LIHUE — Sixto Tabay had long awaited this moment.
The 92-year-old, wearing his green Army cap and jacket, stood straight and proud, and seemed to fight back tears as he accepted the black box from Capt. Vincent Johnson on Friday morning.
Inside that box was a Congressional Gold Medal.
Johnson, commander of the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility, saluted as he placed the box in Tabay’s hands.
“Congratulations,” Johnson said. “It’s an honor.”
Tabay offered a tight smile and saluted.
His wait was over.
Later, the Hanamaulu resident said he was pleased to have the medal for his service with the Army more than 70 years ago. He had long been anxious to hold it and, finally, it was his. Now that he had it, he planned to let people know.
“I’m going to put this on my table so all of my friends can see I have received the medal,” he said, grinning.
During the 15-minute ceremony at The Garden Island newspaper office in Lihue, Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. presented a second Congressional Gold Medal to Domingo Lutao Jr., who accepted it on behalf of father, Domingo Lutao Sr., a veteran who served in World War II and died last year, Nov. 11, Veterans Day, at 92.
About 25 people attended the gathering marked by applause, hugs, handshakes, a few tears and big smiles.
His father, Lutao Jr. said, always proudly displayed his medals earned during his two years in the Army from 1944 to 1946.
“We still have his original dog tags. That’s how proud he was,” Lutao Jr. said.
But as for the war itself and what he saw, his father was quiet.
“He hardly used to speak about it,” said Lutao Jr., who lives in Kalaheo.
Tabay and Lutao were honored thanks to Hawaii’s Sen. Mazie Hirono and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Their efforts led to the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act, which was signed into law by President Obama.
It awarded the medal — Congress’ highest civilian honor — collectively to the over 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers who responded to President Roosevelt’s call-to-duty and fought under the American flag during World War II.
“These loyal and courageous soldiers suffered hardships, fought bravely, and sacrificed greatly, with many giving up their lives alongside their American counterparts throughout the war, yet their service was left unrecognized in the United States for decades,” Gabbard said at an Oct. 25 ceremony in Washington, D.C. “Today, these brave soldiers are finally receiving the recognition they earned and deserve.”
It was a three-year effort to reach that point.
“Presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to our Filipino World War II veterans is a long overdue honor for hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families,” Hirono said.
One Congressional Gold Medal was minted, but 20,000 bronze replicas are being distributed free of charge to surviving veterans or next of kin survivors.
Tabay is the last surviving Filipino veteran on Kauai — out of 13 — who served with the 12th Infantry Division, a group of 10,473 Filipinos enlisted from the Philippines to fight for the United States.
Though the war ended in 1945, Tabay is considered a World War II veteran because he is among the Filipino veterans recruited to serve. The veteran served from 1946 to 1949 as a small arms repairman. He served in Japan, Okinawa, and eventually the Philippines during World War II.
Marie Blanco, vice-chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, led the presentation Friday.
“Congratulations to the two of you,” she said.
The mayor presented Tabay and Domingo with certificates of recognition to honor their “heroism and duty” for serving America’s military.
Carvalho said they were “truly an inspiration to all veterans in the state and throughout the nation.”
“Mahalo for your service,” he said.
Lutao Jr. said when his father learned he might be able to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, he asked his son to “go ahead and get it for him.”
He did. The application was quick, he added.
His father served in the 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments, U.S. Army, in World War II in the Philippines.
Many Lutao family members attended the ceremony.
“This is a great day,” Lutao Jr. said. “We are really proud of what they did.”
A beaming Tabay, standing with his wife, Alberta, was pleased to have his medal in hand. He felt good, he said, about receiving it because he earned it.
“Thank you,” he said.
Alberta Tabay held her husband’s arm as she stood next to him. She, too, was happy.
“I am very proud of my husband,” she said.