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The Fighting Filipinos of WW2 : 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment of The US Army

The Fighting Filipinos of WW2 : 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment of The US Army

Soldiers of the Regiment training on a machine gun in 1943.

A United States Army patrol trekked through the jungle, M1 Garand rifles at the ready as each member kept a careful lookout for Japanese soldiers. Although the main fighting in the island of Samar was over, there were still a couple of thousand Japanese soldiers holding out in small pockets all over the island. Because of this, it was their job to clear them out in order to end hostilities in this sector of the country. With that task at hand, the soldiers moved along the trail, searching for the enemy that they knew was hiding there. 

They had trained for such duties for a long time, and as they hunted their enemy, they were glad to finally serve in combat. But these soldiers were not fighting for one country alone. Instead, they were fighting for two countries, the first being the Philippines, the land of their birth, and the second being the United States, their adopted nation that they had given their service to. Although Filipino in ethnicity, some of the men in the patrol were fully pledged American citizens.For you see, these men were soldiers of the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment, the fighting Filipinos of the United States Army.

By 1940 there were around ninety-eight thousand documented Filipinos living in the United States.
2nd Lt. Roberto Lim is the son of Gen. Vicente Lim of the 41st Infantry Division. He was still at the United States Naval Academy when war broke out. He could not serve in the US Navy as he was a Filipino citizen, and thus he joined the 1st Filipino Regiment when it was mobilized in Camp San Luis Obispo in California. A few months later he joined the US Army Air Corps and trained as a pilot of a B-29 Superfortress, joining the bombing raids in Japan.

Emigrating from their homeland across the Pacific, they went to the United States in hopes of starting over and getting a better life in the modern and industrial country. However, life for a Filipino in the United States at the time was not a pleasant one, as riots and open hostility to Filipino immigrants was a common site for the era.

Originally, Filipino migration to the United States was considered internal immigration, as the Philippines was a colony of the nation and its people considered American nationals. However, after the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, in which the United States would grant the Philippines independence after ten years, and the creation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, the United States Government started to consider Filipinos as people outside the United States. Because of this, immigration laws became applicable to Filipinos, and thus immigration from the archipelago to the United States was limited to fifty persons a year.

Called “Manongs” these Filipinos took up various jobs. However, the most prominent vocation taken was in the agricultural sector, with many working on various farms in the Western United States. The jobs given were physically demanding, and the pay was often low for these Filipino workers, but to top off all the problems, open hostility, discrimination, and exploitation was inflicted on them by American citizens made life not only hard, but also deadly.

Things only got worse when the Great Depression came, as the collapse of the economy was often blamed on immigrants. Because of this, riots and attacks on Filipinos were a common site in the early 1930’s, with many Filipinos being beaten, arrested, and killed. To counter this, the Manongs often formed Unions to help protect one another and conduct work strikes. This resulted in some improvement in wages and treatment; however hostility was still evident against the immigrants.

Despite the ill-treatment received by Filipinos in the United States, the Filipino’s overall loyalty and trust with the United States Government remained untarnished. Because of this loyalty, Filipinos were among the many enthusiastic volunteers who wanted to fight against the Japanese after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941 and the subsequent declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.

However, a major barrier prevented them from signing up into the United States Armed Forces. The Selective Service and Training Act stated that only American Nationals were allowed to enlist in the Armed Forces, and with immigrant Filipinos considered as citizens of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, they were rejected by the Armed Forces.

Not dissuaded by this, Filipinos in the United States began sending letters of petition to Government officials, as they begged to be allowed for military service. Whether it was because of these petitions, or because of the need for fighting men, the United States Government soon relented, and on January 2, 1942 President Delano Roosevelt signed a revision for the Selective Service and Training Act. This revision allowed Filipinos to sign up and serve in the United States military.

Following this, Roosevelt sent out an authorization that allowed for the creation of a Filipino battalion.
regiment’s coat of arms

This battalion would be known as the 1st Filipino Battalion, and was formed on March 4, 1942, and activated on April 1. Command of this unit was given to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Offley, a West Point graduate who had served in the Philippines and spoke Tagalog. He was well-liked by the men and was often referred to as “Tatay” – Father.  He was supported by an array of officers taken from the Philippine Army. These officers were in the United States when the war began and were unable to return to the Philippines due to the military situation at the time. Because of this, they were integrated into the 1st Filipino Battalion.

Joining these officers were the veterans of the Philippine campaign. Some wounded members of the Philippine Scouts and Philippine Commonwealth Army had been evacuated to Australia before the Philippines fell to the Japanese. Because of this, a pool of veteran Filipino troops was available for service. Most of these troops were combined to form the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, however, a good number of them were sent to the United States for further medical treatment. Once fully healed and designated fit for duty, these soldiers were assigned to the 1st Filipino Battalion.

The last source of personnel the unit drew from was from Filipino volunteers. With the revision of the Selective Service and Training Act, many Filipinos entered the United States Army. Treated equally, these Filipino volunteers were integrated into various United States Regiments and allowed to stay there. However, if a Filipino recruit chose to do so, they were allowed to volunteer for service in the 1st Filipino Battalion. Although not all Filipinos did this, a good enough number did, thus filling the battalion’s roster.

Receiving a large influx of volunteers, the battalion soon numbered two thousand soldiers. Because of its large size, the 1st Filipino Battalion was redesignated as the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment, which was officially activated on July 13, 1942. Organized and equipped just like any other Army regiment, the unit had three battalions, support companies, M1 Garand rifles, M1 Helmets, anti-tank guns, and all the necessary equipment needed for war. But along with this large array of war gear, the regiment had one unique weapon that was not seen in any regular Army unit. The bolo, a Filipino knife used for agricultural work, was a common side arm for the soldiers, and they were often trained in Escrima, a Filipino martial art that utilized the wielding of the bolo. Overtime, this weapon became a distinguishing figure for the regiment.

Stationed at the Salinas Rodeo Grounds, California, the men trained and learned the art of war. Some of the Filipino veterans began passing on their combat knowledge to the new recruits, as the men of the regiment readied themselves for future combat operations. It was noted that the Filipino recruits were enthusiastic in their training, and quickly grasped and learned the drills and exercises taught to them.

Formation of the Regiment during the visit of Commonwealth Vice President Osmeña

Because of the influx of volunteers that continued to come throughout 1942, the Army decided to create another Filipino regiment. On October 22, the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment was created. Later on, due to the P-38 law, which restricted men who were thirty-eight years old and above from combat service, and because of the transfer of personnel to the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment was disbanded. Some of the disbanded unit’s men were transferred to strengthen the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment, while the rest went on to form the 2nd Infantry Battalion (Separate).

Sometime after the creation of the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment, the Office of the Adjutant General gave approval for the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment’s Coat of Arms. The regiment’s coat of arms was a shield that represented the Philippine flag, while in front of it was a Kris crossed over an Igorot shield. Three stars, which represented Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, were placed above the shield, while the regimental motto, “LagingUna” – Always First, was printed under the shield.

The shoulder sleeve insignia for the men was a disk with a smoking Mount Mayon volcano imprinted on it. In the smoke, three stars, representing Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao again, can be seen.
Shoulder Sleeve Insignia

Training for the regiment continued throughout 1943 to 1944. During this time, the unit was stationed at Camp Hunter-Liggett. One important event during this time occurred on February 20, 1943, when, in accordance with the 1942 amendment of the Nationality Act of 1940, around a thousand Filipino soldiers were sworn in at Camp Beale and made citizens of the United States. The amendment of the Nationality Act essentially allowed all non-citizen personnel serving in the Armed Forces to be eligible for citizenship and all the benefits it offered. Because of this, over a thousand Filipinos in the regiment decided to apply for citizenship, which was granted to them during the ceremony at Camp Beale.

Naturalization ceremony at Camp Beale on February 20, 1943

There is a possibility that the large number of Filipinos volunteering for military service were motivated by this granting of citizenship for military personnel. However, it should be noted that not everyone in the unit wanted to become United States citizens, as some members pointed out that they joined the Army to liberate the Philippines, and not to become American citizens. Because of this, only half of the men in the regiment were United States citizens.

In April 1944, after years of hard training and waiting, the regiment was finally sent out for overseas deployment.

Joined by the 2nd Filipino Infantry Battalion (Separate), the two Filipino units were sent on board the SS General John Pope, which would sail them to New Guinea.

The regiment arrived later that month, and began advance combat training in May. However, they encountered a problem during this time, when the regiment was designated as a unit in charge of unloading supplies and equipment from the docked ships. The reason for this sudden task was because one of the Generals in New Guinea assumed that the regiment was a labor unit. The now Colonel Offley gave protest to this assignment, but was ignored.

Luckily for the regiment, a certain Lieutenant Colonel Velasquez, who was serving as the Port Commander of the area, sent a message to the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, informing the general of the situation. Upon hearing of what had happened to the regiment, MacArthur immediately sent an angry reprimand to the General who assigned the regiment to labor duty, before having the regiment returned to its advance combat training.

After this incident, the regiment underwent intensified jungle training, in what seems like an essential preparation for deployment to the Philippines.

However, when MacArthur’s main force left for Leyte in October, the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment, along with the 2nd Filipino Infantry Battalion (Separate) were left at New Guinea to continue their training. Despite this, many of the regiment’s personnel were on board the invasion fleet, taking part in various special assignments.

One crucial assignment taken by the men of the 1st Regiment and 2nd Battalion was their participation in the Philippine Civil Affairs Unit (PCUAS). Four hundred men from the 1st Regiment and 2nd Battalion were transferred to form eight PCUSA detachments.  The purpose of this formation was to help re-establish control in liberated areas in the Philippines. PCUAS were supposed to work with the locals in order to create a provincial government in the liberated area, so that law and order could be maintained.

Color guard of the Regiment

Each unit was supposed to compose of ten officers and thirty-nine men, with an American commander, and a Filipino executive officer. Attached to the invasion force, they helped secure the lines behind the front, as they established security and normalcy in the rear. These PCUAS detachments from the 1st Regiment and 2nd Battalion joined the first wave to land on Leyte, with PCUAS No. 5 raising the Philippine flag at Dulag beach.

Other assignments for the men of the Filipino units was duty with the 6th Ranger Battalion and the Counter-intelligence Corps, where they aided these units as interpreters and scouts.

But as the detached men of the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment patrolled and fought in Leyte, the mother unit in New Guinea continued their jungle training, as replacements from Hawaii arrived to bolster the unit’s numbers. During this period of inaction, one of the West Point Filipino officers, Lieutenant Colonel Leon Punsalang, was assigned as the commander of the regiment’s 1st Battalion.

The regiment finally left New Guinea in 1945, and on February 7 of that year, they arrived at Tacloban, Leyte. Once there, they helped other American forces with mopping up operations in the island, while some units were ordered to board various ships, from Landing Ship Medium to Landing Craft Mechanized, to transport them south to the nearby island of Samar.

Arriving at Samar in late February, this contingent was attached to X Crops. During their operation in the area, this unit, along with other American forces, had the task of clearing the area of Japanese activity and securing the area near the San Bernardino Straits. One of the detachments given this task was K Company.

On February 19, K Company moved out of the village of Catbalogan and advanced along Highway No. 1. The Filipinos encountered no resistance along their twelve mile march. The company was then assigned to the village of Capul, which they garrisoned. At Capul, the unit conducted patrol operations in order to secure the area from Japanese forces. All in all, no heavy resistance was encountered in the sector, and by February 26 the southern portion of the San Bernardino Straits was declared clear of enemy forces.

Also in Samar was the 1st Battalion of the regiment. By March 1, the 1st Battalion, which was assisting the 182nd Infantry Battalion in clearing Samar of enemy activity, managed to eliminate all major enemy resistance in the island. With only small separated pockets of enemy forces left, the 1st Battalion was ordered to remain, as the 182nd moved out of the island to conduct operations elsewhere in the archipelago. Assisted by local Philippine Guerrilla units, the battalion managed to clear the island of enemy forces.

Similar operations like this continued all throughout 1945, as the regiment sent out its companies to patrol the vast jungles and vulnerable highways of Leyte and Samar. From manning check-points, protecting headquarters facilities and airfields, and the dangerous task of patrolling hostile areas, the men of the regiment did their duty and performed to the best of their ability. In their encounters with Japanese forces, they managed to inflict heavy casualties on their enemy, helping fully eliminate the Japanese presence in the two islands.

Combat operations for the regiment ended on August 10, 1945. As the operation ended, those detachments sent out for special service were returned to the regiment, which was then stationed at Ormoc, Leyte. The regiment would stay in the Philippines for nearly a year after the end of the war with Japan.

As plans to return United States Army units back to the mainland began, preparations to return home were conducted by the regiment in 1946. Since not all of the members of the regiment were United States citizens, and since some of them wanted to stay in the Philippines, only the citizens who wanted to return to the United States were retained  in the regiment. Those who wanted to stay or were non-citizens were transferred to the 2nd Battalion, which was stationed at Quezon City and was assisting in various civil affairs operations. When the 2nd Battalion was disbanded on March 31, these men were once again transferred, this time to the 86th Infantry Division.

On March 23, 1946, the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment boarded the transport USS General R.E. Callan and was shipped back to the United States. They arrived at Camp Stoneman, California, on April 9, and were inactivated the next day, April 10, with the regimental colors folded for the last time, never to fly again in active service. Many years later, on August 4, 1952, the regiment as an organization was disbanded and removed from the Army roster.

By the end of its service the regiment was officially credited with participating in the campaigns at New Guinea, Leyte, and the Southern Philippines.
Staff Sergeant Roberto Sarmiento of the Philippine Islands, eighteen years a soldier, typifies the Filipino doughboys who are training with the Filipino regiments in California, and who look forward to the day when they can avenge the overrunning by the Japs of their homeland

It was also decorated with the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, for its member’s service in the Philippines from October 17, 1944 to July 4, 1945.

The post-war lives of the men of the unit differed from man to man. Some returned to their jobs on the farm, while others stayed in the military and became professional soldiers, with them being transferred to other regiments in the Army. Of those who decided to leave the military, some decided to forge a new path and make use of the new rights given to them. Since these men served as part of the United States Army and were now citizens of the United States, they were eligible for the G.I. Bill of Rights. Because of this, they were given many benefits, such as college education and acceptance to professional jobs which were not normally open for Filipinos.

The story of the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment is one that differs from those of other Filipino units. United by war and created by a country that didn’t think too kindly of them, the Filipinos of the regiment nonetheless fought with patriotism for the United States. The men who fought in this unit suffered from discrimination and the hardships of war, but once the fighting was done their sacrifices were not left unnoticed, as the United States gradually accepted them as one of their own and allowed them to integrate themselves into American society.

Written by Justin Rojo

Written by Justin Rojo

See more pieces by Justin:

Day 1 – Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg : Day 2

Day 3 : Gettysburg

Resources:

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The Fighting Filipinos of WW2 : 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment of The US Army

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