70 Years Since the U.S.-Philippines Military Bases Agreement, FANHS is 35

Dr. Dawn Mabalon October 4, 2017 0

March 14, 1947, Philippine President Manuel Roxas and U.S. Ambassador Paul V. McNutt (right) sign the Military Bases Agreement in Malacanang Palace, surrounded by onlookers, including Philippine Vice President Elpidio Quirino (far left).

Filipino American immigration to the United States dates back to 1587 when the Manila galleon Nuestra Señora de Esperanza with seafaring Filipinos landed near Moro Bay California.  Fast forward to the signing of the U.S.-Philippines Military Base Agreement and the opportunities it provided for Filipinos to work in military and non-military jobs  opened the door for greater immigration to the United States.  As of the 2010 census, Filipino Americans number 3.4 million, second to Chinese Americans, and number 91,367 in Washington State.

—Maria Batayola


For its 2017 Filipino American History Month theme, the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) commemorates the 70th Anniversary of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement between the United States and the Philippines, the monumental effect it had on U.S.-Philippines relations and the larger Pacific Rim, and the profound effect the law had upon the Filipina/o American community nationwide. This year also marks the 35th anniversary of the Filipino American National Historical Society, which preserves and disseminates the history of Filipino Americans.

The Agreement provided for continuation of the imperial relationship between the United States and the Philippines, and the proud service and settlement of thousands of Filipinos who were enlisted in the U.S. military, particularly U.S. Navy sailors, and their families across the United States in the post-World War II period.

On July 4, 1946, the Philippines became an independent nation after almost 50 years as a colony of the United States (1902-1946) and more than 300 years as a colony of Spain. As the Cold War deepened, the United States sought to maintain its military presence in the Philippines, particularly Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base. The 1947 Military Bases Agreement allowed the United States access to these and almost two dozen other sites for 99 years. Article 27 provided for the recruitment of Filipino citizens into the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1991, the Philippine Congress voted to end the bases agreement and closed the bases. From the Bases Agreement to 1992, more than 35,000 Filipinos had served or were serving in the U.S. Navy.

Though several thousand Filipinos had been recruited into the U.S. Navy and other branches of the military during the American colonial period, the Military Bases Agreement ushered in a period of several decades of aggressive recruitment of thousands of Filipino citizens into the United States. Armed Forces, primarily by the U.S. Navy, with smaller numbers in the Army, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. After the Korean Conflict began in 1952, the Navy began recruiting Filipinos at a rate of 1,000 a year; this was increased to 2,000 annually in 1954. Hundreds of Filipino men rushed to enlist daily to Sangley Point Naval Base, the Naval Headquarters in the Philippines, due to the deteriorating economic and political environment of the Philippines (the Navy offered higher pay than they could expect in any occupation in the Philippines, so even college-educated Filipinos sought to join the Navy). Additional incentives included the promise of adventure and to travel the world, and the potential opportunity to obtain United States citizenship. Only a small percentage of applicants passed the grueling physical and language entrance exams.

Selection for the Navy transformed the economic fortunes of the recruits’ poverty-stricken families. These men sent more than half of their monthly $80 salary back home for decades. “This is the opportunity of my life,” remembered Exequiel Maula Atienza, of his successful application for the Navy. “I wanted us to have a better life. I wanted to help my parents.” He told his story to oral historians writing the book, In Our Uncles’ Words: ‘We Fought for Freedom’, a book project of FANHS Hampton Roads, VA chapter. “You know when we joined the Navy at the time, you were almost the salvation of the family, economically speaking,” Armando Pili Placides told the interviewers. He was able to send family members on to college.  “That was a blessing to the family back then … to be accepted into the U.S. military. When you joined the U.S. Navy at that time, it’s almost like you won the lottery because it was a big economic help.”

Discriminatory practices in the Navy barred Filipinos from rising above the rank of messman/steward, regardless of education or skills. The Messman Branch was created specifically in the late 19th century for people of color: various Asian immigrants, African Americans, and Filipinos. African Americans were barred from enlistment altogether from 1919-1932, and the Navy turned to using their colonial subjects, Filipinos, as messmen during these years. From 1932 until the military was desegregated in 1948, black sailors were limited to the messman branch. The Messman Branch was renamed the Steward Branch after World War II. After desegregation of the Armed Forces in 1948, black sailors could rise within the Navy and were not limited to the Steward rank.

However, this was not the case for Filipinos, who were limited to the steward rank until 1971, when an agreement was reached with the Philippine State Department to discard the practice. Stewards were responsible for providing cooking and cleaning for the ship and domestic service to officers and their families: food service, cleaning, laundry, and chores. Work as a steward was grueling and monotonous. “The job of a steward is honorable,” recalled Timoteo Medina Saguinsin in In Our Uncles’ Words. “We cleaned the dishes, the silverware, the kitchen, the pantry, the staterooms, the wardrooms, and the bathrooms. We mopped the decks or floors.”

The work could also be humiliating. Stewards were essentially domestic servants, and they endured extreme racism in the Navy, where they were called “boy” by officers and forced to perform domestic service for even the wives and children of officers. These seamen were blocked from promotion and only endured these indignities in order to support their families in the Philippines and the United States. Some of these men were raised with Philippine patriarchal gender roles in which men did not engage in domestic work, so their work required significant cultural and physical adjustments.  “You are recruited just to cook, serve the officers and change the bed and clean the room, nothing else,” recalled Pedro Quejada Galvan, who enlisted in 1946, to interviewers in In Our Uncles’ Words.“The only thing that [kept] me going on is that I know I come from a poor family, and you are a servant to survive.”

The plum assignments for many Black and Filipino stewards included served high-ranking officers at the Pentagon and the President of the United States as stewards, on presidential yachts and at Camp David well into the 1990s. For example, through most of the 20th century, the White House domestic staff consisted of African American and Filipino Navy Stewards, who cooked and cleaned for the nation’s leaders. These seamen traveled the nation and world with their officers. Stewards like Jose Monge Montano spent years in the White House. Montano traveled alongside Presidents Johnson and Nixon all over the nation and globe.

During their service and upon retirement, these servicemen and their partners (many of whom were also immigrants from the Philippines) became American citizens, created families, settled in Navy towns, and petitioned for the immigration of family members. In so doing, they and their partners and families created large new communities or built upon existing Filipina/o American communities in places as diverse as Chicago, IL; Providence and Newport, RI; Norfolk/Virginia Beach, VA; Saint Mary’s County, MD; Jacksonville, Pensacola and Key West, FL; Corpus Christi, TX; Honolulu, HI; Kitsap and Seattle, WA; Charleston, SC; Long Beach, San Diego, Oakland and Vallejo, Calif. After their service, retired Filipino seamen engaged in a wide diversity of occupations. Many opened their own restaurants or catering businesses using the cooking skills they learned in the Navy. Others continued their military service as civilians or transitioned to other governmental positions such as for the Post Office.

Both men and women served with honor and distinction. Rear Admiral Dr. Eleanor Mariano, the daughter of a Navy Steward, became the highest ranking Filipino American naval officer. She attended two American presidents and was the longest-serving White House physician in United States history. She served as the first woman commander of the White House Medical Unit.

Thousands of Filipina/o Americans trace their roots to the Filipinas/os who served in the U.S. military and settled in the United States as a result of the Military Bases Agreement. We urge every American to learn more about the significant role these Filipino military servicemen and women played in service to the United States during the Cold War, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and in dignified service as stewards on the Presidential Yachts, at Camp David, in the Pentagon and White House. They and their families breathed new life into communities across the United States and helped to build the nation we know today.

FANHS encourages organizations and communities across the United States to incorporate this theme in their Filipino American History Month events, to visit our website (fanhs-national.org) in late September for curriculum and lesson plan resources, and for all to share their stories of their family’s military stories at #FAHM2017, on Twitter @fanhs_national, and our Facebook page @FANHSnatl.

Filipino Americans are the second largest Asian American group in the nation and the third largest ethnic group in California, after Latinas/os and African Americans. The celebration of Filipino American History Month in October commemorates the first recorded presence of Filipinos in the continental United States, which occurred on October 18, 1587, when “Luzones Indios” came ashore from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza and landed at what is now Morro Bay, California. In 2009, U.S. Congress recognized October as Filipino American History Month in the United States. Various states, counties and cities in the U.S. have have established proclamations and resolutions declaring observance of Filipino American History Month. The late Dr. Fred Cordova, along with his wife, FANHS Founder Dr. Dorothy Laigo Cordova, first introduced October as Filipino American History Month in 1992 with a resolution from the FANHS National Board of Trustees.

This year also marks the 35th anniversary of the Filipino American National Historical Society. Across the nation, the thirty-five FANHS Chapters, colleges and universities, museums and community groups, will be commemorating Filipino American History Month with various activities and events to bring awareness of the significant role Filipinos have played in American history.

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