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Medal of Honor Monday: Army Capt. Jose Calugas

Army Capt. Jose Cabalfin Calugas wasn't a U.S. citizen during World War II, but he fought valiantly for America when the Japanese invaded his homeland, the Philippines. He earned the Medal of Honor while doing so, but to receive it, he had to survive nearly two brutal years in captivity.

Calugas was born on Dec. 29, 1907, in the village of Leon on the Philippine island of Panay. He was the oldest of three children born to Antonio Calugas and Juliana Cabalfin. The family lived a modest life in their farming community, and Calugas unfortunately lost his mother when he was 12, according to the National World War II Museum.

A soldier salutes while wearing a Medal of Honor, as fellow soldiers stand behind him outside and a flag waves above them.
Hero's Salute
Army Sgt. Jose Calugas salutes while wearing his newly received Medal of Honor at Camp Olivas in the Philippines, April 30, 1945. Born in the Philippines, Calugas joined the U.S. Army's Philippine Scouts in 1930 at age 23 and was the first Filipino to be awarded the Medal of Honor, receiving it for heroic actions in Bataan province in 1942.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 210428-D-D0439-101R

In 1930, when Calugas was 23, he joined the Philippine Scouts of the U.S. Army. They were a special unit comprising Filipinos who served under the American forces that occupied the Philippines, which was a U.S. territory at the time.

Calugas went to basic and artillery training at Camp Sill, Oklahoma, before being assigned to the Scouts' 24th Artillery Regiment and posted to Fort Stotsenburg just north of Manila. Later, he was assigned to the 88th Artillery Regiment.

At some point, he married a woman named Nora and started a family. They had four children: Noel, Jose Jr., Minerva and Jorge.

By early 1942, World War II in the Pacific was raging, and the Japanese were fighting to take the Philippines from the U.S. As the enemy pushed inland on the main island of Luzon, Allied troops began to withdraw to the Bataan peninsula.

Early on the morning of Jan. 16, 1942, the Japanese attacked the 88th's 1st Battalion, which was stationed near the village of Culis on the Bataan peninsula. Several hours later, around 2 p.m., one of the battalion's batteries was bombed and shelled by the enemy. One gun was taken out of commission, and all the cannoneers were wounded or killed.

A map shows a portion of the Philippine island of Luzon during 1942.
This section of the Philippine island of Luzon is where Allied and Filipino troops made their final stand against Japanese invaders in 1942. The map shows the Bataan Peninsula-Corregidor-Manila area where U.S. and Japanese forces clashed.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 230427-O-D0439-084

Calugas was working as a mess sergeant for another battery, Battery B, at the time. He was preparing meals for soldiers when he realized that the other battery had gone silent. When he figured out what happened, he knew he had to help.

Thanks to his artillery training, Calugas quickly organized about 16 volunteers, who tried to run about a half-mile through a barrage of shelling to get to the damaged battery position. Several of the men were forced back, but a few made it to the gun, including Calugas, who fixed the weapon. He and his men then directed its fire toward the enemy, which continued to fire constant, heavy artillery fire back at them.

After several hours of fighting, Calugas eventually went back to his mess duties so he could feed the starving men in his battalion.

About a month later, Calugas got word that he was going to receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery that day. But he wouldn't get it before the Japanese continued their sweep across the Philippines.

Newspapers on a stand highlight the fall of the Bataan peninsula.
News Headlines
This newsstand, pictured at a corner drugstore in Hayward, Calif., shows newspaper headlines from April 9, 1942, detailing the fall of the Allies during the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 420409-O-D0439-021

In April 1942, American troops were forced to surrender. Calugas and about 75,000 other Americans and Filipinos became prisoners of war, according to Army records. They were forcibly marched to POW camps in what became known as the infamous Bataan Death March – a 65-mile march that led to the deaths of thousands of men who were brutally mistreated by Japanese troops.

Calugas later told The News Tribune out of Tacoma, Washington, that he'd buried the general order about his Medal of Honor and made sure his fellow soldiers didn't mention it so the enemy guards wouldn't find out. That news would have singled Calugas out and made his punishment harsher — or worse, led to his death.

A line of men walks along a road. Many of the men carry improvised stretchers.
American Prisoners
A photo by the Japanese depicts American prisoners in the Philippines using improvised litters to carry their comrades who, from the lack of food or water during the Bataan Death March, fell along the road in May 1942.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 230427-O-D0439-082C

Somehow, he managed to survive, but he contracted malaria during the march. Calugas used that to his advantage, cleverly pretending the illness lasted longer than it did so his captors wouldn't look too closely at him.

"Every time they would come to inspect, I would wrap myself in burlap and I would shake as hard as I could," he later told The News Tribune.

An official in the province of Pampanga petitioned on Calugas' behalf for his release from prison, The News Tribune said. It was granted in January 1943 when Calugas, who'd suffered malnourishment and frequent beatings for months, was released to work at a rice mill.

While there, Calugas secretly joined a guerrilla spy network. According to the National World War II Museum, he first spied on the Japanese for the group from his camp at the mill, but he escaped in October 1943 to join them. He continued the fight until the Philippines were finally liberated by the Allies in early 1945.

Three rows of men, some of whom are missing limbs, pose for a photo.
Allied Prisoners
Allied prisoners of war pose for a photo after being liberated from the Bilibid Prison in Manila on the Philippine islands of Luzon.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 230427-O-D0439-083C

After surviving two harrowing years, Calugas finally received the Medal of Honor on April 30, 1945, from Army Maj. Gen. Richard Marshall in a ceremony at Camp Olivas in Pampanga Province. For more than half a century, he was the only Filipino World War II veteran to receive the nation's highest award for valor. It wasn't until June of 2000 that another Filipino veteran, Army Staff Sgt. Rudolph Davila, was recognized with the honor by President Bill Clinton.

Calugas stayed with the Philippine Scouts after the war, serving with the 44th Infantry Regiment's occupation forces in Okinawa.

At some point, those who fought with the Philippine Scouts were offered U.S. citizenship as a reward for their service. Calugas happily accepted the offer, which included a waiver of residency and exam requirements, and a direct commission.

In 1955, Calugas was transferred to service at Fort Lewis, Washington. One by one, he brought the rest of his family to the U.S. By 1963, his family had all successfully immigrated, with his four children eventually becoming citizens.

Calugas retired from the Army as a captain in 1957 and lived with his family in Tacoma, Washington. During summers, he farmed a small plot of land just outside of town. Calugas earned a business administration degree from the University of Puget Sound and worked for Boeing until he permanently retired in 1972.

A man in dress uniform stands at attention.
Jose Calugas
Army Capt. Jose Calugas, Medal of Honor recipient.
Photo By: Congressional Medal of Honor Society
VIRIN: 230427-O-D0439-085

Calugas died on Jan. 18, 1998, at the age of 90, and was buried in Tacoma's Mountain View Memorial Park. His daughter-in-law, Goody Calugas, told The News Tribune after his death that he was a modest man who didn't like to talk about the war.

"He never talked about his accomplishments — we had to read about them," she said. "He was a very simple, humble man."

Calugas' legacy has been honored in many ways. His family gave his Medal of Honor to the Fort Sam Houston Museum in San Antonio so it could be preserved. There's also a Calugas Circle named for him at the base.

In the Philippines at Mt. Samat, a national shrine to those who fought the Japanese in World War II, Calugas' legacy is remembered within a sculpture there. In 2006, an apartment building in Seattle was also named in his honor.

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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