The First Filipino Infantry Regiment
Updated: Jan 11
Many Filipinos fought in World War II, but regardless of whether they were serving the country or not, they faced discrimination. For example, when four Asian soldiers from Camp Beale arrived at a Marysville Chinese restaurant, they wanted rice as they hadn't had that in months. Like everyone else, they waited, and waited, and waited some more for service, but to no avail. At last, their sergeant called for help. And when he did, the assistant manager had the decency to be embarrassed, for he said, "I'm sorry. We don't serve Asians."
The soldiers thought, No Chinese Food, for Asians? Meanwhile, the manager replied, "It's a city ordinance, there's nothing I can do about it." Eventually, the story was retold to First Regiment's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Robert Offley, a veteran of Douglas MacArthur's Philippine Army, who responded to the treatment of the soldiers by giving the Marysville town leaders a choice; he said, "My men are American soldiers. You will treat them as such, or I will place Marysville under martial law."
Lt. Col Robert Offley, the First Filipino Regiment's commander, at front left (U.S. Army Photograph)
Like many other Asians, Filipinos immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century in hopes of making money for their families back home. But like all of those other Asians, they could not gain American citizenship, as determined by the Naturalization Act of 1790, a law repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court. According to Gregory, "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 were the laborers building California. Because their goal was to work and send money back home, those who emigrated from the Philippines were mostly male; in fact, in many towns, Filipinas were outnumbered one hundred to one. Their capabilities were often restricted, for their strong work ethic was often frowned upon by Europeans such as Madge Ditmas, Arroyo Grande's town historian, who viewed them as "unmarried Filipinos with no homes to pay taxes on, and no families to support, given work that they took away from white men."
Service to America
During World War II, as many as 250,000 Flipinos served in the U.S. Army. Their story begins at Camp San Luis Obispo, where the First Filipino Battalion was formed in 1942. In the army, most only served as servants, and many faced unfavorable working conditions and sometimes even tragic deaths, such Arroyo Grande sailor Felix Estibal, who died in the sinking of the destroyer Walke off Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942. Regardless of the dangers, the number of volunteers serving in the army grew by so much that a Second Regiment was formed near Lompoc. It was quickly apparent that the Filipinos would prove to be excellent soldiers, for "They took to every aspect of GI life, from cleaning the M1 Garand to the drudgery of company drill, with quickness and enthusiasm" (Gregory). In addition, they were also distinctly different from other GI's, for they used bolo knifes, which were fundamental to their martial arts. Later, "The bolo knife became a singular trademark, and one that conferred immense pride, for the men of the First Regiment" (Gregory).
Arroyo Grande sailor Felix Estibal served on the destroyer USS Walke; seen leaving Mare Island in San Francisco on its final voyage, in August 1942 (Department of the Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command)
No matter how they were treated, the First Filipino Infantry Battalion consisted of "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" (Gregory).
Gregory, Jim. The First Filipino Infantry Regiment and San Luis Obispo County, www.militarymuseum.org/1FIR-SLO.html.