California in World War II
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? For Asians?
 
"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 law."
 
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 for "Papa."
 
 
 

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, near Lompoc.
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 Regiment.
 
 
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 "Honeymoon Express."
 
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.
 
MacArthur--and Romulo--return to Leyte.
 
 
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 Manila.
 
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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Updated 8 February 2016