Filipino World War II Hero

Source: Photo contributed by family
Source: Photo contributed by family

The Silver Star is the third-highest honor for gallantry in the U.S. Armed Forces. Previous recipients include Audie Murphy, Chuck Yeager, and Norman Schwartzkopf. But few people have heard of Magdalena Leones – she was a Filipino woman that served as a guerrilla soldier under U.S. command in World War II.

Leones was in her 20s when she joined the Philippine-American military effort. She is part of a small group of women – and is the only Filipino woman – to receive the award for her heroism. She died on June 16th in Richmond, California at 96-years old.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recognized her on June 28. “We are diminished by the passing of Corporal Magdalena Leones, Silver Star Filipina World War II veteran — the only Asian to receive this honor,” Supervisor Jane Kim said. “Corporal Leones has paved the way for many women that are breaking barriers in every arena. I look forward to her story and the story of the 250,000 Filipino World War II veterans being told for all to remember.”

Leones was part of why General Douglas MacArthur was able to return. Leones was able to gather the parts needed to make a radio that allowed communications with MacArthur, which in turn led to the invasions at Leyte and the re-taking of the Philippines.

The Army awarded the Silver Cross to Leones on October 22, 1945.

“For gallantry in action at Luzon, Philippine Islands, from 27 February to 26 September 1944,” the citation reads. “During the period cited, Corporal Leones repeatedly risked her life to carry important intelligence data, vital radio parts and medical supplies through heavily garrisoned enemy-held territory.”

“Although she knew that detection by the enemy would result in torture and execution, Corporal Leones fearlessly continued her perilous missions between guerrilla forces throughout Luzon with notable success. Through her intrepidity and skill as a special agent, Corporal Leones contributed materially to the early liberation of the Philippines.”

Lt. Gen. O.W. Griswold, commanding officer, U.S. Army, signed the citation. San Francisco’s Civic Center has had the citation and a replica medal on display in their Filipino Veterans Education Center since last January.

Rudy Asercion is a Vietnam veteran and the leader of American Legion Bataan Post 600 in San Francisco. He said that Leones’ heroism was not widely known, even in the Filipino community. “She was very private and deeply religious who never talked about her exploits,” Asercion told NBC News. “No one knew anything about her. We didn’t hear about the Silver Star until we commemorated the Leyte Landing and MacArthur’s return in 2004. Then I vetted and researched her and found out the truth. She’s a Filipina, an Asian woman. A Silver Star holder. The only one.”

Family members mourned Leones in a small, private funeral. Leones moved to the States in the late 1960s. She worked for the telephone company.

“Even with the Silver Star, there were no top brass, no admirals, or generals, to remember her. It’s very sad,” Asercion said. “No obit in the mainstream papers about her heroism either. Nothing.”

Asercion said that this is common for Filipino veterans who were denied promised pay and benefits under legislation signed into law by President Obama. Leones received a lump payment of $15,000.

The family is crowd funding the funeral costs, including transportation to the Philippines. She will be buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani, the place where the Philippines buries its heroes.

“The biggest issue to me, is she was not recognized by anybody, in the Philippines or the U.S.,” Asercion said, still troubled by her lack of recognition. “She’s elite, a one of a kind hero.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE