MANILA, Philippines — The slow march begins each day before sunrise as old soldiers, many hobbling on canes or pushed in wheelchairs, line up across the Philippines, hoping for some American stimulus.
More than 20,000 Filipinos who say they helped U.S. troops fight the Japanese in World War II have applied for veterans benefits offered in the $787 billion economic stimulus package President Barack Obama signed into law in February.
The number of applications exceeds the original estimate of 18,000 veterans eligible for payments under the $198 million program for veterans benefits. And even though about 10 of the veterans die each day, the applicant list is still growing, said Ernesto Carolina, a retired Philippine general in charge of veterans affairs.
To decide who qualifies for the benefits, U.S. officials turn to a 1948 list of guerrilla fighters, unofficially known as the Missouri list because the state was home to the U.S. Army Administration Center that compiled it. A smaller group of vets from the regular military also qualifies.
Veterans Affairs has the final say on who gets the benefits. The only way Filipinos can find out if they are on the list is to apply, so authorities here don't want to discourage anyone from asking for an interview, Carolina said.
"And so that increases the number of people who come to the centers and apply," he added.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office in Manila began interviewing the old soldiers to confirm their eligibility just two days after Obama signed the stimulus bill on Feb. 17. But even that short delay meant several veterans died before they could register, and their widows aren't eligible to receive the benefits.
The pain and disappointment of waiting for what was promised more than 60 years ago has tainted any sense here of a victory won or justice done.
Knowing that supporters had to use an economic emergency to overcome decades of opposition in Congress by including the veterans' benefits in the stimulus package adds to the sense of betrayal, said Nona Legaspi, director of Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Manila.
Since Obama approved the payments, more than 500 Filipinos have come to Legaspi's hospital for interviews with officials from Veterans Affairs.
Some were too weak to hold a pen and signed their forms with thumbprints, she said. Several had to be admitted as patients because they collapsed under the stress of traveling and waiting in the heat under ceiling fans. At least one suffered a stroke.
"Some of them arrived with feeding tubes in their stomachs. That broke my heart," Legaspi said. "It's pitiful."
The Philippines was a U.S. colony under Japanese occupation during the war when some 470,000 Filipinos answered Gen. Douglas MacArthur's call for volunteers and helped U.S. forces defeat the Japanese. Many fought as guerrillas, secretly cooperating with U.S. forces after the Japanese forced MacArthur to retreat from the Philippines in 1942.
By executive order, President Franklin D. Roosevelt classified the Filipinos as veterans of the U.S. forces "and they were supposed to receive the same benefits," Carolina said.
But in 1946, Congress stripped the Filipinos of their right to citizenship and veterans benefits, "and by doing that, the U.S. government saved something like $57 billion – it's in the records," Carolina said.
The veterans' feeling that they had been double-crossed festered over the decades as they fought for those rights. Several U.S. politicians backed them, but their bills kept dying in Congress.
The Feb. 17 stimulus package provides one-time payments of $15,000 to Filipino veterans who are now American citizens, roughly one-third of those veterans thought to still be alive. Noncitizens can receive $9,000.
Veterans Affairs officials set up 12 interview centers in Philippine provinces and three in Manila. Filipinos can also apply by mail during 2009, but the veterans' average age is about 90 now, so many are anxious to get their names in fast.
Abraham Reginaldo, a month shy of 92, left his home south of Manila at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday and traveled two hours by bus with his son to be among the first in line at the Veterans Affairs headquarters before dawn.
It was his second day in line. Officials sent him back home after the first visit to get more documents.
He returned, wearing a blue veteran's cap with gold trim and matching vest, carrying his U.S. military demobilization papers. Dated Sept. 20, 1942, they were brittle and brown with age. Bits fell off as he drew a page from a clear plastic file folder.
Reginaldo, who was a gardener at the presidential palace when President Manuel Quezon fled to Australia to escape the Japanese invasion, said waiting for his interview brought up dark memories of being tied up and nearly executed by the Japanese for stealing food.
Hermogenes Victolero, 86, lived long enough to hear the news that Congress had approved the payments, but he died of stomach cancer before he could be interviewed on Feb. 19, the day officials began receiving applicants.
His daughter Myra, a nurse at the hospital, said officials told her that her father's sudden passing left him in "in a gray area," but they assured her his application would be considered.
Another veteran, Benito Dumaguit, 84, died of a heart attack while awaiting an interview with U.S. authorities, according to local reports.
Saturnino Dorado, 83, has been in the veterans hospital for half a year, unable to sit up, struggling for every breath through the oxygen tube in his nose. But he was still able to smile, with the pride of a man who refused to give up before America had kept its promise.
"I have been trying to stay alive for a long time," he said with a weak chuckle.
His wife Felicitas, 78, patted him on the head.