Tuesday, November 11, 2008

One Veteran's Day


Today, November 11, is my father's birthday. Martin Avila Gotera would have been 87 today, and he has been gone for almost twenty years.

Today is also Veterans' Day. It has always seemed fitting to me that Papa's birthday is the same day as Veterans' Day. Formerly called "Armistice Day" . . . in other words, a day of peace, of cessation of war.

From the day he was born, soldiering was Papa's life. His father, my Lolo Felix, a "lifer" in the US Army, Philippine Scouts. The beginning of a kind of dynasty . . . Felix, a brigade master sergeant; Martin, a second lieutenant; and then two out of Papa's three sons also in the US Army, Pepito and Vince, one a Vietnam vet, a combat grunt, and the other a Vietnam era vet.

When I was a child, my father worked in the Veterans Administration as an adviser and contact rep for vets. So just about each of his twenty-four hours was spent with former soldiers, sailors, and Marines, making sure they got their veteran's pensions by day, and then at night he would suffer through combat flashbacks and nightmares.

During that same time, my father also gave community service for vets; he started a grassroots organization, FAVADA . . . the Filipino American Veterans and Dependents Association. This organization, as far as I know, was the first to work on what is now called the Filipino Veterans Equity issue. My father and his organization worked on the first class-action suit against the US government to reclaim the rights and privileges stolen from Filipino vets in the 1946 Rescission Act.

I wrote the following poem as a response to the National WWII Memorial, in particular from hearing that Filipino American writer Bino Realuyo was condemning the memorial because of his father being denied burial at Arlington Cemetery . . . again because of that damned Rescission Act.

Looking for Double Victory

Written in response to the dedication of the
National World War II Memorial, 29 May 2004


“The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called
democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression,
slavery, and tyranny. If the V sign means that to those now engaged
in this great conflict, then let we colored Americans adopt the
double VV for a double victory. The first V for victory over enemies
from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within.”

    James G. Thompson, letter to the Pittsburgh Courier,
31 January 1942 (quoted by Ronald Takaki in
Double Victory:
A Multicultural History of America in World War II)

Around and through these fifty-six pillars
of white stone hung with wreaths of bronze,
drift and dive four hundred thousand ghosts —
keening, unheard, indignant desert birds.

The war to uphold FDR’s Four Freedoms,
fought by Americans who never in their lives
tasted freedom of speech, freedom of worship,
freedom from want, freedom from fear. Never.

Dorie Miller, black Navy messman
at Pearl Harbor, firing an ack-ack gun,
a weapon he was forbidden to touch, downed
four Japanese bombers . . . strange fruit.

Ernest Childers, Muscogee infantryman
With the “Thunderbird,” single-handedly
cleared two German machine-gun nests . . .
first Indian to win the Medal of Honor.

Guy Louis Gabaldon, Chicano
Marine from East LA, fluent speaker
of Japanese, captured eight hundred
prisoners on his own without a shot.

Susan Ahn, daughter of Ahn Chang Ho,
renowned Korean freedom fighter . . . first
Asian American in the US Navy, first
woman gunnery officer in 1944.

My Papa, my Lolo — Martin and Felix Gotera —
trudge through a fog of kayumanggi dust
lit by sword blade’s sinister flash. Bataan!
Bloody but unbowed. Survive. Mabuhay.

My friend Bino curses these pillars, calls
them “horns.” His father, death-march survivor, denied
burial at Arlington. “No Filipinos Allowed.”
The Rescission Act. Give then take away.

Friends, although eight eagles lift here two
laurel wreaths for victory, the “Double VV”
has yet to be fully won. The demon vanquished
abroad still lives, here, at home. Flourishing.

We still recall with anguish Truman’s bombs,
two hundred thousand victims, mostly women
and children, black rain, skin burning. Legacy
of dishonor. Not a military necessity.

Today, let us remember these honored dead.
Let us remember the civilians — many women —
who riveted planes, who lived behind barbed wire.
Live up to the vision of all these heroes . . . all.

Let us win the second victory, at last.
Make the Four Freedoms real for each and all.
Then let these four hundred thousand ghosts, angels,
Rest their fiery wings in God’s breast, and sleep.


— Vince Gotera, from Mirror Northwest (2006)

Papa, with your interest in and passion for civil rights, you would be amazed to know that now we have an African American president-elect. So that in some measure, the "double VV" is becoming real. Rev. Jesse Jackson was interviewed on TV at Grant Park in Chicago, where Obama's election was being celebrated on the night of Election Day, and he talked about the double VV . . . the "enemies from within" not yet vanquished but certainly defeated that night.

As a birthday and veterans' day present to you, Papa, I want to highlight this stanza from the poem above, because it highlights the spirit in which you held your Bataan death march and prisoner-of-war camp experiences:
My Papa, my Lolo — Martin and Felix Gotera —
trudge through a fog of kayumanggi dust
lit by sword blade’s sinister flash. Bataan!
Bloody but unbowed. Survive. Mabuhay.
Happy birthday, Papa. I love you. And I miss you. Rest your fiery wings in God's breast and sleep. This is YOUR veteran's day . . . the celebration of one veteran.

NOTE: For those interested in Filipino veterans equity, check out this background info from the PBS
American Experience series.

For those of you whose main interests in reading my blog are poetry and poetics, this poem appeared in the Contemporary Poetry section of the Mirror Northwest online journal. This anthology is collected for students of poetry to use, especially the creative writing students of Wenatchee Valley College. With that pedagogical purpose in mind, I appended the following note to that publication:
To mimic the pillars of the National WWII Memorial, I end-stopped each of the quatrains so that they are all freestanding. Also, to retain the memorial’s spirit of honoring the combatants, I wrote the poem in pentameter — admittedly, loose and rough — to allude to the tradition of the iambic pentameter heroic couplet.
Go check out Contemporary Poetry / Mirror Northwest.

3 comments:

Mimi Nolledo said...

This is very powerful Vince!! Thank you so much for this wonderful blog entry. MiMi

Vince Gotera said...

MiMi ... that's very sweet of you to say so. I appreciate it very much. Ingat, okay?

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