Washington (CNN)After nearly 75 years, Filipino veterans of World War II were finally recognized for their military service and sacrifice on Wednesday as they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
US congressional leaders presented the medal — which is the highest civilian award — in honor of the more than 250,000 Filipinos who fought alongside American forces after answering President Franklin Roosevelt’s call to duty in 1941.
At the time, the Philippines was a US commonwealth, and Roosevelt offered full veterans’ benefits to Filipinos who enlisted.
More than 57,000 Filipinos died fighting alongside the US during World War II.
But once the war ended in 1946, President Harry Truman and Congress rescinded Roosevelt’s promise to provide full benefits to those Filipinos who served — stripping away their status as US military veterans.
“This is a day that’s long, long overdue,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday. “Let this remind us that those who fought for freedom are never forgotten.”
“We made a grievous error but we recognize it and pledge to never let it happen again,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
Only 18,000 Filipino veterans are alive today.
Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines.
American-Filipino forces commanded by US Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur were caught off-guard by the Japanese attack and ultimately surrendered in May 1942.
American and Filipino troops were captured by the Japanese but MacArthur was able to escape before his forces were overwhelmed.
MacArthur would return to the Philippines in 1944 as American forces joined local resistance groups in the fight against Japanese occupation.
More than 10,000 American troops and a million Filipinos were killed during the bloody campaign to liberate the islands.
“We are here to immortalize the legacy of these great liberators,” Ryan said Wednesday.
“In victory they marched on, in defeat they kept hope close, in resistance they held aloft the spirit of a people for all the world to see,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
Wednesday’s ceremony occurred on the same day as Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to the Philippines and meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte.
They discussed the strength of the US-Philippines relationship, and Mattis reaffirmed America’s ironclad commitment to the US-Philippines Alliance, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White.
President Donald Trump plans to visit the Philippines next month as part of his trip to Asia.