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My "Coming To America"

My boyhood dream of joining the Navy and seeing the world was about to begin as the transport passed through the San Bernardino Strait. The USS Breckenridge, an old WW2 troop transport, had just left Manila Bay a few hours after we left Sangley Point, the same place where the famous Manila trading galleons started their trans-oceanic voyages. We had just signed our services to the United States Navy for years to come under the Philippine-US agreement that allowed Filipino Nationals to join the Navy after the country's independence from the United States.

On that November morning there were over one hundred of us, the great-grandchildren of the ancient seafarers of the Pacific Ocean, its vastness now just beyond the horizon. The onrushing waves were turbulent as currents were no longer friendly. Nearby was the site of the greatest naval battle of all time, Battle of Leyte during WWII. The U S Navy's greatest victory at sea that brought back the American and fulfilled Macarthur’s promise of "I shall return." Suddenly our sea legs and stomachs couldn't hold anymore. Certainly our great-great ancestors braved meaner climates than this, especially afloat a small bamboo canoe and yet, we were at point of no return! Seasickness, nonetheless, overcame the bravest among us and left us kneeling for mercy in front of a toilet.

Land, lights, and hula girls were about to welcome us. The hands of the dancers told stories of the cousins of our ancestors who rode the waves of the oceans onboard outriggers from the East to settle in these volcanic islands of Hawaii. The graceful movements of the hands described how the voyage was smooth sailing but was at times as violent as the gyrating hips that changed to the rhythms of the Polynesian drum. The sea became as peaceful as its name but we were always looking east for our final destiny. The eyes and ocean have no limit. The horizon is only seven miles away before the earth's curvature hides beyond our straight sight. One morning straight ahead was the Golden Gate Bridge and the hanging steel span seeds played "Welcome to America" as we went under. At last had arrived. All excitements concealed some misunderstanding of our contract with the U S Navy. We had been hearing that we were all going to start as humble stewards since we were all foreigners. Why were we doing this when most of us finished college level education that would have qualified us for a better job? We met Arturo Moran, an established movie actor of his time and yet he signed up too. It was a reality check when the cold of our first winter spell blew at our faces after almost ten thousand miles of oceanic crossing.

At the San Diego Naval Training Center we took IQ tests to classify everyone's potential navy occupation. The multiple-choice questions were designed for the average American man who grew up in a normal town or city, USA. I will never forget the first question: what? Is to football, what --is basketball...(some kind of analogical questions) Suddenly my fanatic obsession for sports was paying off. My hours of junkie reading about sports and life in the US paid handsomely that day. My test scores, including my Math score, were surprisingly high but all the Filipinos scored well below the average. Life was not fair then. Most of them had not played the game nor seen a football to understand.

Our ROTC military training and seagoing blood made boot camp easy. I used my high-test score to win a place in the US Submarine School in New London and better job. The school tested every one on both technical and physical skill. There were two Filipinos who graduated on top of their class; Wycoco and Lopez are today listed on the school's history of class valedictorians. We considered them special: those who spent their time onboard submarine or here in the United States.

As a new Chief in the Navy, I took a taxi to the CPO Club and found myself in the rear service entrance. I made a point of informing the drivers later that I did not work there so that I could be dropped in front. Benign stereotyping amused me the least but with a smile I thought that maybe they thought I was too young to be a Chief.

My first few years onboard Diesel Submarine was as rough and romantic as the sailing vessel. It gave my nomadic blood the opportunity to travel to other countries. I enjoyed Spain because of her people, the friendliest, and they treated us like brothers or sisters. It was probably redeeming to us consciously, considering the cruel Spanish rule of the Philippines that past history revealed us. No other country welcomes Filipinos with more sincerity.

We fared much better than the first Filipino sailors who settled in the isolated bayous of Louisiana. The United States started recruiting Nurses from the Philippines under the pretense of the exchange student program. Reunion of eastern pacific islanders grew in this strange land. The U S Navy brought waves of single immigrants for half century and family members to form Filipino community alone the coast. U S servicemen from the military bases and visiting ships brought thousands of Filipina brides. Certainly if the sailors in St Malo and earlier immigrants had the chance to be reunited with their family, the number of Filipino household would have been more.

I went through the Straight of Magellan and reminisced the trip that Enrique and his master, Magellan, took in 1521. The passage was indeed rugged, treacherous and cold even for a modern steel boat like the one I was riding on. It must have been an experience to Enrique who had probably never seen snow or iceberg. He probably never saw one again for the first thing they did was to climb back north to the Tropic to the heart of the Pacific. From there the trade wind blew the ships toward the Philippines. A natural course that have not changed.

My time in the Navy Submarine fleet was during the transition to Nuclear power propulsion. This provided the submarine unlimited underwater endurance that inspired the U S Navy to undertake the first underwater circumnavigation of the world. The voyage followed the original tracks of Victoria, the first ships to accomplish the feat.

I should have gone; it should be very fitting that the great-great grandson of Enrique follows his wake underwater. The USS Triton, the only twin reactor nuclear submarine required full security clearance and citizenship that I did not have yet. She made the first underwater circumnavigation without me, but how I wished I had taken a peek through the periscope when it was approaching Homonhon Island in Leyte, the same scope sticking out of the water that a Visayan fisherman saw just few feet away. He was later identified and his surprise was probably the same when our ancestors saw the Spanish ships over five centuries ago. 

Nestor Palugod Enriquez

Additional fact:

1. The U S Navy logged more coming of Filipinos in America than any waves of immigration. These young Filipinos represented the cross-section of the Islands. They come from poor and rich family from North to South with the same dream and drive of the ancient seafarer. They were processed in San Diego where they were given Naval Training. All the social security number starts with number 5. Few were assigned to the U S Coast Guard.
2. My only regret was no one among us made the Admiral rank. This mainly because early US citizenship was not possible. Few years ago in San Diego a Filipina graduated from High School as the school's valedictorian. Today she is a Navy Captain assigned as the White House Physician. She is on fast track promotion, just one step of Admiral rank. Her father, a retired sailor would be very proud as we are. There are other medical doctors who joined the Navy Medical reserve unit like Dr. Virgilio Pilapil of the Filipino American National Historical Society (President, FANHS). The tradition will continue but she will go much farther than we have gone.

3. Photo- Underwater Firing of Poseidon during the Cold War Nestor Palugod Enriquez
Visit my Phil-am History Website
Read the Story of Enrique- The first man to go around the world

Last updated on 95/10/23 07:28:47 EDT.