He advocates for wronged WWII vets
Hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that sparked World War II, Japan began bombing U.S. bases in the Philippines. In response, Gen. Douglas MacArthur recruited Filipino soldiers to fight alongside American forces in the Pacific, declaring, “Give me 10,000 Filipinos and I shall conquer the world!”
One of those Filipino fighters was the late father of Maryland retiree Jon Melegrito.
Melegrito, now 77, has fought for 30 years to keep his father’s legacy alive by advocating for him and thousands of other Filipino World War II veterans.
His father, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, suffered hearing loss during the war but was denied benefits from the Veterans Administration.
“It means a lot to me to keep his memory alive,” Melegrito said in an interview with the Beacon. “And especially for my children and grandchildren to know that their great-grandfather served as a soldier and fought in World War II gives me a lot of pride, to tell his story.”
Recognizing Filipino veterans
From his home in Kensington, Maryland, Melegrito works as the executive secretary of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP), which he co-founded in 2013.
The nonprofit’s 25 volunteers are raising awareness of Filipino-American WWII veterans who were stripped of their recognition (and military benefits) after the Rescission Act of 1946, which rescinded certain benefits to Filipino troops for their military service.
The project, Melegrito said, “gives me a lot of inspiration, gives me a lot of motivation, and gives me a lot of incentive to continue being an activist so that the American people, especially the next generation, will be aware and learn and be educated and inspired by the heroism and courage of the Filipino World War II veterans.”
In 2018, Melegrito was recognized for his work by AARP, which awarded him the Asian American & Pacific Islander Hero Award, given to advocates who work to help the lives of older adults.
The project was established with three goals: to secure a Congressional Gold Medal for all Filipino veterans, to teach students about that forgotten alliance, and to rescind the part of the 1946 act pertaining to Filipino veterans.
Melegrito rejoiced when former President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which granted Filipino veterans compensation for their dedication in WWII. However, the law came too late for many Filipino vets, including his late father.
Then, on December 14, 2016, Obama signed a bill that honored the more than 250,000 Filipino veterans of World War II with a Congressional Gold Medal.
“It was a relief,” Melegrito said. “There was a sense of gratitude. But you can never erase the outrage, the anger and the resentments that festered for almost 75 years.”
Father survived Death March
Melegrito was born in Muñoz, a small town in the Philippines, in 1944, when his country was fighting against Japan.
His parents had been schoolteachers, but his father became a soldier and later a major in the Philippine Commonwealth Army. He was then recruited to be a Philippine Army officer under the United States Forces during WWII.
In 1942, after losing the Battle of Bataan to the Japanese, 60,000 U.S. POWs, including Melegrito’s father, were forced by the Japanese on the notorious Bataan Death March. It is estimated that more than 5,000 Filipinos and 500 American soldiers died of exposure, thirst, starvation, torture and summary execution on that 60-mile march.
In the mid-1960s, in search of a better life in America, Melegrito’s family settled in Columbia, Missouri. After Melegrito graduated from college, he moved to the D.C. area, earning a master’s degree in journalism from American University
He has worked in numerous jobs throughout his life, from selling vacuums in Missouri, to writing labor union newsletters, to supervising the library at George Washington University.
Today, in addition to his role as executive secretary at the nonprofit, he’s an active volunteer for Meals on Wheels, his church and other groups.
“Jon Melegrito is a consummate community servant,” said Antonio Taguba, 71, chairman of the FilVetREP and retired major general in the U.S. Army.
Taguba’s father also fought on the side of America and survived the Bataan Death March. Taguba pointed out that Filipinos have “served in the United States Armed Forces since 1899, when the Philippines were colonized by the United States.”
Teaching the history
Throughout Melegrito’s career and volunteer jobs, he worked on nights and weekends to raise awareness and gain rights for Filipino veterans. He witnessed these veterans in their 70s, 80s and even 90s walking through the halls of Congress asking that their benefits and honor be restored after it was wiped away by the Rescission Act.
“And they always ended up with frustration and disappointment and heartache. And yet, despite all of that, they were loyal to America. They were never bitter about America,” he said.
Melegrito and other volunteers at FilVetREP are working to teach students the history as well.
“The latest project is developing classroom curriculum, some lesson plans for public school teachers, because the story of Filipino veterans is not taught in public schools,” Melegrito said.
In addition, in November the project released a documentary called “Faces of Courage: Untold Stories of World War II Filipino Veterans,” which aired on Hawaiian television stations.
Those stories are now part of a digital museum exhibit, “Under One Flag,” which the nonprofit launched in November 2020. As part of the project’s objective to educate others, the online interactive educational program details personal stories as well as “historical accounts and artifacts that were filed away at the National Archives, the Library of Congress and family records,” according to the website.
Melegrito plans to continue to tell the stories of his father and other Filipino veterans who helped America.
“When we are talking about justice, we’re not just talking about justice for a few; we’re talking about justice for [all] who were either mistreated or who were denied their rights,” Melegrito said. “This is really a fight for human and civil rights for everyone.”
To see the online exhibition, visit dutytocountry.org.