By Ed Diokno
Another Memorial Day is upon us and I have to attend two ceremonies as part of my job. At one of the veterans’ memorial sites is a bronze plaque with the names of 80 survivors of the Bataan Death March who live in the area. My dad’s name is on it.
I think of my dad – an Army man, through and through. The Army-Navy game every winter was the one football game he would never miss even though he didn’t have a stake in the game other than he was in the Army.
Unlike other veterans he never talked about what he did during World War II or the Korean War. To this day he remains an enigma to me.
So last week, out of curiosity, I Googled his name” Melchor V. Diokno. To my surprise I found a webpage about him and his service in the Philippine Scouts, an elite unit of the U.S. Army. His uniform is on display in a museum at the San Francisco Presidio.
So, another chapter is filled in about a man who rarely talked about himself. Maybe it’s because no one asked him about his war experiences. I tried to get him to open up about his experiences in the military, but he would divert the conversation to something else.
There are a few tidbits gathered through the years: Such as when he found his way home after being a POW, he was so emaciated, dirty and “smelly,” his daughter Benicia ran into the house because she didn’t recognize him. My mother also said that he was in charge of the grave detail of the POW camp. The POWs used the daily ritual of burying the dead as a means of escaping the camp. The prisoners would be hidden from the guards by placing the dead prisoners on top of them. When the guards were not looking, they would dash into the surrounding jungle.
It seems the more I learn about him, the more questions are raised.
Many of my nieces and nephews also knew another side of him. He had this ability to pull candy out of their ears. Sure, maybe they were humoring an old man but he took so much pleasure in their company and the surprised and delighted look on their faces when he would seemingly find candy in their ear.
My father had hoped to continue his service but after being skipped over for promotion, he retired as a major. I know he was disappointed. In today’s context, I can’t help but think he was denied the promotion to colonel not because he didn’t deserve it. He didn’t fit the prototypical image of a high-ranking Army officer in 1954 America because he was not brash enough, short of stature at 5’2″ and his skin was a shade too dark.
I don’t know how many Brigade commanders sought him as their Executive Officer. He was forever the XO, excellent at managing day-to-day but in the eyes of his superior officers, not good enough to lead. Sound familiar?
But he couldn’t fathom that the country he fought and bled for might be capable of discrimination. He didn’t say a single disparaging word. In the view of that generation of immigrant soldiers, America could do no wrong.
He was proud of his service to his country — as I am proud of him, as all of us should be. This Memorial Day, don’t forget him and the other Asian American servicemen and women of that first generation who served their adopted country.