I was elated no end when, after 75 years of the end of the 2nd World War, my father, the late Vice Governor Francisco F. Ponce de Leon was recognized as a Palawan War hero by the Philippine government through the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office headed by Lt. Gen Ernesto G. Carolina, AFP (Ret.). Still, I feel sad that many World War II veterans had passed on to the Great Beyond, unrecognized for their heroism during the war. Some of their dependents, who sought my advice were aghast over the non-recognition of their departed veteran-fathers; I told them that perhaps what’s needed are proof of their war activities. I promised to help them once the documents are with me and truth be told I’ve been of help to some of them.
One of those unrecognized war hero (by PVAO) is my very own uncle Reynaldo Herrera Abadiano, older brother of my mother. It’s a puzzle on my part why this was so because the truth is that my uncle was recognized as such by no less than General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the allied forces in the Pacific in Brisbane, Australia in January 1944. And after the war, uncle Reynaldo took over the operations of the Palawan Veterans Affair’s Office in Puerto Princesa City upon the retirement of my father as head of the Veterans Association of Palawan in 1980. For 33 years from 1980 until his death in 2013, uncle Reynaldo run the Veterans Office in the province helping war veterans or their dependents in pursuing their war claims for their parents.
General MacArthur’s recognition was conferred to my uncle and six others namely; Alfred Cobb (grandfather of former Iwahig Penal Colony Superintendent Roland Cobb de Los Santos), two American soldiers, Swift and Vigoreaux and Muslim brothers Kahlil and Jillian. This was coupled by MacArthur’s on-the-spot induction of uncle Reynaldo, Alfred Cobb and the Muslim brothers, Khalil and Jillian into the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). Until his death in 2013, my uncle was a USAFFE pensioner, but perplexing as it has been, no award was ever given to him by the Philippine government.
For what were uncle Reynaldo, Alfred Cobb and the two Muslim brothers, Khalil and Jillian gave this highest award by Gen. MacArthur himself? The answer can be found in Arthur Kendal Whitehead’s best-selling “Odyssey of a Philippine Scout Fighting, Escaping, and Evading the Japanese, 1941-1944”.
Captain Whitehead was one of the officers of the 26th Cavalry Regiment, Philippine Scouts from 1941-1944. The Philippine Scouts was described as “among the US Army defenders of the Philippines–then still a US Protectorate – consisted of well-trained, highly disciplined Filipino enlisted men who fought in the desperate, ferocious battles on the island of Luzon in December 1941 and early 1942 against Japanese infantry, supported by tanks and artillery”. During the war, Capt. Whitehead was separated from his unit and for two years he evaded capture by the Japanese until his arrest in Panay Island. Escaping from a prisoner of war camp thereat, Capt. Whitehead fled to Cuyo Island in Palawan and there planned his escape by boat to Australia. His mission was to prove that sea travel from Palawan to Australia was feasible. He also carried with him vast intelligence reports on Japanese activities in the Visayas. For this mission, he organized a small group to join him in the long travel to Australia – Alfred Cobb, Swift, Vigoreaux, Uncle Reynaldo, and the Muslim brothers, Khalil and Jillian. On board a Muslim ‘kumpit’, they took off from Cuyo in September 1943 passing by El Nido, down Palawan’s western flank to Alfonso XIII (now Quezon) then to Balabac, Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and finally the long voyage to Australia – a perilous journey by sea of four months. In Quezon, Tawi-Tawi, and Sulu, they had firefights with the Japanese troops in those islands, escaping unscathed until they reached Melville Island in Australia on January 7, 1943. After a brief stay in a military camp in Melville Island, they were picked up by an aircraft sent by Gen. MacArthur and brought to Brisbane where the general himself met them.
The family of uncle Reynaldo is, of course, happy that their father died a member of the USAFFE, with all the benefits given by the United States government for recognized war heroes. And yet they still yearn for the day when their father, like my father, would be recognized as such by his own country.