Heroes to their country and heritage, World War II vets honored at Constitution Center

A new exhibition at the National Constitution Center features World War II veterans of minority races and nationalities.

With intertwined biographies rendered in photos, videos and text, “Fighting for Democracy: Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We the People?’ ” profiles seven men and women– black, Hispanic, Jewish, Filipino, Native American and Japanese American–as heroes to their country and their heritage.

To punch up a prepackaged, traveling show that originated at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, the Constitution Center added an original short play. A makeshift stage was built in the middle of the exhibition hall, where actors bring to life all seven of the featured veterans.

All the veterans are now dead, except for Domingo los Baños who grew up on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii. He is Filipino, and comes from a family with a long line of military service. However, before 1942, the United States considered Filipinos in America as aliens. They were not permitted to join the military.

Filipino activists–called manongs–fought the government for equal rights and opportunities. It wasn’t until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor that President Franklin Roosevelt allowed Filipinos to enlist. Seven-thousand manongs then rushed to fight in World War II..

“To these 7,000 older manongs, 300 of us teenaged Filipino boys–we are the first replacements to this outfit,” said los Baños, who was part of the second wave of Filipinos to serve in the Pacific Theater.

“We didn’t know what they did! When I found out what they did–secret missions, saving in a great raid the American prisoners in the (Bataan) Death March–they were our boys! I thought somebody needs to tell their story.”

The exhibition shows los Baños as a handsome young man with a smile a mile wide. Gen. Douglas MacArthur used Filipino-American soldiers to gather intelligence in the Philippines.

“Our emancipation was the war,” said los Baños. “It took us away from Hawaii, and we saw the world in reality. And with the GI Bill, I went to college. Springfield College, and Columbia. All free, see? With that we took our place in government, and all that. We’re still behind, but it changes our attitude.”

After the war, los Baños became a teacher. Now 87 years old, he is a volunteer educator and Army chaplain, teaching children about the contributions of Filipinos to American life and telling the story of their service during the war.

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