Recalling JFK

The author strikes wistful pose under a portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the White House.

The author strikes wistful pose under a portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the White House.

By Eric Lachica

I was 11 years old lying down on the rattan couch in the living room waiting for my mom and dad who went marketing early that Saturday* morning. We were living then in our Area 1 bungalow in the University of the Philippines Diliman campus. (*PH time is 12 hours ahead)

When dad brought in the groceries, he nervously announced President Kennedy had been shot and killed. He turned on our radio. What does this mean? I thought as I stared out of the window at the sunny and blues sky with cotton clouds framed by the red bougainvillea flowers.

My younger sister only recently told me she was with mom shopping in the market food stall when the radio announced the news.

“Mom dropped the bags and was in shock, in near tears. I was so confused and scared,” she said. Hers was how a 7-year old kid might have reacted. “To this day, I distinctly remember that moment of mom’s shock and sadness,” my sister said.

Days later, I wept when I saw the historic newspaper photo of 3-year-old John-John Jr. saluting his father’s flag-draped casket during the funeral march in Washington D.C. John Jr. proudly stood in front of his mother Jackie, sister Caroline, and uncles Robert and Ted to say goodbye.

This was my first vivid memory of a hero.

From that moment on, I became fascinated with JFK’s history, family, myth and controversies, like many of the Sixties generation. “Ask what you can do for your country” still rings in my ears. JFK’s inspiring 1961 inaugural speech still resonates in all young idealists and social activists. As a result, I was a history buff in high school, a political science major in college and international relations grad student in southern California.

How could I not forget having read the bestselling WWII book “PT 109” about young JFK’s heroism and cool leadership after his plywood! Navy patrol torpedo boat was rammed and split in two by a Japanese destroyer in the dark. With a badly injured back, the lieutenant commander swam three miles in 30 hours with his surviving crew members dragging a badly burned comrade to a small Pacific island. They were later rescued a week later. The movie version with Cliff Robertson as JFK screened in 1963, five months before JFK was assassinated.

Headline of the Dallas Morning News.

Headline of the Dallas Morning News.

My dad was also a WWII veteran in the Philippines. He was a few years younger than JFK. Dad later told me reluctantly his war stories of the terrible incidents of killing as a sharp shooter and of survival in the mountains of Negros Island. My decades of advocacy for the Filipino veterans can be traced to these grim conversations.

A few years later, I met in person Senator Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel, when they visited our campus and spoke to the U.P. students and faculty. Another memorable event: I was nearly crushed by the surging adoring crowd as they rushed to RFK’s white open air Cadillac. RFK and Ethel stared with frowns at my predicament.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, was a long-time friend of our FilAm community. Ted led the way in passing the 1965 Immigration Naturalization Act that allowed tens of thousands of Filipinos to immigrate to the USA including our family in 1969. Kennedy also championed the 1990 Immigration law that included our Filipino WWII veterans who honorably served in the U.S. Army.

“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die” is a famous statement by Ted Kennedy.

On several occasions over the past two decades in my role of advocate, I have accompanied Filipino WWII veteran heroes like Patrick Ganio, Guillermo Rumingan, Celestino Almeda and Jesse Baltazar to several events at the White House. I was indeed fortunate and honored to have greeted and shaken hands with several American Presidents and First Ladies.

On the way out of the White House Blue Room, I always pause for moment at JFK’s portrait in the hallway to quietly say ‘thank you.’

Eric Lachica is spokesman of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, Inc.

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