I have heard endlessly about the exploits of the Japanese American units during World War 2, the 100th Battalion and 442d Regimental Combat Team, but I had never heard about the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments. Here are a few excerpts from a much longer account at the California State Military Museum website.
The Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 treated the Filipinos in the U.S. as aliens. Although the Philippine Commonwealth Constitution permitted the United States to draft Filipinos in the Philippines to defend American interests there, Filipinos in the United States, quite ironically, were exempt from military service.
Thousands of Filipinos had petitioned for the right to serve in the U.S. military immediately after December 7, 1941. On January 2, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a law revising the Selective Service Act. Filipinos in the United States could now join the U.S. Armed Forces and they were urged to volunteer for service. President Roosevelt quickly authorized the founding of a Filipino battalion, which would be organized for service overseas. It estimated the number of available Filipino volunteers between 70,000 and 100,000.
The 1st Filipino Battalion was formed on March 4, 1942 and activated in April 1 at Camp San Luis Obispo, California. Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Offley, who had served in the Philippines and spoke passable Tagalog, volunteered to be assigned to the unit as its first commander. He assumed command in April 8, 1942. The War Department also directed Philippine army officers and soldiers who were stranded in the United States at the start of the war to report to the unit. An unusual point is the designation of the unit. Previous Filipino units in the U.S. Army had been designated “Philippine” such as the Philippine Scouts. All units raised in the U.S. during the war were designated “Filipino.” Also, it would not be until the end of the war that the Filipino military units would carry the designation “Infantry” in their title although their regimental colors from the very beginning were displayed on a blue field, the traditional color of the infantry branch of the army.
A number of wounded Philippine Army and Philippine Scouts had escaped to Australia from the Philippines on board the USS Mactan in December 1941. Some remained in Australia to form the nucleus of what would eventually become the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, but the rest were sent to the United States for further medical treatment. These men eventually reported to the 1st Filipino Battalion.
Contrary to popular belief, the 1st Filipino Battalion was not established as a result of the American policy of social segregation. Only Filipinos who volunteered for assignment to the unit were sent to it. Many others, such as Eutiquio V. “Vic” Bacho, served with distinction in “American” (white) units in the European theater of operations during the war. Doroteo Vite wrote in a national magazine that Filipinos should take the opportunity to serve in all-white units to educate them so that at the end of the war, white Americans would support the Filipino American agenda of equality….
In April 1942, Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt, Western Defense Commander, ordered the Japanese on the West Coast into concentration camps. Miguel Ignacio, secretary of the Filipino American community of San Francisco, called attention to several American-born Japanese women, citizens of the United States, who had Filipino husbands, and Filipino-Japanese children who were U.S. citizens by birth. Despite the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dewitt ordered the women and children to spend the duration of the war in the internment camps. Many of these Filipino husbands went on to serve in the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments, defending the nation whose racist policies held their families hostage.
In September 1942, the first group of qualified Filipino enlisted men was sent to the Officer Candidate School, Fort Benning, Georgia. Upon graduation, they were commissioned second lieutenants in the U.S. Army. The War Department planned to have Filipino officers eventually command the majority of the combat units in the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments. Events beyond the control of the military planners in Washington, D.C. intervened to prevent this from being fully implemented.
So many Filipino volunteers came from all over the United States that the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment was formed at Fort Ord, California on November 22, 1942. In January 1943, the 1st Regiment was reassigned to Camp Beale, near Sacramento and the 2nd Regiment to Camp Cooke, near Santa Maria. The two regiments were to be joined by a third regiment consisting of Filipinos from the Hawaiian National Guard. However, the Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Association argued successfully with the martial law commanders in Hawaii that not only was cheap labor on the plantations necessary to support the war effort, the Filipinos in Hawaii were forbidden by the Tydings-McDuffie Act from going to the continental U.S. The men could not leave the sugar plantations and were paid substandard wages for the duration of the war. This would have serious consequences in 1946 when the militant Filipino labor unions shut down the islands until their demands for wage increases and better working conditions were met.
As a result of a May 1942 Gallup Poll showing strong support for the naturalization of Filipinos, the Filipino Naturalization Bill was passed. Pinoy GI’s were urged to apply for U.S. citizenship. A mass swearing in of over 1,000 soldiers was held at Camp Beale on February 20, 1943. Many of the men, however, resisted becoming citizens. T-5 Julius B. Ruiz stated that although he had lived in the United States for many years and was now serving in the U.S. Army, his goal was to liberate his country, the Philippines. by the time the 1st Regiment left for the western Pacific in May 1944, over half of the men in the unit were U.S. citizens….
Before the 1st Regiment departed for the western Pacific in May 1944, Colonel Offley had a major dilemma on his hands. Even though his regimental chaplains were prepared to perform marriage ceremonies between the Filipino soldiers and their white girlfriends, the strict anti-miscegenation laws in California prevented the men from applying for marriage licenses. Colonel Offley solved this by sending his soldiers and their sweethearts to Gallup, New Mexico on chartered buses that soon came to be called the “honeymoon express.”
Meanwhile in New Guinea, the 1st Regiment quickly integrated its first batch of replacements consisting of Filipino Americans from Hawaii. Colonel Offley gave Lt. Col. Leon Punsalan
g, a West Point graduate, command of the 1st Battalion. This was the first time in the history of the U.S. Army that Asian Americans commanded white troops in combat.