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LIFE MATTERS: The Heroism of Early Filipino West Point Graduates

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By COL Dencio S. Acop (Ret), PhD, USMA ‘83

When the Philippines was an American colony, a defense study program was established wherein Filipinos were admitted as cadets to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Selection was very competitive and usually just one Filipino candidate got selected. Graduates rendered return military service for a minimum of eight years following four years of education and training. While the selection process was conducted annually, not every year found a worthy candidate. Early candidates came purely from civilian life. Later graduates, however, would also come from the Philippine Military Academy after it was established. Early graduates naturally served under the United States Army. Assignment in the Philippines was usually with the Philippine Scouts where the early graduates commanded their fellow countrymen. Later in 1935 with the Philippines becoming an American Commonwealth, the Philippine Army was organized and many graduates became its officers. World War II came in 1941 and most of the early graduates found themselves at the frontlines of the war leading the newly-regularized Filipino troops. I first got the opportunity to learn about the lives of the early Filipino graduates in 2011 while writing a draft relative to a US-Philippine military memorial being upgraded on the grounds of the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio, as then secretary of the West Point Society of the Philippines. My pride in our alma mater whose motto is Duty-Honor-Country grew as I read about the lives of these early graduates. This literary is an attempt to recreate my findings then and publicly share them so that we might once again be inspired by the heroism of our soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that you and I may live as free men and women. 

 Many in the noble profession of arms are truly heroic. While this article tries to focus on early Filipino West Pointers, in no way does it lose sight of the heroism of so many others who gave the best years of their lives to the country they love and the God they worship. There are eighty-one (81) Filipino West Point graduates as of 2024 since 1914. However, this write-up focuses on the first twenty-nine (29) graduates, especially those who fought in World War II and the Korean War. The stories and sacrifices of these early graduates need re-telling for today’s generations. ‘Lest we forget.’

The first graduate, Brigadier General Vicente Podico Lim ’14, commanded the 41st Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, US Armed Forces in the Far East during World War II. He became a prisoner of war following the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese. He escaped twice and was part of the ‘Filipino resistance movement until his recapture and subsequent execution’. Lim’s body was never recovered. Before the war, he served in the Philippine Scouts as an officer and had been tasked by General Douglas MacArthur ’03 to organize the Philippine Army. Lim is a pioneer charter member of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines who is memorialized in the 1,000 Philippine Peso banknote. His awards include the Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, and Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal.

Major Anastacio Quevedo Ver ’15 is the second Filipino graduate whose class of 1915 (‘the class the stars fell on’) includes Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. Ver served with the US Army and left as a major. He is buried at the Presidio in San Francisco. Colonel Rafael Larrosa Garcia ’16, the third local graduate, was Superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy when World War II broke out. He was captured by the enemy after the fall and held prisoner of war until the end of the war. Major Luis Rada Salvosa ’17 is the fourth graduate. He served in the Philippine Scouts until he resigned his commission in 1922 to become an actuarial mathematician and statistician at the University of Michigan. He wrote two books on mathematics.

The fifth Filipino graduate, Brigadier General Fidel Segundo ’17, graduated four months after Salvosa did. A war hero, he was a lieutenant colonel with the Philippine Scouts and later commanded the 2nd Infantry Regiment. He was also PMA superintendent. Segundo led the ‘1st Regular Division during the invasion by Japan and then survived the Bataan Death March. ‘Paroled from prison, he was later executed for aiding the Filipino resistance forces.’ He received the Purple Heart.

Another Filipino, Colonel Salvador Formoso Reyes ’17, graduated along with Segundo in the same batch but is listed as the 6th graduate. ‘During World War II, he survived the infamous Death March and three years of captivity as a Prisoner of War.’ He served with the Philippine Scouts and was awarded the Legion of Merit for actions during the war. 

Lieutenant Colonel Eustaquio S. Baclig ’18 is the 7th Filipino West Pointer. He also served in the Philippine Scouts and was captured by the Japanese after the fall of Bataan. He was released as Prisoner of War a year later but he ‘joined the Philippine Resistance Forces and was subsequently re-captured and was executed while in captivity’ at Fort Santiago in Manila. He was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal. Baclig was succeeded at West Point by Colonel Pastor Concepcion Martelino ’20 who became the 8th Filipino graduate. Like his predecessors, Martelino served in the Philippine Scouts with the Coast Artillery Corps. Martelino joined the Philippine Army upon its establishment in 1935.

In the following year, President Manuel L. Quezon and General Douglas MacArthur had him appointed as the first Filipino superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy. Martelino was chief of staff of the 31st Infantry Division of the USAFFE when war broke out. ‘He fought in Bataan, escaped during the 1942 Death March, and joined the Manila guerrilla movement. In 1944, he was captured by the Japanese. After refusing to help the Japanese Imperial Army defend Corregidor against the expected return of US forces, he was tortured and hanged in Fort Santiago in 1945.’

Colonel Alejandro Da Jose Garcia ’23 is the 9th Filipino graduate. He also served with the Philippine Scouts specifically with the 24th Field Artillery Regiment. Like the others, Garcia was taken Prisoner of War following the fall of the Philippines. He too joined the resistance after getting away and was subsequently killed in action in 1944 in Manila. Lieutenant Colonel Santiago Garcia Guevara ’23 graduated with Garcia but is listed as the 10th graduate. He too served with the Philippine Scouts’ 57th Infantry Regiment (as CO, 1st BN), 45th Infantry Regiment, and 3rd Military Police Battalion (as CO). He was also PMA Commandant of Cadets and Chief Of Staff, 1st Division, Philippine Army. Guevara was a POW who survived the Death March and the war.

The 11th Filipino West Pointer is Colonel Ricardo Poblete ’24. He commanded the 3rd Battalion, 57th Infantry Regiment and 8th Military Police Battalion of the Philippine Scouts. He then served as chief of staff, 51st Division, Philippine Army. ‘He was captured by the Japanese after the fall of Bataan on May 6, 1942 and was held as Prisoner of War until returned to US military control.’ He was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal. Poblete was followed at West Point by Lieutenant Jesus Airan ’25 (12th graduate). Unfortunately, Lieutenant Airan’s military career was cut short when he figured in an accident while on training with the 26th Cavalry Regiment (at Fort Stotsenburg, Pampanga) as he was fatally struck by a galloping horse in December of the year he graduated. Three Filipinos were sent to join the respective classes of 1927, 1928, and 1929 but they failed to graduate. They were: Emilio Aguinaldo Jr, Angel Miguel Jr, and Eligio Tavanler, respectively. 

Colonel Maximiano Saqui Janairo ’30 is the 13th graduate. Commissioned in the Philippine Scouts, Janairo’s colorful career spans the following: Chief Engineer with the Philippine Army (1941), Captured by the Japanese (1942), Survived the Bataan Death March, Prisoner of War at Camp O’ Donnell, Escaped and joined the resistance forces, Survived the war and again served in another war — the Korean War, served with NATO in Paris, and Retired as Colonel stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and lived to be 92. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Janairo’s successor had an equally colorful career but in a very different way. Captain Rufo Caingat Romero ’31 (14th graduate) had a promising career ahead of him but got lured by the enemy and ended up selling Corregidor’s fortifications to Japanese spies in Manila. Romero was court-martialed and sentenced to 15 years hard labor at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in Washington state. His co-inmates there included renowned criminals Al Capone, Timothy Leary, Charles Manson, Salvatore Bonanno, and 50 African-American sailors convicted of mutiny. Upon discharge, Romero lived and died in Spain. It was at the Spanish embassy in Manila where Romero conspired with Japanese spies. At the time, Spain’s Franco was a close ally of Hitler.

A classmate of Romero and the 15th Filipino graduate, Lieutenant Colonel Jaime Camacho Velasquez ’31 served as commandant of cadets at the Philippine Military Academy and was in the United States before the outbreak of World War II. He was assigned to the USAFFE as aide to President Manuel L. Quezon and evacuated with him from Corregidor on board the USS Swordfish. In Washington, DC, he served as military attache at the Philippine Embassy. After the war, President Ramon Magsaysay appointed Velasquez as Commissioner of Customs. After which, Velasquez joined Ayala Corporation. The 16th Filipino to graduate from West Point is Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Salvador Cepeda ’33. Cepeda was a company commander with the Philippine Scouts before he commanded its 2nd Anti-Tank Battalion. After the fall, he was taken prisoner like the others and survived the Death March. Cepeda was able to escape and joined the guerrilla forces. He was recaptured and sentenced to be beheaded but he again escaped. He served the rest of the war as G-3, North Luzon, USAFIP. Cepeda was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal.

Brigadier General Tirso Gimenez Fajardo ’34 is the 17th Filipino West Pointer. He distinguished himself as Commanding General of the Philippine Army. He also commanded the First Infantry Division and was Superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy. He did not get the opportunity to fight in the war in the Philippines as he was still in the U.S. obtaining his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the time war broke out. While stranded, Fajardo attended the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. ‘Afterwards, he joined the U.S. Army’s 1st Filipino Battalion at Camp San Luis Obispo, California with other stranded West Point and Annapolis Filipino graduates caught in the United States.’ The ranking Filipino officer in the group, Fajardo was appointed Operations and Training Officer (S-3). ‘When he landed in Samar with General MacArthur, he was a battalion commander under the Eighth U.S. Army. He distinguished himself in leadership and combat as the executive officer of the regiment he was assigned to.’ Fajardo is buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Manila.

Lieutenant Colonel Leon Flores Punzalan ’36 is the 18th Filipino to graduate from West Point. He commanded the 3rd Battalion, 45th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts. He served the rest of his career with the U.S. Army during and after World War II where he commanded ‘Filipino regiments in Samar, Leyte, and New Guinea.’ He ‘earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later invented a rifle cartridge ejector that was patented by the United States government and is credited with saving untold lives among American servicemen during World War II.’ After he passed away in Virginia Beach, the State Senate of Virginia passed a Resolution honoring him for having been a leadership pillar in the Filipino-American (veteran) community of Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Colonel Manuel Quiaoit Salientes ’37 is the 19th Filipino West Point graduate. Salientes was an Ordnance Officer with USAFFE / USFIP when World War II broke out. He was captured after the fall and became a Prisoner of War. He was subsequently released but he instead joined Peralta’s Guerrillas in Panay Island fighting against the Japanese invaders for the duration of the war. Salientes was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal. After the war, he served as Undersecretary for Munitions at the Department of National Defense. The 20th Filipino graduate is Colonel Antonio Pabalan Chanco ’38. He commanded the 91st Engineer Battalion, 1st Division, Philippine Army. He too was taken prisoner after the fall of Bataan and survived the Death March. He subsequently escaped from his captors and joined the East Central Luzon Guerrillas for the duration of the war. He won the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit for his service.

Along with Chanco, Miguel Santiago was also sent by the Philippine government to attend West Point as a member of the class of 1938 but he failed to graduate. 

Captain Vicente Ebol Gepte ’40 is the 21st Filipino West Pointer. ‘His father was a sergeant in the Philippine Scouts; Fought on Bataan and taken prisoner April 9, 1942; Freed with all Filipinos by the Japanese. He then joined Filipino guerrillas to fight against the Japanese and was captured. He was executed by beheading on August 30, 1944. His remains were never found.’ His cadet roommate wrote of him in the 1940 Howitzer Yearbook: ‘Mr. H’epte, sir! Five feet two inches, and every inch a man!’ The youngest graduate to die during World War II, Gepte is the only Filipino graduate who is immortalized on the grounds of the alma mater. ‘His family and classmates held a memorial and placed a photo in his niche at West Point.’ At his cenotaph, the following words are immortalized to honor his sacrifice and those of countless others in that last great war: ‘To the memory of those brave men and women who undefeated in defeat carried on the fight after the fall of Bataan; to those who while not bearing arms organized and assisted the Philippine resistance and who in so doing laid down their lives so that we might live.’

A classmate of Gepte, Colonel Felicisimo Sulit Castillo ’40 is the 22nd Filipino to graduate from USMA. He served as an officer with the 301st Field Artillery, Philippine Scouts and fought with the guerrilla resistance forces for the duration of the war.

Atanacio Chavez ’41 is the 23rd to graduate. He served with the U.S. Army. Chavez was followed by Colonel Pedro Roxas Flor Cruz ’42 (24th graduate). He too was assigned with the Philippine Scouts. He commanded a company of the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment. Then he served as Battalion and thereafter Regimental Operations and Training Officer (S-3) of the regiment; 3rd Battalion Executive Officer, 57th Infantry; and Regimental S-3, 57th Infantry. A star man (upper 5% of the class) at the academy, Flor Cruz served the rest of his military career with the U.S. Army. Flor Cruz is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Eduardo Suatengco ’43 came after Flor Cruz and is listed as the 25th Filipino graduate. He and his other Filipino classmate, Rafael Ileto, both excelled at the academy in sports, academics, and leadership (the three pillars of the West Point experience). It appears that Suatengco decided to serve with the U.S. Army while his classmate Ileto joined the Philippine Army after a brief career with the U.S. Army. 

Lieutenant General Rafael Manio Ileto ’43 is the 26th Filipino graduate from West Point. The USMA class of 1943 was accelerated due to World War II. The members of this class actually graduated in 1942 and then sent off to fight. After the war, Ileto rose to become the Vice Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He was actually the most qualified contender for the top military job but politics got in the way. Ileto was instead posted Philippine Ambassador to Turkey, Iran, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos during the ‘70s and ‘80s. After the People Power Revolution of 1986, President Corazon Aquino appointed Ileto her Defense Secretary after Juan Ponce Enrile. Ileto served with the U.S. 6th Army’s Alamo Scouts responsible for rescuing 516 prisoners of war held by the Japanese at Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija. After coming back from early retirement, he joined the Philippine Army and later founded the Scout Ranger Regiment. Ileto also served as defense attache to Vietnam and was an intelligence officer with the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency. He is buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani

Lieutenant Vicente Lim Jr. ’44 is the 27th graduate. A son of the first Filipino graduate, Lim ‘joined the Philippine Guerrilla Forces under the leadership of his father to fight the Japanese.’ However, ‘in 1945, he was honorably discharged as disabled.’ He then joined the corporate sector after the war. The 28th Filipino graduate is Colonel Albert Feliciano Alfonso ’48. He served with the U.S. Army and won the Silver Star while fighting in the Korean War with the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Division.

General Fidel Valdez Ramos ’50 is the 29th Filipino West Point graduate. He rose to become Philippine Constabulary Chief (1975-1986), AFP Vice Chief of Staff (1985-1986), AFP Chief of Staff (1986-1988), Secretary of National Defense (1988-1991) and President of the Philippines (1992-1998). The most successful Filipino graduate, Ramos ‘is credited for revitalizing and renewing international confidence in the Philippine economy during his six years in office’ as President. ‘During the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, Ramos was hailed as a hero by many Filipinos for his decision to break away from the administration of Marcos, and pledge allegiance and loyalty to the newly established government of President Corazon Aquino.’ Ramos is also credited with the creation of the Philippine Army’s Special Forces and the Philippine Constabulary’s Special Action Force which later became the PNP SAF. He served with the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK) in 1951-1952 and the 1966 Philippine Civic-Action Group to Vietnam (PHILCAG-V). Ramos distinguished himself in Korea when he successfully attacked a machine-gun nest manned by Chinese People’s Volunteer Army on Hill Eerie as part of the United Nations Command. He commanded the Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade before he was handpicked to lead the Philippine Constabulary. In 2000, his alma mater West Point honored him with the Distinguished Graduate Award. His many honors include the Legion of Honor, Distinguished Conduct Star, Distinguished Service Star, and Korean and Vietnam service medals. He passed in 2022 and is buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Twenty-nine (29) Filipinos successfully attended West Point between 1910 and 1950, in time to serve during World War II and the Korean War. ‘Of those sent by the Philippine government, four failed to graduate, one had died’ accidentally during cavalry training, and ‘three others were no longer in the Army’ by the time the wars broke out. ‘Three were in the U.S. and one more joined them before Bataan fell’ as he was aide to President Manuel Quezon who had to flee Corregidor. Seven others served with the U.S. Army or in other theatres. ‘Fourteen (14) Filipino West Point graduates were on Bataan at the time of the surrender, with the remaining graduate holding out for one more month on Corregidor. All fourteen (14) became Japanese POWs. ‘After parole, some worked with the underground resistance while others fought as guerrillas.’ Of the fourteen POWs, five ‘were ultimately executed’ while one died fighting in the resistance following escape. Filipinos today should never forget the ultimate sacrifices paid by yesterday’s Filipinos. For those sacrifices of years past had pre-paid for the freedom enjoyed by Filipinos, present and future. Lest we forget.         

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