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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 30, 2001

New film depicts Filipino regiments' exploits

By Scott Ishikawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

There was no Hollywood glitz and glamour for this premiere — just a small Waipahu meeting room and a 30-inch TV screen.

Veterans of the U.S. Army's 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment, from left, Peter Villafuerte, Jose Saromines and William Bacoro, watch a screening of "An Untold Triumph," a film about Filipino soldiers during World War II.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

But the stars were sitting in the audience. And at the end of the documentary about the U.S. Army's 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments that helped liberate the Philippines during World War II, there were cheers and tears.

"This is your father's and brother's stories, maybe told for the first time," said Filipino American war veteran Domingo Los Banos, who helped spearhead production of the documentary — "An Untold Triumph: America's Filipino Soldiers" — planned to be shown nationally on public TV next spring.

About 50 Filipino American war veterans and family members packed Waipahu's Hawai'i Plantation Village to view a rough cut of the film that has been in the making for seven years.

"The main thing is we're part of history now," 77-year-old Marcello Vendiola said proudly after the showing. Vendiola, who had fought with the 1st Filipino Regiment, said: "Our children and grandchildren can learn from this."

Many of the soldiers' missions haven't been known until recently because they were carried out behind enemy lines, and military records documenting their work were kept classified.

Soldiers roasting pigs

The movie took the veterans, back to another time. Some wept during the showing, others beamed with pride. The audience chortled while watching U.S Army film footage of the Filipino soldiers roasting pigs, and whispered to and nudged each other when recognizing someone on the screen.

"I just cried during it," said Leilani Piscusa, whose father, Santiago, a World War II veteran, died last year. "I wish Dad had a chance to see it. I know he would have liked it. But at least what they've done is recorded now."

"My heart got real big," said a beaming Bea Vendiola, a war bride featured in the film with husband Marcello. That segment showed how many Filipino American soldiers married local girls in the Philippines and brought them to the United States after the war.

"I cried when I remembered how much I missed my family when I moved here," she said. "But I came because I wanted a better life for my children."

Los Banos and Stephanie Castillo, who worked as co-writer and associate producer on the documentary, wanted to show the 83-minute rough cut of the film to the veterans now because many of them have recently passed away.

"Of the 7,000 men who were part of the 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments, I think three-fourths of them have passed on," said the 75-year-old Los Banos. "Many of them enlisted when they were in their 20s, 30s, even 40s."

On Jan. 2, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order forming the regiments. The men recruited for the regiments, most from Hawai'i or the U.S. Mainland, would become eligible for American citizenship.

When U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur was forced to flee the Philippines in 1942, he made his famous vow to return. But to do so, he needed intelligence from behind enemy lines to prepare for a subsequent American invasion.

More than 800 handpicked volunteers from the 1st and 2nd Regiments were transported there by submarine to eventually supply intelligence as part of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion between 1943 and 1945.

Regiments deactivated

Soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments also participated in bloody combat and mop-up operations in New Guinea, Leyte, Samar, Luzon and the southern Philippines. Members of the 1st Regiment, as part of a reconnaissance group called the U.S. Sixth Army "Alamo Scouts," traveled 30 miles behind enemy lines in January 1945 to free 500 Allied prisoners from the Cabanatuan death camp.

Both Filipino regiments were deactivated in 1946.

Castillo, whose late father, Wallace, served in the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment and did counter-intelligence work personally for MacArthur, said the film has also turned into a personal genealogy project. Her mother, Norma, also featured in the film, is a war bride. The father of the film's executive producer Noel Izon also served during World War II as part of the Philippine underground resistance.

"I understand so much more of my family now," said Castillo, who moved to Washington, D.C., to help complete the film. "I showed it to my family in Kaua'i, and afterwards, we went straight from the TV room to the dining room to talk about Mom and Dad's war experiences."

Castillo said the documentary, which, so far, cost $300,000 to make, will be edited for an hour broadcast on PBS.

"PBS recently bought the distribution rights to the film, which is a good sign for us," she said.

The film's producers are still seeking $150,000 in grants and donations to complete the film. Some of the written text seen in the rough cut will be narrated by a celebrity journalist, and the archival film footage and still photographs will be rerecorded or reshot for better quality.

Because more than 40 people were interviewed for the documentary, many of the subjects will be featured on a related Web site.

"You want to get everything into an hour's time, but it's never enough to allow you to tell all these rich stories," Castillo said.

For the premiere of the film's final cut, Castillo promised the veterans a more formal venue.

"Next time, we'll do this at Hawai'i Theatre, OK?" she told the packed house.

Reach Scott Ishikawa at sishikawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.