CLEMSON, South Carolina — Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, a 100-year-old survivor of the Bataan Death March and revered alumnus and professor emeritus of Clemson University, will be presented a Filipino World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Saturday.
The Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom are the highest civilian awards in the United States.
More than 250,000 Filipinos fought for the United States in the Pacific in World War II. On Dec 14, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Filipino Veterans of WWII Congressional Gold Medal Act. The Congressional Gold Medal was formally awarded to Filipino, Filipino-American and American soldiers who served under the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East from July 26, 1941, to Dec. 31, 1946. Most of the soldiers who served during this period fought and were captured at Bataan and Corregidor.
Skardon was the commander of Company A of the 92nd Infantry Regiment PA (Philippine Army), a battalion of Filipino Army recruits on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, and thus qualified to receive the honor.
“I am honored to receive this award in the memory of the Filipino soldiers that I commanded,” said Skardon from his home in Clemson. “These soldiers were loyal and dedicated under the stress of close combat. I am delighted they are finally receiving the respect and recognition they deserve.”
Skardon led his troops through some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the war, earning two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars for valor in combat, as well as a Purple Heart during the first four months of the war.
On April 9, 1942, he became a prisoner of war with tens of thousands of his brothers-in-arms when American troops in that area of operation were forced to surrender to the Japanese. Skardon and his fellow POWs were marched 80 miles north by their captors in one of the most notorious war crimes in history: The Bataan Death March.
Skardon survived the march only to suffer three years in Japanese prisoner of war camps. He survived despite becoming deathly ill with malaria, beriberi, diarrhea and other ailments. Two fellow Clemson alumni, Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, kept him alive by spoon-feeding him and eventually by trading his gold Clemson ring — which he had managed to keep hidden — for food. Leitner and Morgan did not survive the war.
As citizens of a U.S. commonwealth during the war, Filipinos were promised full veterans benefits for serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, the Rescission Act of 1946 stripped them of their active duty status and retroactively annulled any benefits they would have received. As a result, they have been largely under-recognized for their wartime efforts and received none of the benefits given to other veterans.
A grassroots effort that became the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP), led by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, a native of the Philippines, worked with members of Congress, federal agencies, policymakers and national advocates to award Filipino veterans the Congressional Gold Medal and raise awareness of the injustices done to them.
On Feb. 15, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz and Lisa Murkowski, members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, introduced the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2018. The bipartisan legislation would restore the U.S. government’s promise to Filipino World War II veterans and ensure those surviving become fully eligible for the benefits they earned.
The original gold medal designed and struck by the U.S. Mint is on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Taguba will present a bronze replica to Skardon, who will be in New Mexico to walk for the 12th time in the Bataan Memorial Death March in honor of those who didn’t return from the war.