Happy Independence Day: A Story About Becoming American

Note: I've posted this story before. But I think about it every Fourth of July, so I wanted to post it again. I've updated and edited it a bit. I've cross-posted it at The Agitator today.

One hot summer in the early nineties, I was working as a summer extern for Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, a federal judge in Los Angeles. On a late morning in early July he abruptly walked into my office and said without preamble "Get your coat." Somewhat concerned that I was about to be shown the door, I grabbed my blazer and followed him out of chambers into the hallway. I saw he had already assembled his two law clerks and his other summer extern there. Exchanging puzzled glances, we followed him into the art-deco judge's elevator in the old federal courthouse, then into the cavernous judicial parking garage. He piled us into his spotless Cadillac and drove out of the garage without another word.

Within ten awkward, quiet minutes we arrived at one of the largest VFW posts in Los Angeles. Great throngs of people, dressed in Sunday best, were filing into the building. It was clear that they were families — babes in arms, small children running about, young and middle-aged parents. And in each family group there was a man — an elderly man, dressed in a military uniform, many stooped with age but all with the bearing of men who belonged in that VFW hall. They were all, I would learn later, Filipinos. Their children and grandchildren were Filipino-American; they were not. Yet.

Judge Lew — the first Chinese-American district court judge in the continental United States — pulled his robe from the trunk and walked briskly into the VFW hall with his externs and clerks trailing behind him. We paused in the foyer as he introduced us to some of the VFW officers, who greeted him warmly. He donned his robe and peered through a window in a door to see hundreds of people sitting in the main hall, talking excitedly, the children waving small American flags and streamers about. One of the VFW officers whispered in his ear, and he nodded and said "I'll see them first." The clerks and my fellow extern were chatting to some INS officials. The judge beckoned me, and I followed him through a doorway to a small anteroom.

There, in a dark and baroque room, we found eight elderly men. They were too infirm to stand. Three were on stretchers, several were in wheelchairs, two had oxygen tanks. One had an empty sleeve where his right arm had been. A few relatives, beaming, stood near each man. One by one, Judge Lew administered the naturalization oath to them — closely, sometimes touching their hands, speaking loudly so they could hear him, like a priest administering extreme unction. They smiled, grasped his hand, spoke the oath as loudly as they could with evident pride. Some wept. I may have as well. One said, not with anger but with the tone of a dream finally realized, "We've waited so long for this."

And oh, how they had waited. These men, born Filipinos, answered America's call in World War II and fought for us. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked the men of the Philippines to fight, promising them United States citizenship and veterans benefits in return. 200,000 fought. Tens of thousands died. They weathered the brutal conditions under Japanese occupation, fought a valiant guerrilla war, and in some cases survived the Bataan death march.

In 1946, Congress reneged on FDR's promise. Filipino solders who fought for us and their families were not given their promised citizenship, let alone benefits. Many came here anyway, had children who were born U.S. citizens, and some even became citizens through the process available to any immigrant. But many others, remembering the promise, asked that it be kept. And they waited.

They waited 54 years, until after most of them were gone. It was not until 1990 that Congress finally addressed this particular stain on our honor and granted them citizenship. (They never received their promised benefits, and never will. Some received lump sum payments of up to $15,000 in 2009 under the unpopular stimulus bill, some 68 years after more complete benefits were promised. Most of the happy men I saw that day 20 years ago are dead.)

Hence this July naturalization ceremony. After Judge Lew naturalized the veterans who were too weak to stand in the main ceremony, he quickly took the stage in the main room. A frantic, joyous hush descended, and the dozens of veterans stood up and took the oath. Many wept. I kept getting something in my goddamn eye. And when Judge Lew declared them citizens, the families whooped and hugged their fathers and grandfathers and the children waved the little flags like maniacs.

I had the opportunity to congratulate a number of families and hear them greet Judge Lew. I heard expressions of great satisfaction. I heard more comments about how long they had waited. But I did not hear bitterness on this day. These men and their children had good cause to be bitter, and perhaps on other days they indulged in it. On this day they were proud to be Americans at last. Without forgetting the wrongs that had been done to them, they believed in an America that was more than the sum of its wrongs. Without forgetting 54 years of injustice, they believed in an America that had the potential to transcend its injustices. I don't know if these men forgave the Congress that betrayed them and dishonored their service in 1946, or the subsequent Congresses and administrations to weak or indifferent to remedy that wrong. I don't think that I could expect them to do so. But whether or not they forgave the sins of America, they loved the sinner, and were obviously very proud to become her citizens.

I am tremendously grateful to Judge Lew for taking me to that ceremony, and count myself privileged to have seen it. I think about it every Fourth of July, and more often than that. It reminds me that people have experienced far greater injustice than I ever will at this country's hands, and yet are proud of it and determined to be part of it. They are moved by what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature to believe in the shared idea of what America should be without abandoning the struggle to right its wrongs. I want to be one of them.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Jason says

    Amazing story, Ken. This is my first time reading this, so I want to say thank you for sharing. It is extremely touching.

  2. says

    My first time hearing it as well (sadly for me, Popehat has only recently hit my radar…and subsequently found its place in my RSS reader).

    I hope it's not the last time you post it.

  3. Kat says

    Thank you. I have felt deluged and dragged down by the negative of late and stories like this remind me there is hope.

  4. Pete says

    Your mention of the Bataan Death March reminds me of a survivor I was privileged to know, whom I'll call Mr. B. Mr. B. was a kind, simple, hardworking man who labored as a farm hand for most of his life. After my grandfather passed on, Mr. B asked to rent his small farm so that he would be able to raise a very small herd of cattle to supplement his Social Security income. We had a wonderful relationship for many years, where Mr. B was able to live on the property rent-free in exchange for keeping up the house and farm. As the years passed, life became harder and harder for Mr. B. His wife passed, and he cared for his middle aged, special needs daughter alone. He was old, in pain, and could do less and less. Eventually this survivor of the Bataam Death March took his own life.

    I'm not sure of the point I'm trying to make here, or why I've attached it to this particular post. I suppose I simply have the sense that Mr. B was a fine man who loved this great country, and we somehow we failed him. It seems appropriate to remember him today.

  5. Kelly says

    What a lovely story. I too find that I have something in my eye. Thank you, Ken, for sharing this with us.

  6. nlp says

    Thank you. I loved the story when you posted it earlier, and have gone back to reread it on occasion. It's a reminder of some of our worst (reneging on a promise) and also our best; the land of hope and opportunity that so many people look for.

    But for some reason I always cry when I read it.

  7. icekat says

    A wonderful and moving story about a part of our history I wasn't aware of until today. Thank you for posting it.

    One minor note; if you ever re-publish this, the sentence toward the end of the next-to-last paragraph should read "…too weak or indifferent…" You've got the wrong "to" in there. (Sorry. Professional editor. Occupational hazard. :) )

  8. says

    I earned my US Citizenship late last year, and it is quite the feeling to be able to cross the border with less hassle and be able to flip the bird at my elected representatives (because I can vote now) without fear of retribution. It's the fringe benefits of citizenship that I like.

    Thanks for this story, Ken.

  9. says

    Ken, I have been accused many times of cynicism losing my patriotism – but clearly those people are not looking now, because they'd feel bad seeing me crying like a child while reading this post. It takes somebody who has stared down quite a bit of disillusionment to write a love-letter like this. Good for you, sir.

  10. Bakerina says

    I can't say it any better than the previous commenters have already said it. Thank you, Ken. That was amazing.

  11. Karl Bunday says

    Great story. And very appropriate for July 4.

    I do have one question. The article says, "They waited 54 years." If that is counting from 1946 to 1990, isn't that 44 years? I ask, because a larger portion of the veterans would die off in the longer time span than the shorter time span. I'm pretty sure that an event you witnessed in "the early nineties" happened less than fifty years after any part of American (or Philippine) involvement in World War II.

    Have a happy holiday.

  12. edgreen86 says

    What is that damn thing that's getting in everyone's eye today?

    (Spent 20 years in the US Military and did a tour in the Phillippines. Thanks so much for a reminder of how, even when we screw things up, we try to fix it…)

  13. Davey says

    I'm reminded of the saying that "Familiarity breeds contempt". Thanks for reminding me of the value of US citizenship.

  14. says

    As someone who's repeatedly tried to emigrate out, I find stories like this reassuring and uplifting. Thank you.

  15. htom says

    Must be that I need to change the furnace filters. Very dusty in here today. Thank you, Ken, and thank you, Pete. The worst, and the best, of us.

    Happy Independence Day!

  16. deezerd says

    Four years of of Army Reserve service, seven years as an expat … one side of the family hit Long Island in 1635, the other snuck in from Sicily via Canada around WWI. My love of my country has never been small, but never simple either – and these men show what a powerful thing it is, that it can rise above all that. Thank you SO much, Ken. :')

  17. Matthew Cline says

    In cases like this, what would it take to posthumously grant citizenship?

  18. squaawkbox says

    Beautiful story. Read for the first time too.
    Unfortunately not just the US but the UK too…

    "The worst, and the best, of us" as htom said.

    "… to believe in the shared idea of what … should be without abandoning the struggle to right its wrongs." as you eloquently stated.

  19. Nick says

    Thanks a lot–after reading this, I had to go yell at my wife for cutting onions.

  20. Marzipan says

    An excellent story, not least of all for its rendering of the perseverance of hope throughout the decades. A heckuvan externship experience to start a distinguished career.

  21. says

    @ Pete. Not that equity in benefits is a simple fact but the VA might have provided an extra pension. The early part of the war against Japan was marked by personal humiliation on our side. Rather like the Germans would march the Jews around and under feed them and Ann Frank's mother might have saved the children if she had groveled for a proffered work assignment, the Japanese treated us. There is an implicit assumption that there was a military necessity for the Death March; fill me in. I suppose the Filipinos were treated similarly; so the fact that somebody would give a s- about them might be received with a deep comradeship.

  22. Rowie says

    Actually, they weren't "born Filipinos," if by "Filipino," you are referring to Filipino citizenship. A Filipino born in, say, 1920, was born during a time when the Philippines was a colony of the United States. He was therefore a US national. There was no such thing as "Filipino citizenship" at the time because the Philippines was an American colony.

  23. Alex says

    @Rowie, The Philippines were granted independence in 1934 under the Tydings-McDuffie Act. At that point all Filipinos became aliens for the purposes of immigration, which was limited to 50 people per year.

  24. Rowie says

    @Alex, the US was granted provisional independence in 1934, with complete independence to come in July 4, 1946. But if a veteran was born in 1920, he was a US national from 1920 to 1935. He only became a Filipino citizen in 1935, so he was not "born Filipino," which is what the article says.

    From 1935 to 1946, ethnic Filipinos who fought for the US were still allowed to claim benefits from the US government; in 1946, their rights to benefits were rescinded.

  25. Rowie says

    It's still a moving story, and it may seem pointless to quibble with details, but to fully understand what happened to these veterans, these details are important.

  26. Rowie says

    Sorry, I need to correct myself. I did some more research and it turns out that the ruling American government did create a category of "citizen of the Philippine Islands" in 1916 through the Jones Law, though these "citizens of the Philippine Islands" also remained US nationals at the same time. To be a "citizen of the Philippine Islands" at the time, of course, did not mean the same thing as being a "Filipino citizen" now, because the Philippine Islands were not a sovereign state. I suppose it was analogous to calling one's self a "citizen of California" or a "citizen of Texas."

  27. Shell says

    Thank you for this post, Ken, and especially for this part: "They are moved by what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature to believe in the shared idea of what America should be without abandoning the struggle to right its wrongs."

    That is what I try to get across to people who condemn my and others' patriotism, how I am and how we should all be. We may never achieve those ideals but the fact that we try should matter to everyone. It does to me.