His family’s story of service began during dire times amid World War II when his father fought at the Battle of Bataan with the 57th Infantry Regiment (Philippine Scouts) and then was captured as a Japanese prisoner of war and survived the Bataan Death March. To this day, the fight continues for retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba as he is taking the mantle to help Filipino warriors from that era to receive their due through an injustice made by the American government shortly after the war ended nearly 80 years ago.
Taguba devoted an hour of his time to address the cadets, staff and faculty about his experiences during the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance, hosted by the U.S. Military Academy Equal Opportunity Office, May 11 at the West Point Club.
Taguba, the event’s guest speaker, was born in Manila, Philippines, and served as a U.S. Army Armor officer for 34 years on active-duty service. He is currently president of TDLS Consulting LLC, which provides business consulting services to small companies of disabled veterans and the economically disadvantaged. He is also chairman of Pan Pacific American Leaders and Mentors (PPALM), which is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization committed to mentoring and professional development of military and civilian leaders.
The event also featured a performance of the Filipino folk song, “Anak” by Freddie Aguilar, by two members of the West Point Band, vocalist Staff Sgt. Francisco Aisporna and guitarist Sgt. Maj. Brian Broelmann, to honor the guest speaker and the Filipino heritage.
The observance is part of the Department of Defense paying tribute to the generations of Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) who have enriched our nation’s history through their countless contributions, vibrant culture and rich heritage.
The Federal Asian Pacific American Council designated the 2023 theme as “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity.” The observance recognizing Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was established by Title 36, U.S. Code, Section 102.
“Since 1977, the month of May has been designated to recognize the achievements and contributions by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to America,” said Lt. Col. Tod Addison, the Equal Opportunity Program manager. “We celebrate the culture, the traditions and ancestry, the sacrifices, the languages and unique experiences represented among the more than 56 ethnic groups speaking over 100 languages from Asia and the Pacific Islands.”
After his brief opening words, Addison introduced Taguba, who truly appreciated speaking at West Point because at one time he “wanted to be a West Pointer.”
“It’s something that I admire and appreciate,” said Taguba, who was involved with Junior ROTC during high school in Hawaii. “I applied for West Point and cut my hair to make an impression because my hair was too long at that time. I prepared for the whole thing and finished as a third alternate in the whole process. It was kind of disappointing.”
However, after that brief disappointment, he decided to go Army ROTC at Idaho State University, where he graduated in 1972 and began his 34-year journey as a U.S. Army officer.
It was not always smooth sailing for Taguba. He explained that his complexion with English as his second language that people always had something to say to him during his college years.
“Being a person of color, I was often called an exchange student,” Taguba said. “Most of time, I was asked what country I was from. Those were some interesting times.”
Taguba transitioned his speech into the theme of the observance, “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity,” which he said to the cadets, “It seems like a good fit for future leaders, especially those of you who will graduate in a few weeks and commission as second lieutenants and assume responsibility in the Army.”
Taguba provided a message to the cadets in the audience, the same message he said he offers to his son, Maj. Sean Taguba, who has served deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There is value in your leadership role as you’re being entrusted to lead America’s men and women, which will require you to be accountable, to be responsible for the health, welfare and wellness for them,” Taguba said. “Although, while you will be least experienced, you will be a highly adequate educated platoon leader.”
While he added about the importance of protecting the homeland from enemies foreign and domestic, Taguba said it is also important to look within yourself at your commitment to service and what that means to you as an individual.
“We seldom deal with the introspection of the value of your service to our nation,” Taguba said. “I’m not talking about entitlements or compensation, but about your life’s work while serving our nation and the lives of your Soldiers, and what exactly do you expect to accomplish during your military career as you fulfill your service obligation.”
He then segued his thoughts about the service of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the United States, dating back to the War of 1812 and the Civil War, where they served on both sides of the Union and Confederate armies.
“That tradition of service continued to the first World War and World War II, although it was an embattled challenge for Japanese-Americans, Chinese-American Soldiers and sailors and Filipino Americans who had to prove their patriotism and citizenship to the country despite the injustice and discrimination they endured over time,” Taguba said. “These despicable acts also involved their families.”
As for Taguba, his journey to the United States began at age 10 when his parents and siblings immigrated from the Philippines to the U.S., where they resided in Hawaii. He and his family would become American citizens on July 3, 1962, on the eve of Independence Day.
“After we took an oath of allegiance and citizenship to our country, there was a drive to perform public service,” he said.
The opportunity to come to America was given to his father due to his service with the 57th Infantry Regiment (Philippine Scouts), which served with the U.S. Army Forces in the Philippines during World War II.
“My dad fought at Bataan and was captured … he could not move because he had malaria at the time,” Taguba said. “He was on the death march until he was able to escape and became a recognized guerilla in a unit commanded by U.S. Army Col. Russell Volckmann, a West Point graduate. (My dad’s) Army service inspired me to fulfill a life’s dream to be an Army officer and to follow the Tagubas’ tradition of uncles and cousins, and then my son, to serve.
He was the first in his family to graduate from college at Idaho State and then commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1972 as an Armor officer.
Taguba spoke about his “eye-opening” experience as he transitioned into the ranks when he reported to his Armor Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Most of his classmates were USMA Class of 1972 graduates and he was the lone Asian American/Pacific Islander in the class.
“I was simply intimidated by their presence as they were better educated,” he said.
His career path was all over the map at the beginning as an Armor officer as he was assigned as an Infantry platoon leader, a mortar platoon leader and a headquarters battery commander in his first few assignments before receiving a tank company in Germany, where his battalion commander was a USMA 1969 graduate, retired Brig. Gen. Don Smith.
He would go on to graduate from Army Command and General Staff College with his biggest aspiration of commanding a tank battalion, which happened in Korea in 1992.
“The bonus was that I was selected for brigade command ahead of my peers at Fort Hood with promotions to brigadier and major generals,” Taguba said. “I didn’t expect to advance that far because it took a lot of introspection and reflection of what my mom and dad expected from me. They barely finished elementary school.
“I planned my career only up to tank battalion … there were a lot of dismissive comments about my leadership ability, my physical stature – I’m short – my nationality and my ability to write and speak English, which is my second language,” he added. “All of these disappointments were coming from the ranks, my contemporaries and even commanders.”
However, Taguba received sage advice from a wise mentor that told him, “To not to get mad, not to get even, but to get ahead.”
“I sought great mentors, who were also my tormentors, who were mostly white senior officers and a couple of Asian Americans,” Taguba said. “There were very few Asian Americans in the units I served in.”
As he progressed up the ranks, specifically when he became brigadier general, his dad shook his hand and said, “He had never seen a general up close and personal – and never had shaken the hand of a general officer, which really struck me.”
“That struck a chord of curiosity that went back to his service during World War II as a prisoner of war,” Taguba said. “He retired after 20 years … but he never spoke about the war, about his wounds or not being decorated in combat. When he retired in 1962, I remember him coming home – we were not able to attend his retirement ceremony – with a simple certificate of appreciation and no medals.
“So, I took the opportunity as a brigadier general to request for his bronze star medal, which he deserved,” he added, “and POW medal, which was awarded to him on his 90th birthday in 2009.”
This revelation in his father’s experience in getting recognized for what he did in service to the Army led Taguba on a path to help other veterans who were denied their recognition and benefits as well.
After Taguba’s retirement in 2007, a group of elderly Filipino and American World War II veterans in their 80s and 90s sought out his help on their mission of getting their entitlements and recognition of wartime service from the Army, Veterans Affairs and Congress.
“Over the years, they sought out leaders in the U.S. Army, Congress and Veterans Affairs in desperation to protest, to petition and pleaded for congressional hearings to no avail – I watched them do that,” Taguba said. “They have been doing this mission since the end of the Pacific War in December of 1946. This had been going on for over 70 years and no clear path for benefits and a path to U.S. citizenship.”
In 2014, Taguba assembled an advocacy group of community leaders and military officers called the “Filipino Brothers Recognition Education Project.”
“We started a call for action to help them gain their recognition and to be relevant in American history because what the elderly veterans wanted the most was a fulfillment of a promise of entitlements that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued a military order on July 26, 1941, that placed all units of the Philippine Commonwealth Army to be utilized under the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur,” Taguba said. “This was to defend the United States and the Philippines … (where an) estimated 260,000 Soldiers, Filipinos and Americans, served that unit during World War II. We all know the interminable cost of the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, the Bataan Death March and the guerrilla campaign that ensued fighting the Japanese forces until the liberation of the Philippines and the surrender of the enemy in September 1945.”
The advocacy group learned about a little-known act called the “Rescission Act” that was passed by the 79th Congress and signed by President Harry S. Truman, which Taguba calls, “highly controversial and despicably unjust,” which declared the following, “The Rescission Act we wrote for veterans of American nationality as colonials, their status previously authorized under the Nationality Act of 1940, and we deny the entitlements and compensation unless they can prove their wartime service with authoritative and verified documents. We’ll declare them as not having served on active duty, thereby not entitled to pay and benefits.”
In November 2016, the group gained some success and a small amount of solace in the morale of the Filipino veterans with the passage of the congressional gold medal when President Barack Obama signed into law Public Law No. 114-265, which is the highest award bestowed by Congress to individuals or groups who displayed outstanding achievements in history and culture to the United States.
“The law declared them as veterans of World War II, a historical symbol of recognizing them for their wartime service,” Taguba said.
Taguba then showed a video of the Filipino veterans and the epic moment they were awarded the congressional gold medal, recognizing the 260,00 Filipinos who fought under the American Flag that led to the Allied victory.
Speeches from the event included statements from congressmen to include:
“These loyal and courageous Soldiers fought bravely, sacrificed greatly and many even paying the ultimate price.”
“Those brave men who were promised citizenship and fair compensation bravely took up arms, who fought alongside American Soldiers on the beaches … who suffered the unspeakable brutality of Japanese POW camps and died alongside American Soldiers in the infamous Bataan Death March.”
“In return for the valor and sacrifice, the American government promised them citizenship and the benefits and entitlements to all veterans. In 1946, however, Congress sadly, shamefully reneged on this promise and refused to grant these veterans the citizenship and benefits they earned. But even in the face of such adversity, these veterans never gave up and they organized and fought for what they had earned.”
After decades of advocacy, Congress endorsed President Roosevelt’s promise and awarded American citizenship to these veterans.
However, his next mission is to help repeal the Rescission Act that still exists today.
“This may be difficult, but it would be harder if we don’t restore the honor and dignity of the warriors defending two countries under one flag – the United States colors,” Taguba said. “I still go back to the value of their service to our country that they demonstrated immeasurably … the Filipino Americans accomplished their mission in war, but we still have an unfinished mission on repealing the Rescission Act. There are less than 10,000 still living today in their 90s, and we want to ensure that the last one will remember that we accomplished our mission by repealing the act. Our mission is to restore their dignity, honor and their value of serving the United States.”
Taguba completed his speech by circling back on the theme of the observance, “Advancing Leaders through Opportunity,” and the reminder of the cause of advancing Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the ranks as they continue to serve the United States. He said there is an issue currently of recruiting Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to today’s military.
“We must retain strongly with our retention in the ranks and our leadership skills to sustain and maintain our relevance in our country’s history,” Taguba said. “We must be present and visible in the rank and file of our Army and see every opportunity to compete and succeed. It is imperative that we fulfill this vision for our country.
“There are no other options but to succeed, but we also have to be visible and be in front with the rest of our cohorts,” Taguba concluded to the cadets. “You know where it starts – with us. That is where the value of service comes along. It starts with us trying to share our stories that we are here, we’re present and communicating.”