The First Filipino Infantry Regiment
and San Luis Obispo County
by Jim Gregory
Bill Mauldin, the GI cartoonist who created
the perpetually muddy world of Willie and Joe in World War II
Italy, once said that his mother was the worst cook in the world.
He said it lovingly, but he needed a reference point. Army food,
he added, was far, far worse.
It makes sense that a GI with a short
pass from California's Camp Beale would make a beeline, in 1943,
for civilian food, for a meal in a real restaurant where cream
chipped beef on toast was nowhere on the menu.
Chinese food would have been a perfect
choice. But when four soldiers from Camp Beale sat in a Marysville
Chinese restaurant-they wanted rice, something they hadn't had
in months-they waited for service. And waited. And waited some
more. Finally, their sergeant called for help.
A flustered assistant manager came to
their table. He had the decency to be embarrassed.
"I'm sorry. We don't serve Asians."
The four GIs, from the First Filipino
Infantry Regiment, must have looked incredulous. No Chinese food?
"It's a city ordinance," the
assistant manager told them. "I'm sorry. There's nothing
I can do about it."
The story eventually got back to the First
Regiment's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Robert Offley, a veteran
of Douglas MacArthur's Philippine Army.
In a meeting with Marysville's city fathers,
Offley was flexible. He gave the town officials a choice:
"My men are American soldiers. You
will treat them as such, or I will place Marysville under martial
This is why the First Regiment's GIs-part
of the "Manong" ("Older Brother") generation,
who had volunteered in such huge numbers after Pearl Harbor-were
able to eat Chinese food in Marysville California, for the remainder
of their time at Camp Beale.
It was about this time that the regiment
began referring to Offley as "Tatay"-Tagalog
Lt. Col Robert Offley,
the First Filipino Regiment's commander, at front left. The Philippines'
Vice President Sergio Osmena is third from left.
Few immigrants lived in a twilight world
like the Filipinos who emigrated to the West Coast in the early
twentieth century. They weren't aliens-the Philippines, after
three years of vicious combat in the Philippine Insurrection,
were a "protectorate"-but neither were they American
citizens, a privilege limited to whites by the Naturalization
Act of 1790, a law repeatedly upheld by Supreme Court.
In San Luis Obispo County, many Filipinos
came to work in the fields, restaurant kitchens and hotels of
the Central Coast, and they suffered the same kinds of canards
that had been heaped on their predecessors in California, the
Chinese and Japanese, whose immigration was by the 1930s severely
limited. The Filipinos came because, like those earlier immigrants,
they had a powerful work ethic, and they came in large enough
numbers to make their work cheap: their value trumped the virulent
racism they would have to endure.
They were overwhelmingly male. Few Filipinas
were permitted to come to America, and, in many Filipino "tigertowns"-ghettos-in
California, males, most whom intended to send money home to their
birth families, outnumbered Filipinas in many towns by as much
as a hundred to one.
That irony was lost on editorialists like
Madge Ditmas, Arroyo Grande's town historian, whose columns were
a feature in the local weekly newspaper for decades. In 1934-a
year of incredible labor tension in California, with strikes
that spanned the state, from Irish San Francisco longshoremen
to Mexican Imperial Valley lettuce workers to Filipino Nipomo
pea pickers-Madge let the Filipinos have it with both barrels,
in a letter to the editor. She railed against "unmarried
Filipinos with no homes to pay taxes on, and no families to support,
given work that they took away from white men."
Ditmas also overlooked, in citing home
ownership, the informal but rigidly enforced covenant that would
have prevented any person of color from buying a home in Arroyo
Grande in 1934. It was a soldier, a Filipino-American veteran
named Pete Guion, who would finally break that barrier when he
bought a home here in 1949.
But Pete Guion, by then, was an American.
He was among 250,000 Filipinos who joined the World War II military.
The home that Pete Guion bought-housewarming photos show Filipino,
Japanese and Caucasian friends over for his barbecue-was one
that he had earned.
Arroyo Grande sailor
Felix Estibal served on the destroyer USS Walke, here
seen leaving Mare Island in San Francisco on her final voyage,
in August 1942.
The birth of Filipinos' service in the
United States Army came at Camp San Luis Obispo with the formation
of the First Filipino Battalion in 1942. Filipinos had long seen
service in the navy, but the only rating to which they could
aspire was as a mess steward-essentially, they were servants.
Two Arroyo Grande men served as such in the rigidly segregated
wartime navy: Felix Estibal died in the sinking of the destroyer
Walke off Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942; Camilo Alarcio survived
the near-sinking of the legendary carrier Franklin off Kyushu
in 1945: hit by two 550-lb. bombs, the carrier suffered the greatest
single-ship loss of life since Arizona, but she, and Alarcio,
somehow survived to make it back to the Brooklyn Naval Yard near
the war's end.
The Army was hardly a paragon of tolerance:
my father, a Quartermaster officer during the war, carried a
.45 on his hip during his 1944 transatlantic voyage to keep black
gasoline supply company troops in their place-which was below
decks-during the long trip to England.
But the First Filipino Infantry Battalion
was not segregated by edict: these were young men who wanted
to fight together to liberate their homes and to fight for the
nation that seemed to find their presence so distasteful.
It soon became apparent that the number
of volunteers-technically, the young Filipinos could not enlist,
as non-citizens, but they were doubtless the most willing inductees
of the war years-would demand a larger unit. The First Battalion
would become, at Fort Ord, the First Regiment, and the Second
Regiment would later be formed and began training at Camp Cooke,
A cadre of training officers and non-coms
was grafted onto the First from the 77th Infantry Division. It
became immediately apparent to them that their trainees were
going to be superb soldiers. They took to every aspect of GI
life, from cleaning the M1 Garand to the drudgery of company
drill, with quickness and enthusiasm.
They were distinctly different from other
GIs in one way: their choice of sidearms. The bolo knife, fundamental
to the Filipino martial art, escrima, became an indispensable
part of their training, and since, unlike M1s or creamed chipped
beef on toast, bolo knives were not available in wartime arsenals
or commissaries, amateur armorers made the weapons from automobile
leaf springs. [These were uncommonly resourceful young soldiers:
wooden traversing wheels used in artillery practice also proved
ideal for roasting pig.] The bolo knife became a singular trademark,
and one that conferred immense pride, for the men of the First
In a still from a wartime
film, Filipino GIs train in hand-to-hand combat with their bolo
knives at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg AFB). The weapon was featured
on this vegetable crate label. Sergio Reyes' Arroyo Grande ranch
was a home away from home for Filipino GIs; Gabe De Leon would
become Arroyo Grande's mayor after the war-the first Filipino-American
mayor in the United States.
The First's commander, Lt. Col. Offley,
faced yet another legal hurdle, more formidable than Marysville's
town ordinances, when the time came close for his men to ship
out to the Pacific. Many of them had fallen in love-with young
Caucasian women-which was ironic and inevitable. Because of the
prewar immigration restrictions, there were few single Filipinas,
yet the state still had rigid miscegenation laws on the books.
Offley could not declare martial law on the California State
Legislature, but he could requisition buses. In the spring of
1944, he instituted a kind of marriage by shuttle: his men could
marry legally in Gallup, New Mexico, and did, thanks to Offley's
That year, the Arroyo Grande Herald-Recorder
identified at least sixteen Valley Filipino-Americans (in 1943,
Congress had passed legislation allowing them American citizenship)
fighting under MacArthur's command-first in New Guinea, where
they'd had to endure another racist insult, used by one general
as manual labor until an enraged generalissimo intervened. MacArthur's
fidelity to the Filipino people was genuine.
One of his chief aides was the Filipino
soldier-statesman Gen. Carlos Romulo, who would someday become
secretary-general of the United Nations. Romulo came to Guadalupe
to speak in April 1944. During the war, he seems tireless: he's
a leader of the resistance to Japan, a war bond fundraiser, and
perhaps the most important recruiter for units like the First
Filipino Infantry Regiment. In the fall of 1944, MacArthur would
make good on his promise to return when American forces came
ashore at Leyte, they followed by their commander, determined
and dramatic, splashing through knee-deep water to mark his own
personal invasion. Romulo is just behind him.
The combat record of the California Filipinos
who Romulo helped to recruit would be a distinguished one, including
service with the Alamo Scouts, commando units that operated deep
in enemy territory on New Guinea and in the Philippines. The
majority of the Filipino-American GIs would see their first action
in Leyte and on Samar, an island where, during the Philippine
Insurrection and after taking heavy casualties, the intemperate
Gen. Elwell Otis had ordered the killing of every Filipino over
the age of ten. They would later fight with Sixth Army in the
invasion of Luzon, with the Alamo Scouts and a ranger battalion
meantime pulling off one of the most dramatic raids of the war.
In January 1945, they liberated 500 Allied prisoners of war at
Cabanatuan, including survivors of the Bataan Death March, and
some of them had been anticipating retribution-execution by their
captors-as American forces advanced. The "Great Raid"
spared them that fate and, in February, American forces re-took
A second campaign would follow the war.
It wasn't led by MacArthur, but by GIs like those in the First
Regiment: the War Brides Act permitted them to marry, bring their
brides home, and finally start families. The Manongs-older brothers-were
by now even older, many in their thirties or even early forties,
so their courtships were speedy, bypassing the traditional proprieties
of chaperones and protracted negotiations with potential in-laws.
They had to get back to the States.
One war bride, Evelyn Betita, found her
new home intolerably cold--the first thing her husband Perfecto
bought when they arrived in summertime San Francisco was a warm
coat for his shivering wife. Evelyn, perhaps a little idealistic
about life in the United States, was dismayed when she remembered,
with her wonderful sense of humor, that her new home in Arroyo
Grande "was all muddy and farmy"-and the war brides
discovered, as well, that their new husbands showed no evidence
that they had been good housekeepers.
Twenty-five years later, I would attend
Arroyo Grande High School with Perfecto and Evelyn's children.
The Manong Generation had finally found a home.
Jim Gregory was raised in the
Upper Arroyo Grande Valley. He taught history for thirty years
at Mission College Preparatory Catholic High School (Mission
Prep) in San Luis Obispo and at Arroyo Grande High School. His
book, World War II Arroyo Grande, is to be released January
11 by the History Press. It is available for pre-order.
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