Veterans recall landing at Pacific's 'Normandy'

October 07, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

World War II veteran Joe San Felipe remembers how he couldn't pick up a magazine or turn on the television last spring without being bombarded by the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy.

But now, as another military triumph far closer to his heart nears the half-century mark, San Felipe, 68, of South San Francisco, is dismayed to see how little tribute it has received.

Many fellow veterans and many fellow Filipino-Americans lament how the commemoration of the Oct. 20, 1944, landing on Leyte in the Philippines has been so overshadowed by the hoopla of the June 6 anniversary of the landing at Normandy that led to the liberation of Europe.

Many historians consider this D-day in Asia the determining battle that led to the liberation of the Philippines and gave the Allies control of the Pacific.

"It deserves a lot more attention," said Mr. San Felipe, who was a sergeant in the first all-Filipino-American U.S. Army infantry regiment at the time. "I just don't think the significance of the landing is appreciated by the American public."

Historians are optimistic that this 50th anniversary finally will bring Leyte its due and provide an opportunity to honor those who fought alongside Gen. Douglas MacArthur. It was at Leyte )) that MacArthur kept his word to the Filipinos under Japanese rule two years earlier when he vowed, "I shall return."

In Norfolk, Va., where MacArthur is buried, the landing will be re-enacted Oct. 22. In the Philippines, government officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, will join in a memorial.

Some say the Leyte landing has received less prominence because it involved fewer nations and was one of many skirmishes in the Pacific.

"No single landing in the Pacific could capture the imagination like Normandy did," said Bob Brownstein, city budget director in San Jose, Calif., and a military history buff.

Two years after Japan conquered the Philippines, Allied leaders assembled about 750 ships and invaded Leyte. The battle -- the largest one in naval history in total tonnage -- ended in a major U.S. victory. Japan, whose navy was decimated, was doomed to defeat after losing the Philippines.

About 350,000 Japanese soldiers died during the campaign in the Philippines. About 14,000 Americans died, and about 48,000 were wounded or missing.

Original plans called for the 1st Filipino-American regiment -- created by President Franklin Roosevelt one month after Pearl Harbor when Filipino-Americans complained they could not enlist to land on Leyte. It never happened.

Hundreds of Filipino-American officers had been pulled from the regiments and sent ahead in special units to gather intelligence, work with Filipino guerrillas and help prepare for a civilian government, said Alex Fabros, executive director of the Filipino American Experience Research Project at San Francisco State University.

"Sometimes I just feel Filipinos weren't recognized to the fullest degree for their courage to free their country," said Dorothy Dowlen of San Jose, who lived on her family's farm on Mindanao island. "The history has to be told or the younger generation will never know."

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