Jeff Pimentel, of Mercer Island, recently attended a ceremony in D.C. honoring people like his father from World War II. It should be just the beginning of such recognition.
Next week, Jeff Pimentel will be placing flowers on his father’s grave at Evergreen Washelli in Seattle as part of a Veteran’s Day tradition. His father’s service during World War II is important to him as a son, and this year the country is acknowledging that contribution, too.
Lorenzo Pimentel, Jeff’s father, was one of more than 260,000 Filipinos and Filipino Americans who served during the war and were honored last week with a Congressional Gold Medal, which recognizes major achievements that had an impact on American history or culture.
Jeff Pimentel and his sister, Casie Pimentel-Smith, attended the ceremony Oct. 25 in Washington, D.C., along with about 300 people, relatives of veterans and some of the surviving veterans. There are about 19,000 surviving Filipino and Filipino Americans of the war. Pimental called me a few days later because he wants more people to know about the contributions made by his dad and other Filipino veterans.
Pimentel’s uncle also served, and while Pimentel was growing up, many of the Seattle-area vets were like extended family, he said. He saw friends at the ceremony in Washington. The Metropolitan King County Council even singled out the veterans, including the 12 survivors who live in this area, when it proclaimed October Filipino History Month.
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Each one has a story that matters, he said. I agreed, and this week he told me his father’s story. Seattle has long had a significant community of Filipino Americans. His father, whom people called “Larry,” came to Seattle in 1928, when he was 19, brought here by an uncle who said he would have a better life in the United States. He attended Broadway High School briefly, but he left to work.
He labored on farms, bused tables, worked in the Alaska canneries. His three children all have easier lives. Jeff, who lives on Mercer Island, spent 22 years as a reserve officer with the Seattle Police Department and works for the city of Seattle in construction management.
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, Jeff Pimentel said, “My dad wanted to go fight to liberate his homeland.” He got his chance when the U.S. called Filipinos to service.
The country was gradually transitioning from U.S. colonial rule to independence when the war broke out, but the United States still had the right to draft Filipinos. Pimentel said his dad was proud to be part of the U.S. military, and years later he would often sit at the dining-room table of the family’s home on Beacon Hill and tell his oldest son about his experiences.
Pimentel was sent to California and then volunteered for a secret assignment. After he passed the required tests, Pimentel was given an envelope with orders he was told not to open until he was at sea. He was being sent to Australia to train to conduct reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines.
He told his son that when he disembarked, an Australian woman who greeted him asked a question, “Have you come to die?” No, he answered, “I haven’t come to die.” Accents had gotten in the way of communication. She’d asked, “Have you come today.”
Not much of the rest of his tour of duty was amusing. Pimentel said some of the stories his father told were gory, but another illustrated how seriously his father took his role.
His group was dropped by submarine at various locations to gather information on Japanese troops, and one such place was the village where he grew up. Pimentel was using a fake name, but one day two of his nieces recognized him and called out. He tried to quiet them because he knew the Japanese would kill him and his family if he were discovered. But he acknowledged them and went with them to where the rest of his family was hiding.
Rumors flew about a family member collaborating with the Japanese, and Larry Pimentel thought it might even be his father. When the two met, Pimentel told his father that if he was the collaborator, “I’m going to kill you on the spot.” Fortunately he wasn’t cooperating. “That’s how dedicated my dad was to fighting the war,” Jeff Pimentel said.
After the war, Pimentel came back to Seattle and resumed his life, working at a hotel downtown. In the mid-50s he joined Boeing, operating a crane, before retiring in 1973. He died in 1989.
Jeff Pimentel said his father was always disappointed that the Filipino soldiers were not given their due recognition. But still, when he was growing up, his father always flew an American flag outside their home.
Before he died, Larry Pimentel was interviewed for a project of the Seattle-based Filipino American National Historical Society. He said that Filipinos were not respected before the war, but that changed for many people when they saw Filipinos fighting side by side with other Americans. “After the war, it was better for the Filipinos.”
That’s why Jeff Pimentel wants more people to know about Filipino contributions.
Congressional recognition was a big step, he said, but it’s just the start of spreading the story.