This October, Filipino veterans of World War II finally received recognition from the U.S. for their critical role in liberating the Philippines — and its strategic American Army bases — from the Japanese. A Congressional Gold Medal, designed by Woodstock artist Joel Iskowitz, was presented to veterans and their descendants, including Stephanie and Terri Castillo, whose father, Wallace, had carried out dangerous missions in the Philippines during the war.
It happened that Terri had rented a cottage from Iskowitz 20 years ago in Woodstock. The two sisters, who live in Brooklyn, came upstate in December to meet with the artist and talk about their pride in their father and the poignancy of the belated acknowledgement of his heroism.
In 1941, nine hours after bombing Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, which was then controlled by the U.S. The subsequent Japanese occupation of the Philippines was resisted by the Filipino army, guerrillas in the countryside, and American forces, including many U.S.-born soldiers of Filipino heritage, such as Wallace Castillo. In 1944, the islands were retaken, and two years later, the Philippines achieved independence.
Stephanie, an Emmy-winning filmmaker, created a documentary in 2002, An Untold Triumph: The Story of the 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army. She told how the Filipino soldiers were shortchanged when their military benefits, promised by the U.S., were rescinded under President Truman. After years of fighting to correct this injustice, some veterans finally received money from the U.S. The awarding of the gold medal marks the nation’s first official recognition of the Filipino soldiers. “It was a wrong that needed to be righted,” said Iskowitz. “The U.S. has a tradition of underestimating indigenous cultures.”
Wallace actually did receive benefits because he was born in Hawaii, of immigrant parents, and later became a career military officer. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was an ROTC student, a senior at the University of Hawaii. He was sent overseas with General MacArthur’s troops and was assigned to gather intelligence on Filipinos who were collaborating with the Japanese. He probably would have been tortured if he had been caught.
“The U.S. and the Philippines have a complicated relationship of tragedy and travesty,” said Stephanie, who studied details of Philippines history while making her films. Also a freelance reporter, she wrote an article for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about her attendance at the gold medal presentation ceremony in Washington, DC, in October. She described her joy and as well as her sadness that it took so long for her father and other veterans to be celebrated. “My reaction was informed by knowing the history of broken promises.”
Stephanie visited Iskowitz’s studio to look at the many designs he has created for medals, postage stamps, and coins. He is one of a group of citizen artists invited to submit designs to the U.S. Mint since 2003. The design process is lengthy, involving intensive research, and only about one-fourth of his submissions have been accepted in the competitive evaluation process. The 17 surfaces — back and/or front — he has designed for Congressional Gold Medals include a number of World War II commemorations: Native American code talkers, Japanese-American Nisei soldiers, Puerto Rican Borinqueneers, and Women’s Air Force Service pilots. “These were incredible services performed for our country by extraordinary people,” said Iskowitz. “Then they were ignored until the medals were awarded.”
Iskowitz has also created designs for U.S. states on the reverse of eight quarters. For Caribbean and African nations, as well as Bhutan and Azerbaijan, he has designed stamps on “every subject under the sun. I’ve done so much research, I have a kaleidoscopic melange of pieces of information and colorful tidbits.”
For a bronze plaque commemorating the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 campaign speech at Cooper Union in Manhattan, he depicted the candidate on a platform addressing a crowd of people. His research revealed that among the attendees were editor William Cullen Bryant and future assassin John Wilkes Booth. He put them both in the crowd, as well as a man raising an umbrella with a hat on it. “That was the signal he asked a friend to give if he was going on too long,” explained Iskowitz.
The Filipino medal features three men — a Filipino soldier, a U.S. Army soldier of Filipino descent, and a guerrilla, each with their particular style of headgear. The native Filipino soldiers were using surplus materials from World War I, so their helmets were different from the World War II helmets issued to U.S. forces. The guerrilla wears a woven hat.
Iskowitz studied hundreds of pictures of people from the three major cultures of the Philippines — Tagalog, Bisaya, and Ilocano — on his way to synthesizing faces that would not be recognizable as individuals but would represent the Filipino people. Stephanie affirmed, “They look authentic.”
Her sister Terri met Iskowitz when they both worked for Guidepost Books, Terri as an editor and Iskowitz as a freelance artist painting covers for romance novels. After Terri’s husband, jazz musician Thomas Chapin, died in 1998, she was seeking a place to retreat and heal. She stayed in Iskowitz’s cottage on weekends for two years. “When I found out he was the designer of the medal, I had to come meet Joel,” said Stephanie. She is currently working on distribution for her recently completed film about Chapin’s life and music.