PFC Ramon S. Subejano earned the Silver Star for actions in Germany. The Filipino Regiment accompanied Gen. Douglas MacArthur in his successful return to the Philippines through the Palo, Leyte landing and later in LIngayen Gulf in Pangasinan.
After the war, Sampayan returned unscathed to the US with many members of his regiment and retired as a major in the US Army, a big achievement by a Filipino that time. He and wife Gregoria settled in Salinas, California in the 1950s. Major Ruperto Sampayan was the father of Bob and Steve Sampayan. Bob, who was born in Fort Belvoir, Virginia and grew up under military environment, after graduating from college in San Jose, chose a career also in the uniform, but unlike his father, as a policeman starting in Salinas and Palo Alto in Silicon Valley and eventually in the progressive city of Vallejo. After retiring as a police officer, Bob ran and was elected as councilor and as mayor of Vallejo in the 2016 elections.
Another war hero from my hometown was also close to me, being an uncle on the grandfather side. He was Philippine Army General Amorsolo Guico Gabot, who fought under the United Nations command led Gen. Douglas MacArthur as one of the over 7,400 members of the Philippines’ 20th Battalion Combat Team and the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (PEFTOK) during the fierce Korean War from 1950 to 1953. In that war, Gabot, then an ordinary soldier, fought with newly minted Lt. Fidel V. Ramos fresh from West Point and the University of Illinois with his master’s in engineering. Uncle Amor, like his compatriots who displayed sterling qualities of patriotism, courage and a steadfast dedication to duty, was one of the Filipino soldiers wounded in that war. He was wounded but survived a mortar attack in that war against the combined North Korean and Chinese forces.
Uncle Amor also worked side by side with the United States forces as a member of the Philippine Civil Action Group (PHILCAG) contingent in the Vietnam War which broke out in 1955 and ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975 after more than 3 million people were killed, including 58,000 Americans. With his sterling record in the Philippine Army, Uncle Amor rose to the rank of full colonel and upon retirement was conferred the next highest rank of general.
As a Binalonian, Uncle Amor inspired me to write a book about our town and its illustrious sons and daughters like him, his cousin, the late First Lady Dr. Evangeline Macaraeg-Macapagal, Major Ruperto Sampayan and Carlos Sampayan Bulosan, among others. I am actually doing the finishing touches of the book which, barring unforeseen events, I hope to launch during our town fiesta in February 2021. Unfortunately, General Amorosolo Gabot will no longer be there to see the book as we dreamed about as he passed away due to heat stroke at the age of 91. As his untimely death came during the new coronavirus pandemic lockdown in the Philippines, no relatives were able to extend their personal condolences and sympathies as wake was not allowed and he was immediately cremated with only a surviving son present. Under normal conditions, the Philippine Army would have honored him in fitting ceremonies at the Libingan ng mga Bayani where he should be interred. Hopefully, this will be done when the country goes back to normal.
There were many other Filipinos who fought in wars with Americans, a few, some studies revealed, as early as during the American Civil War, the Mexican War and the Spanish War. We join in remembering these brave Filipinos and in paying fitting tribute to those who had sacrificed their lives.