Before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a major path to the US for Filipino Immigrants was through the US Navy. My father came to the US that way, as well as tens of thousands of other Filipinos. As the years have passed, many of my father’s fellow Navy men have died, but I am happy that there are a number of commemorations of the history and the contributions of those Filipino American Sailors.
First, some history on how Filipino nationals could directly join the US Military. In 1901, President William McKinley signed an order allowing the US Navy to enlist 500 Filipinos as part of the US Navy. Sailor Telesforo Trinidad, who won the US Medal of Honor in 1915 for his actions, was one. After Philippine independence in 1946, that path into the US Navy was closed, but would open a year later as the treaty that allowed the US to have bases in the Philippines (e.g. Subic bay base in Olongapo and Clark Air Force base in Pampanga) allowed 1000 Filipino nationals per year to be recruited into the US Navy. Between 1952 and 1992, more than 35,000 Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy.
During the first half of the 20th century, most Filipinos were assigned the role of Steward. Stewards would have duties such being cooks, waiters, and cabin boys – personal attendants to Naval officers. The Senator John McCain was famous for standing up to an upper classman at the Naval Academy who was abusing a Filipino Steward. As late as 1970, the vast majority of stewards in the US Navy were Filipino, and in 1971 Filipinos stopped recruiting Filipinos exclusively as Stewards. My godfather spent his entire career (decades) as an admiral’s steward. My father also started out in the Navy serving an admiral. Fortunately for him, the previous racial limitations were changing. He asked the admiral if he could be assigned to a different job, who graciously had him assigned to a non-Steward post.
The contributions of Filipino American Sailors are being honored in a number of places around the country, some as part of Filipino American History Month and in other places, more permanently. The USS Hornet museum in Alameda is commemorating the role that Filipinos played in the Navy during Filipino American history month. Virginia Beach is building a historical marker to remember Filipino Sailors. There has been a push to have a new Navy ship named after Medal of Honor Telesforo Trinidad.
October is officially Filipino American History Month. To commemorate it, I will be posting a number of articles about Filipino American History this month.