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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Filipino vets' heroism now told

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The film "An Untold Triumph" was made for those who could be there last night to see its world premiere: veterans of the 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments, whose service in World War II helped liberate the land of their parents and grandparents.

World War II veterans, from left, William Millan, Geraldo Gapol and Pete Villafuerte look at war photos from the Philippines displayed at Blaisdell Center.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Marcelo Vendiola of Makakilo is one. Featured in the documentary with his war bride, Bienvenita, Vendiola couldn't get over how fresh the memories remain after all this time.

"It's been 60 years," he said after the screening. "I was a young boy, and now I'm 79!"

"It was terrific!" added William Galisa, another veteran from Ma'ili. "I liked everything, especially the Hawai'i boys in it."

But "The Untold Triumph," a project more than seven years in the works, also was made for people like Luella Costales, on staff with the Hawai'i International Film Festival that was presenting the film. Costales' father was in the regiments but wasn't the type to regale his daughter with tales from the front.

"My father just turned 97 years old," Costales told the audience. "He lives in Los Angeles and couldn't be here.

"My father never spoke much about being in the war," she said. "I want to thank the other veterans who opened up and told their personal stories so we can appreciate all our families who fought so hard to give us the freedoms we have."

'An Untold Triumph'

The film will be shown:

• Maui: Maui Community College, 3 and 7 p.m., Nov. 9

• Big Island: UH-Hilo Campus Center video room, noon, Nov. 9

• Moloka'i: Kaunakakai School, 6 p.m., Nov. 9

• Kaua'i: Kaua'i Community College Theater, 5:30 p.m., Nov. 10

• Lana'i: Lanai Theater, 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m. Nov. 11

The crowd at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, already buoyed by a two-hour reception and Filipino folk songs, broke into cheers to greet Pearl City's Domingo Los Banos, a regimental veteran and film adviser who also organized the Hawai'i premiere.

There was lots of cheerful applause: for the singing, for the remarks delivered onstage by the governor and mayor, for the taped introduction by actor Lou Diamond Phillips, who narrates what producers hope will become a national broadcast on PBS next year.

But as the 75-minute premiere edition began unfurling the poignant and painful recollections of veterans and families across the screen, the audience fell silent.

The documentary dips into history to paint the backdrop of the regimental story, the racial discrimination faced by Filipino Americans in the pre-war years. A federal law passed in 1939 stripped immigrants of rights to vote or enlist in the armed forces.

When war broke out on Dec. 7, 1941, the Filipino communities nationwide were quick to respond. The film quotes Hawai'i regimental veterans who witnessed the first chapter played out here.

Los Banos recalls the cries of "War! War!" by his 7-year-old brother, jumping up and down. Stanley Laping described the sound of of the gunfire strafing and Orlando Valentin the sight of a dive bomber striking a ship in Pearl Harbor. A tearful Alfred Alfonso remembered the ejection of Japanese Americans from his Kahului platoon.

Angel Ibanez, Rosindo Tejad and Roland Pagdilao take a break after a reception dinner for Filipino veterans at Neal Blaisdell Center. They attended the premier of the movie "An Untold Triumph."

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The following day, the Japanese invaded the Philippines, and the ill-equipped, largely civilian army was forced into retreat. Nationwide, Filipinos petitioned Washington for the right to be drafted.

In the Philippines, Camilo Ramirez is taken prisoner. Fever-ridden with malaria and dengue, he runs down a ditch to a church.

"I prayed, 'God, please, get me out of this place,' and I was crying all the time," he said. "But when I came out of the church, I felt so light, as thought I was flying."

Ramirez escaped and found passage on a ship bound for Australia, which eventually would become a training ground for the reconnaissance forces of the regiments that finally were born Feb. 23, 1942.

The film contains an uncompromising description of the infamous Bataan death march, in which 70,000 starving Filipino and American prisoners, 9,000 of them dying or executed along the way, were forced hundreds of miles to camps where thousands more died. "An endless procession of death," as one veteran described it.

By February 1943, half the 7,000 men in the regiments had become American citizens. Meanwhile, soldiers trained in the regiments were tapped to become "secret mission men," members of clandestine guerrilla units planted in the Philippines, including soldiers trained as spies and code-breakers.

Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Stephanie Castillo made "An Untold Triumph."

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Many of the Hawai'i soldiers didn't arrive in the Philippines until after much of the pre-liberation reconnaissance work was done. Most of them were raised in multi-ethnic communities and were startled when their ships were greeted by Filipino civilians in tiny boats.

"I felt proud and felt happy," Los Banos said. "Now we knew we were in our parents' land."

And later, when at last the country was liberated, he realized what his regimental predecessors had accomplished.

"Then and only then did we begin to feel the pride of the men of the regiment," he added, as a photo of the jubilation is displayed on screen. In it, a crowd masses beneath a sign that reads, "Through these portals pass the best damn soldiers in the world."

Hawai'i filmmaker Stephanie Castillo assisted as associate producer of "An Untold Triumph," with executive producer Noel "Sonny" Izon; both are children of regimental veterans. Another O'ahu screening is set for February, following a showing in January at the Smithsonian Institution.

"This story is so amazing," Izon, told the crowd. "We wanted to make a living tribute to these guys who are so great, and I salute all of you."

Los Banos, called to the stage with other featured members, accepted that salute.

"I love you guys," he said, gathering the filmmaking principals for a group hug.

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.