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THE SAILOR WHO HARDLY MADE IT TO SEA


The Experiences of a Pinoy M.D. 

in Uncle Sam's Navy (1967-1996)*

by Virgilio R. Pilapil 

Bacoor, Cavite, The Philippines

My career with the U.S. Navy started in my mind when I was still a young 

man just getting out of high school. I came from the barrio of Talaba, town 

of Bacoor, province of Cavite in the Philippines, a mere 10 miles or so west 

of the U.S. Naval Base at Sangley Point in Cavite City where many young men 

from the surrounding towns of this Base and from other provinces had gone

to, to "join the U.S. Navy" and "see the world.” I perhaps carried a similar 

interest in my mind although not strong enough for me to leave school. An 

uncle, Mariano Torres Pilapil, had joined the U.S. Navy not long before I 

entered College and I communicated with him for a while after that, out of 

curiosity about the Navy.

Life went on with me as usual, thinking of my uncle in the U.S. Navy 

every now and then but soon, I was in medical school and had totally 

forgotten about ever getting into the U.S. Navy. After finishing medical 

school, passing my Philippine licensing and the ECFMG (Educational Council 

for Foreign Medical Graduates) examinations right after graduation in 1962, I 

was on my way to the United States as an Exchange Visitor under that Program 

for postgraduate medical training. When I left, I had all the intentions of 

remaining in the United States because of my personal disillusionment with 

the political and economic atmosphere in the Philippines.

First Footsteps in Hawaii

I arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii 11 January 1963 on the first leg of my 

trip that turned out to be a year of rotating internship, two years of 

Pediatric residency, and another two years of pediatric cardiology fellowship 

at different institutions in the mainland. 

Knowing my objective right at the beginning, of staying in the United 

States and not returning to the Philippines, I was soon at work at finding 

out how, during my first year in the country. I made indirect verbal and 

written inquiries about my interest within the first year of my arrival. By 

the third year, it soon became apparent that there was nothing open to me to 

be able to stay in the country by the usual normal routes without leaving the 

country first for two years after completion of my training and then 

reapplying for re-entry because of my Exchange Visitor status.

It was at this point that I started thinking of joining any of the U.S. 

military services in order to stay without having a need to return to the 

Philippines for two years as generally required of all Exchange Visitors.

The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army had nothing good to offer because of my 

status. The U.S. Navy was more receptive, perhaps because of a pervading 

atmosphere of their need for physicians due to the on-going Vietnam War, and 

perhaps because of the idea that I introduced to the recruiter who became a 

willing accomplish in my pursuit to join the U.S. Navy. 

When I went to the Navy Recruiter in Jacksonville, Florida during my last 

year of pediatric residency and my third year in the country, I told the 

recruiter, Leahman Garrard, Chief Yeoman, U.S. Navy Officer Programs, that I 

was interested in joining the U.S. Navy as a physician. He looked at his 

recruiter's guidebook to check on the requirements. As it turned out, I 

could not qualify by the book since in order to join, I had to be either a 

U.S. citizen or an immigrant, or have a Selective Service Number. However, 

to have a Selective Service Number, I needed to be either a citizen or an 

immigrant. There was no way of going around it. It was a circle with no way 

out.

At this point, I had a surge of mental creativity. I told the recruiter 

that what he had just cited to me were the requirements needed to qualify to 

join the Service. However, I told him that there was nothing in the book 

that says that an Exchange Visitor cannot join. Thus, I have not been really 

disqualified. This must have created a spark of an idea in the his mind as 

well, as right after this, he was talking on the phone to somebody who turned 

out to be someone in the Selective Service System office in Jacksonville.

Perhaps, because of the Navy's need for physicians, and perhaps because the 

recruiter had a quota to fulfill, the idea I gave him provided him with an 

opening to fulfill his and the Navy's goal - and my goal. 

In no time, he told me to go to the Selective Service System building 

where the gentleman whom he had talked to earlier gave me a form to fill out 

for a Selective Service Number application. I filled out everything except 

the one number that asked for my citizenship. Wanting nothing illegal to 

come from me, I asked the gentleman what I should do with it. He said to 

leave it blank. I followed his instruction and with that, I became the 

instant recipient of a Selective Service Number. I left the building holding 

my newly acquired Selective Service Number card - the key I needed to "join 

the U.S. Navy and see the world." 

The application form for commissioning in the Medical Corps of the U.S. 

Navy was lengthy and detailed, requiring much background check and 

references. I filled out everything completely and sent it back.

Towards the end of my fourth year in the country, when I was in my first 

year of pediatric cardiology fellowship and with only one more year remaining 

for me to be legally allowed to stay in the United States, I received a 

letter dated 28 October 1966 from U.S. Navy Lt. D. A. Shirmer, the Officer 

Programs Officer, telling me to report for physical examination at the Armed 

Forces Entrance and Examining Station in Jackson, Mississippi, the same city 

where I was having my pediatric cardiology fellowship training at the 

University of Mississippi Medical Center. In the letter, I was also 

instructed to report for interview 9 November 1966 at the U.S. Navy

Recruiting Station in Birmingham, Alabama. 

I went for the interview as scheduled, and on June 8, 1967, I was 

sworn-in as a Lieutenant in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Navy by Lt. 

Shirmer, my interviewing officer, and the one who had been corresponding with 

me. The date of my commissioning as a lieutenant on the certificate was 

April 17, 1967, with rank to date as of January 1, 1963.My commissioning 

certificate, already signed by the then President Lyndon B. Johnson, was 

handed to me right at the end of the brief ceremony. At this point, I felt a 

surge of relief - my goal accomplished, my concerns about having to return to 

the Philippines resolved, and my status in the United States secured. I had 

finally succeeded in accomplishing my goal of staying in the United States 

without returning first to the Philippines for two years.

I had instructions to report immediately for active duty at the Naval 

Hospital in Camp Lejeune, Cherry Point, N.C. which I was eager to do without 

concern for the unfinished part of my fellowship knowing that I would be 

untouchable by the Immigration Service once I am in Federal military 

service.

To my chagrin, the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the 

University of Mississippi Medical Center where I was, did not want me to 

leave before completion of my training, citing hardship on the part of the 

University because of their need for my services at the time. Luckily, the 

U.S. Navy agreed to postpone my entry into active duty until after completion 

of my training which I accomplished by the end of December 1967.

This time I had instructions to report for active duty at the Naval 

Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia where I would be on the pediatric staff.

Because there was a pediatric residency training program in this department, 

I felt that I was sent there to augment their subspecialty service because of 

my pediatric cardiology background. Not long after coming to the Naval 

Hospital in Portsmouth, a request came from another naval facility in New 

York requesting for my transfer there because of their need for my 

subspecialty; however, the Pediatric Department head did not want to lose me 

and did not let me go citing that "it would be too much of a move for me in a 

such a short period of time.” I stayed. 

Two Years Of Active Duty

When I went into Active Duty in January 1968, it was my impression that I 

was the first Exchange Visitor with a Filipino nationality to be commissioned?

as an officer in the U.S. Navy, as I was not aware of anyone else before me.

At that time, it was my understanding that Filipino citizens were just not 

being considered for commissioning as officers in the U.S. Navy.

I reported to the Commanding Officer at the U.S. Naval Hospital in 

Portsmouth, Virginia, Rear Admiral Joseph L. Yon, in January of 1968 after 

first being properly guided to obtain and be in proper uniform for the 

meeting. I was well attended to during my initial "brief" briefing. My 

subsequent Navy orientation consisted of being handed two books to read. The 

rest was an "on the job orientation," learning as I went along. It was 

interesting that lacking proper initial formal orientation and having 

forgotten my background in military training which I had as an ROTC graduate 

in college, it took a little while before I became familiar with the setting. 

During the first few weeks, recognizing rank by the stripes on the 

uniform was a little confusing to my eyes at a quick glance. It has been my 

unqualified understanding that the more the stripes the higher the rank. And 

I had a little visual difficulty initially of instantaneously recognizing the 

patterns of the stripes for an officer from that of an enlisted man. Thus, I 

once saluted an enlisted man before he could salute me because of the many 

more stripes that he had than me. 

I was assigned to the staff of the Pediatric Department and having just 

completed my Pediatric Cardiology Fellowship and being the only qualified 

physician with this sub-specialty, I was appointed to be the Department's 

pediatric cardiologist and the Director of the Pediatric Cardiac Clinic.

Patient referrals came both from local military sources and from the 

surrounding naval medical facilities in the Tidewater area as well as an 

occasional one from out of state. I was also made a consultant to the Naval 

Operating Base Dispensary in Norfolk, Virginia where I would go once a month 

to see pediatric cardiac patients and give lectures to the Pediatric Staff. 

It is interesting that the first time I attended the Pediatric Cardiac 

Clinic and before I could be properly introduced, the adult cardiologist who 

had been attending to it in the past and not yet aware of my training gave an 

opinion about a cardiac patient that I did not fully agree with and explained 

to him why. He did not argue with me but I found out later that he was 

inquiring about who I was, and I am sure also inquiring about my training. 

Later on, he automatically left the clinic to my charge.

It was my impression that I was well accepted by everyone I was working 

with and never really felt any discrimination, perhaps because of my 

qualifications and the manner that I dealt with them. However, I had 

indirectly heard complaints coming from other officers when I was promoted to 

Lieutenant Commander only a several months after entering the Service and 

ahead of the others who were already long in the Service when I came. They 

had probably not realized that my promotion, as I felt it, was not at all 

based on the actual time that I have already spent in the service but rather 

on my training and qualifications which they did not have.

Once, a young town mate from the Philippines who came to the clinic with 

his daughter and saw me, recognized my name and immediately inquired about me 

and excitedly asked to see me when he realized it was me. He had never 

before seen a Filipino medical officer in the U.S. Navy and was tremendously 

surprised. Some Filipino physicians in the city who were either in training 

or were house physicians wanted to know how I got in and wanted to do the 

same. I told them what I did and the routes that I took but without telling 

them the” creative" aspect of it out of my concern that a leak may lead to 

repercussions on my part. They were unable to get in. It was not until 

close to a year or so later that I became aware that others were now being 

allowed to join the Service and this progressively increased with time. I 

always wondered whether I had become the U.S. Navy's guinea pig in their 

intent to get more physicians to join the Service by accepting foreign 

physicians like me.

My two years in the Service were all spent at the Naval Hospital in 

Portsmouth except for five days when I was "volunteered" to go to a ship to 

smell the aroma of being a "real" sailor. It was the Commanding Officer's 

desire that all staff should experience sea duty and those who have had none 

were made to volunteer for a one-week tour. It was an experience that I will 

never forget because it made me understand why sailors were always ready to 

jump ship and "paint the town red" after being out at sea for so long because 

I felt it myself in just three days aboard the ship. I became extremely 

restless and bored aboard the ship at sea, constantly pacing like a father 

waiting for the birth of his child. 

Sick Bay work aboard the ship was meager and we would usually stretch it 

out for two hours on a patient or two every morning and after that, it was 

making the rounds of the ship store and barbershop and whatever may be on 

the way and this I would do repeatedly until it made no sense and then I 

would quit. I brought books to read but it was hard to concentrate. I ended 

up waiting in my quarter for lunch, dinner and the evening movie. By the 

early evening of the third day, we were to land in Quantico, Virginia along 

with the Marines that were doing an exercise with us. When we were ready to 

land, I found myself right in front of everybody, anxious and eager to leave 

the ship and ready to take off to see what's on the ground. But it was a 

disappointment as there was nothing but a small restaurant type of store and 

I ended up just walking around until we were ready to board the ship back. 

My two-year tour of active duty ended in December of 1969 and I was 

happy, but also sad in some ways, to leave what has become my home for two 

years. The Navy shipped all of my family belongings including the 

uncollected garbage in our garbage can to my new home in Springfield, 

Illinois, and I returned to civilian life.

I joined the Springfield Clinic in Springfield, Illinois and started 

practice there in January 1970 and became the first Filipino American to do 

private practice in the city and county.

In the meantime, I find myself somewhat missing the Navy and decided to 

continue by joining the Naval Reserve.By March of 1970, I was drilling at 

the Naval Reserve Center in Springfield. It was supposed to be for one 

Weekend a month plus two weeks of active duty a year. And this is what I 

have been doing every year since then up to this time. AsI went on, I have 

been assigned to various U.S. Naval military units and had been Commanding 

Officer on several occasions. This month, June of 1996, I complete 29 years 

of Naval military service and I hope to hang on for another year. Thirty is 

my goal and that would be all’s 

Benefits of My Naval Military Service 

My time in the Naval Reserve has been well spent and well worth the 

effort largely because I enjoyed my time there. It also gave me an advantage

in getting my U.S. citizenship way ahead of what would have been possible to 

expect. Early in my second year of active duty, a law signed by President 

Lyndon B. Johnson allowed certain veterans and people in active duty like me 

to be able to apply immediately for U.S. citizenship without further 

requirements and this I did without delay. Thus, I became an instant citizen 

at the beginning of my second year in the Navy. I am not aware of any 

Filipino citizen who had become a U.S. citizen directly from an Exchange 

Visitor status at that time. I totally bypassed being an immigrant before 

acquiring citizenship. 

The Navy also gave me the opportunity to be able to travel to different 

places, not only to various parts of the United States including Hawaii but 

also to foreign countries as far as Spain in Europe, as far to the north as 

Iceland, to Japan and the Philippines in the Pacific and as far as Diego 

Garcia in the Indian Ocean. But more than this, it also gave me the chance 

to meet many and varied peoples, including other Filipinos in every place 

that I went to. Even in the dot-on-the-map island of Diego Garcia, you could 

tell that there were Filipinos there because they put up a sign by the 

roadside for their Filipino community. The Filipinos I met in the Service 

during those tours of duties have always been very nice, hospitable and 

friendly, and obviously took pride in knowing that one of their compatriots 

have made it to be an officer in the United States Navy. And they always 

took care of me.

All of these benefits that I have mentioned are besides the pay that I 

get whenever I drill or go on active duty, the pension that I would get when 

I retire, the medical benefits that I would be entitled to at Veterans 

Administration hospitals, the privilege to shop at military commissary stores 

or use military facilities, the privilege of being able to take military 

flights for travel with my dependents at negligible cost, and at death, to be 

buried honorably at any of the national military cemeteries. But perhaps 

most important is the pride that goes with knowing that one had served his 

country well and with honor.

Conclusion

What I have given is a skeletal run-down of my experiences in the United 

States Navy in my almost 29 years of military service. There are many more 

that are interesting, some funny, which I could not go into because of the 

short time that I am allowed to have. However, there are certain points and 

observations that might be worth mentioning in focus for a basic Filipino 

American interest, and perhaps to give a more meaningful spectrum to my 

one-man odyssey. Let me cite some of them. 

With regards to discrimination, I have not encountered or been aware of 

any blatant or easily discernible discrimination against me or any Filipino 

medical officer in my areas of exposure in the U.S.Navy. It has been my 

impression that one's attitude and manner of handling one's self would appear 

to be an important factor in how one is perceived and treated by others. For 

another, Filipino physicians tend to be well-trained and specialized in their 

fields which makes them a little above the others in terms of ability and 

qualifications and thus are depended on many times for their services and 

expertise. And as a rule, when people have to depend on you, they will have 

to like you or at least pretend to be nice to you.

Then, we also know that Filipinos, whether professionals or farm workers, 

tend to be hard working people and this makes them more acceptable and more 

likable to the people they work with. Human nature makes people respect 

those who do their best, work hard and takes pride in their work. It is for 

these reasons that I feel one can gain the respect and deference by others - 

by doing one's best.

With regards to promotion among enlisted Filipino sailors that I have 

met, I noted that through the years, with the change of regulations and the 

elimination of many discriminatory practices in the various Armed Services, 

they have been given the opportunity to upgrade themselves and become 

officers and I have seen a noticeable increase in them in the various naval 

facilities that I have been to during my later years in the Service. 

In essence, what I find as a good basic rule to follow is to do your job 

well, follow proper military rules and decorum, and act like your real proper 

self without getting awed by anyone or being paranoid about anything. Show 

the best and the positive in one's self and act friendly. Then one could 

expect respect and be seen as someone not to contend with. Another, is to 

try to be always one-step ahead or better than the others to get a good 

chance at getting the front seat anywhere. These, however, is not just true 

with being in the military service. This is just as good anywhere else one 

may be. 

I would say that my 29 years of military service has been an enjoyable 

aspect of my life. It opened up opportunities for me that I would not have 

had, otherwise, in addition to benefits that could last my lifetime.

_________________

Note: * This paper was presented during the Sixth National Biennial 

Conference of FANHS held June 27-29, 1996 at Park Central Hotel, New York 

City, New York. Pilapil is a pediatrician in private practice in 

Springfield, Illinois and a Captain in the Medical Corps of the U. S. Naval 

Reserve. He was the national president of FANHS (1994-98). He completed his 

Rotating Internship at Bristol Hospital, Bristol, Connecticut (1963); 

Pediatric Residency at St. Vincent Hospital and Duval Medical Center in 

Jacksonville, Florida (1964, 1965); Pediatric Cardiology Fellowship at 

University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi (1966, 

1967). On July 1, 1997, Dr. Pilapil was officially retired from the US Naval 

Reserve after thirty years of continuous military service. A Retirement

Ceremony was held for him December 14, 1997 at the Naval Reserve Center in 

St. Louis, Missouri.

FAHNS WEbsite:http://www.fanhs-national.org

The article on my experiences in the US Navy follows. (Copyrighted by FANHS and came out of Volume 6 of FANHS Journal of 1998.) You have our permission (FANHS) to put it in your Website.

By the way, if you or others wish to get copies of the FANHS Journal which 

would be very enlightening as far as Filipino American History is concerned, 

you can get the info on it at the FANHS Website