ITHACA, NY — In World War II, 260,000 Filipinos fought alongside the U.S. military in the Pacific Theater.
Seventy five years later, Ithacan Mimi Melegrito received a Congressional Gold Medal for her father, Greg Melegrito, who survived the Bataan Death March and passed away 15 years ago.
“He was so alive to me that day,” Melegrito said. “Having a father who is a veteran, Veterans Day always had meaning for me and my family. This Veterans Day is even more meaningful.”
These Filipino WWII veterans were at long last recognized for their service in a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Washington, D.C. on October 25.
Melegrito, who worked for the City of Ithaca for 31 years and is an active volunteer in the community, met four of her cousins at the ceremony.
Her uncle, 90-year-old Arsenio Dizon from New York City, was one of 21 living veterans present to receive their own medals.
Three hundred families descended upon D.C. from all over the U.S, but also from the Philippines to receive medals in the stead of their fathers, uncles and grandparents who either could not make it or who had passed away.
The gold medal Melegrito received on behalf of her father is in the Smithsonian Institution, she said. “Everybody who got the medal for their dads, like myself, we are keeping the bronze medal, which is a replica.”
Filipino-Americans in WWII
During the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt assured the Filipino vets of benefits and citizenship. But the Rescission Act of 1946 signed by President Harry Truman effectively annulled these benefits.
“They all fought under the U.S flag, but when the war was over, the U.S. didn’t come through for them,” Melegrito said. “They didn’t recognize them. This was a sad way for the U.S. to thank them for their services under the U.S. flag.”
For many years, the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP) fought to raise awareness of Filipino-American WWII soldiers, and also pushed for national recognition and for the passage of a Congressional Gold Medal Act to formally recognize Filipino veterans.
Melegrito’s brother, Jonathan Melegrito, was an integral part of the process, volunteering continuously with FilVetREP.
“He was one of the few who really worked very hard to make sure that the bill was passed. They worked to do demonstrations, workshops and invited families to talk about it. It was not a hobby for him, it was a passion,” Melegrito said.
After years of lobbying by FilVetREP and other organizations, President Barack Obama signed the act into legislation in December 2016.
The ceremony at the end of October 2017, presided over by Speaker Paul Ryan, was an incredibly moving experience for Melegrito.
“It’s so exciting, I can’t talk about it without crying,” she said. “I’m so proud.”
A 100-year-old veteran, Celestino Almeda, addressing the audience after the senators spoke was the highlight of the morning ceremony for Melegrito.
“When he walked up to the podium, he had a cane. He dropped his cane next to the podium and he read his response,” Melegrito said.
“I’m telling you there was not a dry eye in the hundreds of people there.”
Photos provided by Mimi Melegrito.