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PlaceMaker: Cecilia Gaerlan Commemorates WWII Filipino Veterans in the Presidio

Thursday, Apr 19, 2018 Category History

As a girl growing up in the Philippines, Cecilia Gaerlan's father told her stories about his time as a soldier during World War II – in particular, the heroic role the Filipino people played as an American colony who were on the front-lines during the war, and the horrors of the Bataan Death March.

When she was 21 years-old, Cecilia moved to the United States – working at the United Nations before settling in the Bay Area where she began writing a play based on her father's stories. While conducting research for her play, Cecilia couldn't find much in our history books about World War II in the Philippines or the Bataan Death March. She wanted to change that.

In 2014, she founded the Bataan Legacy Historical Society, a non-profit organization that shines a light on this seminal moment in history, and the Filipino perspective during World War II. For the second year, the Bataan Legacy Historical Society held a commemorative event in the Presidio in honor of the 76th anniversary of the Bataan Death March. We talked to Cecilia to learn more about her work and the Presidio's role in her efforts.

What do you want people to know about World War II in the Philippines?

While many people are aware of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, most don't know that hours after that bombing, the Philippines – a United States colony from 1898 to 1946 – was also bombed. When the United States declared war against Japan, our battles against Japan weren't fought in the United States. They were fought in the Philippines. Ultimately, the Philippines was completely devastated by World War II and approximately one million Filipino civilians died.

Many lives were also lost in the Bataan Death March – the Japanese Army's transfer of 60,000-80,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war, a majority suffering from disease and starvation, who were forced to march 65 miles in the heat of summer without food, water, shelter, or medicine. This march resulted in the death of 10,000 Filipino soldiers, and 500-600 American soldiers. Upon reaching their final destination, a prison camp, another 20,000 Filipino and 1,600 American soldiers died.

Five months after the war ended, the First Supplemental Surplus Appropriation Rescission Act was passed by U.S. Congress, which deemed the service of the Filipino soldiers as inactive, making these noble veterans ineligible for benefits under the G.I. Bill of Rights. To this day, these rights have not been fully restored and a majority of Filipino veterans have died without seeing justice or receiving any benefits, despite their sacrifices.

So while Pearl Harbor is remembered by many, what happened in the Philippines is mostly forgotten. Students don't learn in their history books about the lives that were lost or the valiant fight the Filipino people fought for American freedom. I'm hoping to change that by sharing this history so the legacy of the soldiers and civilians who fought and died will be remembered.

How are you doing this?

Mainly through public events, conferences, and California's history curriculum framework. In 2011, while researching World War II for my play, I realized there wasn't much of a Filipino perspective in our history books even though the Filipinos made up 7/8 of the main line of Japanese resistance. I wanted to change this, so in 2012 I began doing presentations in schools and at civic and veterans organizations. At the end of 2014, I founded the Bataan Legacy Historical Society (Bataan Legacy) and organized the first Bataan Legacy event at Cal State East Bay.

Around the same time, I learned about the curriculum framework revision in California and, based on Bill AB199 passed in 2011, we proposed the inclusion of World War II in the Philippines in California's high school history curriculum. We attended public hearings by the History Committee of the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), the body within the California Department of Education that's in charge of the curriculum revision process. In May 2016, the IQC approved all of our recommendations and on July 14, 2016, the California State Board of Education approved the inclusion of World War II in the Philippines in the Grade 11 U.S. history curriculum framework (Chapter 16).

This was a big win! In 2017, we commissioned six high school history teachers to write sample lesson plans to help implement Chapter 16 using primary documents. These sample lesson plans are now available on the Bataan Legacy Historical Society's website. Textbook publishers are mandated to include any changes in California's curriculum framework and these books are distributed nationally, so other states are now also making changes and including the Filipino perspective in their curriculum.

Why is the Presidio a significant place for the Bataan Legacy?

Many soldiers came through the Presidio on their way to the South Pacific during World War II – therefore, it's an important place for World War II veterans, and it's home to the San Francisco National Cemetery.

Last year, we commemorated the 75th Anniversary of the Bataan Death March at the Presidio in partnership with the Presidio Trust, and this year marks our second collaboration for the 76th anniversary. Before founding Bataan Legacy, I wasn't really aware of the Presidio's significance for our veterans. I now know it's an important place to visit to understand the great sacrifices that were made for the freedom we enjoy today.  ​​

What’s the goal of the Bataan Death March commemorative events?

These events raise awareness of the Philippines role in World War II. Honoring the Filipino and American soldiers who fought in Bataan has been a long time coming – they waited over 75 years for recognition. These commemorative events are designed so students can become engaged in civic affairs. Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) cadets from high schools in San Francisco can take inspiration from the remaining WWII veterans while learning from members of our Armed Forces who continue to fight for this country, and make sacrifices to make our country free.   

Do you see World War II in the Philippines history as still relevant today?

Yes, it's imperative that descendants of the greatest generation share their legacy. That is, we need to share their love for country, family, community service, justice, and truth so their legacy will live on in future generations. We're using the lessons from this time in American history to teach the lessons of war. The majority of casualties in any war are civilians, so it's important to learn the civilian perspective. It's only by learning the lessons of war that we can prevent future wars from happening.​​

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