PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. (June 27, 2022) – Corregidor had fallen. The Commonwealth of the Philippines, a United States territory since 1898, was occupied by the Japanese Empire. Disastrously, the United States had entered World War II, but Japan had taken five months to conquer the islands. Thus, while tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers had surrendered, and a few fought on as guerillas, many others escaped, often evacuated after being wounded. Upon recuperation, these men needed to regroup. Meanwhile, in the United States, but mainly in California, many of Filipino ancestry were eager to help liberate the islands. How did the Army respond?
In April 1942, the Army activated the 1st Filipino Infantry Battalion at Camp San Luis Obispo, about 150 miles south of the Presidio of Monterey. Filipino soldiers who had escaped the fall of the Philippines reported to the unit as did Filipino Americans who had volunteered after enlisting. The Army saw symbolic value in having combat units of specific nationalities, especially after the nation’s humiliating defeats.
Joining the 1st Filipino Infantry proved popular. On July 13, 1942, the Army elevated the battalion to regiment status during a ceremony at the California Rodeo Grounds in Salinas, then leased as a sub-installation to nearby Fort Ord. In November, the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment was also organized at Fort Ord as recruitment levels remained high, but both units were later reassigned to Camps Beale and Cook prior to seeing combat. In 1984, Salinas erected a formal marker near the rodeo grounds to commemorate the two units’ WWII contributions. The troops, of course, won many decorations.
The arrival of the 1st Filipino Regiment brought attention to Fort Ord, which got “a real fall housecleaning.” One company cleared the ubiquitous ice plant around its barracks and replanted it to spell out “Remember Bataan,” referring to the infamous “death march.” In December, Filipino Vice President Sergio Osmena, arrived from Washington, D.C., where the commonwealth sat in exile, to review the Filipino units. That event made the front page of the post newspaper, which celebrated the Filipinos in every issue with a special “Filipinotes” section and articles about their training, the men’s use of traditional “bolo” knives, or with Soldiers’ bios.
Foreign language training was important in the Filipino regiments. The Army chose Col. Robert H. Offley to command them specifically for his fluency in Tagalog. Filipino soldiers also “schooled” their officers during off hours by teaching them one of the several Filipino dialects. Gen. Douglas MacArthur diverted many men from the regiment to fill the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion because of such skills. Eventually, due to such reductions, the 2nd Regiment was reduced to battalion status again.
In April 1946, with the war over and demobilization in full swing, the Army deactivated the 1st Filipino Regiment at Camp Stoneman, near Pittsburg, California. On July 4 of that same year, as promised before the war, the United States granted full independence to the Philippines. Nevertheless, many veterans of the Filipino regiments became naturalized U.S. citizens. Often returning from the islands with war brides, these veterans invigorated the Filipino American community in California and contributed to the diversity that has helped make the state so dynamic and successful.