It’s easy to feel guilty about our innate sense of American exceptionalism. And although the term doesn’t necessarily define a national superiority complex, it’s not a stretch that most of us Americans really feel, deep down inside, as a Nation, we do march to our own drumbeat. We really do feel exceptional.
Let this story, even if just temporarily, suspend your guilt. As a country, we may not always live up to the promise of America, but like a lighthouse guiding a ship safely to shore, the American promise is one exceptional beacon.
Perhaps no decade, more than any other, threatened to dim that light more than the ‘60s. It was a decade of racial struggle, a Presidential assassination and a war that would see thousands of Americans die. Even now, most of us can recall images of black civil rights protestors menaced by fire hoses and police dogs in Alabama during the earlier part of the decade.
Who doesn’t remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., President Kennedy and his brother Robert? What about the Cuban Missile Crisis or the national fuel shortage? The country was divided more than ever before and there was real revolutionary fervor. Sure there was free love. And who could forget the drugs? But those were just symptoms of the fragile seam barely holding the country together. Yet, even in the most turbulent of times, elsewhere in the world, America’s promise shined through it all.
It is 1963. In the Philippines on an island jutting out into Manila Bay was an 18-year-old Filipino kid just dreaming about the American promise. “America was the land of opportunity,” a familiar thread we’ve all heard before. But hearing Virgilio Domingo say it, you believe it. He’s approaching 70 now, but you can see how extraordinary his journey was simply by making eye contact with him. “Back then you knew if you could just get to America, you could provide for your family and maybe one day even bring them here.”
The U.S. military presence in the Philippines exposed the natives to not only American culture and opulence, but to the promise of America as well. Also the financial incentive for joining was remarkable; after all, the salary of a sailor was much higher than what could be found in the villages where they lived.
A mixture of chance and education gave Virgilio just the opportunity he was seeking. “There was a newspaper ad with an application accepting Filipino citizens into the U.S. Navy. You had to fill out the application and send it in. If they randomly selected your application, they contacted you and gave you an opportunity to test and interview,” he explains. Some young Filipinos were known to send in dozens and dozens of applications.
In 1947, the United States entered into agreement with the Republic of the Philippines, which permitted it to recruit citizens of the island nation for military enlistment. Later in 1954, the agreement was amended and 2,000 Philippine citizens were allowed into the U.S. Navy per year.
Although the Philippines is a relatively small country, there are over 98 million people living there. That’s quite a lottery system. In fact, Virgilio’s odds were just about .002 percent. He was selected, however, shipped to the United States and in boot camp by October in 1963. A month later, President Kennedy was assassinated.
Today, sitting among Virgilio’s fellow Filipino immigrants now American veterans, you can’t help but think, these guys should probably go buy a lottery ticket. The fellas just finished their daily karaoke session. They’re all retired U.S. Navy Vietnam Veterans so it’s a little disappointing to have just missed their morning of living room American Idol.
Quite a large group of non-natural born U.S. veterans gather here at retired Petty Officer First Class Edgar Adriano’s house. Adriano was assigned to the USS Mullinix operating in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. He eventually retired right here in Pensacola at Corry Station. Just about every morning the guys gather here for a bit of walking followed by some mid-morning karaoke. But today, retirees Senior Chief Storekeeper Manny Zabala, Chief Aviation Storekeeper Noly Perea and Yeoman First Class Danny Santiago aren’t here.
“For me, right after boot camp, I was sent to Cuba. It was still kinda hot there,” George Castelluci interrupts. By hot, he’s referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the Vietnam War, Castelluci was assigned to a patrol squadron (VP-8) ironically based out of the Philippines. Mike Mazo, good friend and compatriot adds, “My dad was in the U.S. Navy first. He was a steward for Admiral Nimitz actually. My father had a plan that when we turned 18, he would send for us.”
Mazo’s personal story is different than his friends. His dad was able to join the U.S. Navy before him and had applied for American citizenship already. The plan was always to bring Mazo to the U.S. “But before he sent for us, I had already joined the Navy.” The promise of a better life through enlistment in the Navy was strong.
Although at this time the world was a dangerous place and the military a dangerous profession, Filipinos weren’t allowed but to serve in one capacity—a steward. Navy stewards would perform the domestic work of the Navy serving as cooks and doing the mundane jobs such as cleaning the galley, wardroom and living quarters of officers. On occasion, stewards would serve ship Captains and Admirals directly as their personal stewards. Not yet familiar with the American fight for civil rights, at first the only option to be a steward didn’t seem to bother any of these veterans. But that changed with time. Virgilio explains, “At that point, we didn’t care. But after a while you look at yourself as a maid or servant. You’re thinking of a way to change that and go to something else.”
“Despite the inequalities, you were proud you had made it, even when it got scary,” Ed Banacia, a retired Senior Chief Petty Officer explains. Just after enlisting, Banacia found himself aboard the USS Anchorage, a ship heavily involved in the Vietnam conflict. “It was our job to land South Vietnamese Marines at Quang Tri province during the Nguyen Hue Offensive. We were continually bombed and our escort Destroyer was hit. Even as stewards, we all had wartime responsibilities. My battle station was as a loader on the three-inch guns. We didn’t look at ourselves as Filipinos fighting alongside Americans. We just thought of ourselves as Americans fighting for our country.” Despite not yet having U.S. citizenship, the bond of war gave these men a sense of brotherhood, under one nation.
Finally in 1973, well after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. Navy altered this policy and Filipinos won their right to test for other jobs in the service. Virgilio would become a Navy Corpsman. Castelluci would transfer to Aviation. Mazo became a Yeoman. And, Banacia would become a Supply Officer. After five consecutive years of serving in the Navy, each one of these Filipino US servicemen was granted the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship. There was never a promise of citizenship, but the mere glimpse of an opportunity to apply was enough for these men and indeed every single Filipino who had the chance and choice to join the U.S. Navy.
There will deservedly be plenty of differing takes on the meaning of Veterans Day this November. As a nation, we are still embroiled in two conflicts that have taken a heavy toll on our society. New threats are developing both domestically and abroad. The world can still be a dangerous place. But what can we learn from these non-natural born American veterans?
The opportunities provided to us are still rare. The promise of America really is that we are that shining city on a hill. That people all over the world still can see America’s brilliance from any distance and will pay whatever price just for an opportunity at maybe grasping that promise. And that Veterans Day is an opportunity to thank all of those who protect that promise.
*Banacia isn’t a common name, so we are sure you figured out the writer is related to one of the veterans in this story.