Military buffs may know war heroes like movie star Audie Murphey, test pilot Chuck Yeager, or even Gulf War strategist Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, who all among those awarded the Silver Star, third highest honor in the U.S. armed forces for gallantry.
But few may have heard of the heroism of Cpl. Magdalena Leones, a Filipina guerrilla under the U.S. Army’s command in WWII.
Leones is one of a handful of women — and the first Filipina woman — to have earned the Silver Star for her heroism, according to military historians. She died June 16 in Richmond, California, at the age of 96.
On June 28, Leones was remembered by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
"We are diminished by the passing of Corporal Magdalena Leones, Silver Star Filipina World War II veteran — the only Asian to receive this honor,” Supervisor Jane Kim told NBC News. “Corporal Leones has paved the way for many women that are breaking barriers in every arena. I look forward to her story and the story of the 250,000 Filipino World War II veterans being told for all to remember."
Leones’ helped Gen. Douglas MacArthur make good on his declaration “I shall return.”
MacArthur had retreated to Australia, having escaped the Philippines when Japanese forces took over in 1942.
Leones, working as an intelligence officer, was able to gather the radio parts in the Philippines that allowed for continued communication with MacArthur, which led to the landings at Leyte and the ultimate re-taking of the Philippines in October 1944.
An Army citation awarded the Silver Star to Leones Oct. 22, 1945.
“For gallantry in action at Luzon, Philippine Islands, from 27 February to 26 September 1944,” the citation reads. “During the period cited, Corporal Leones repeatedly risked her life to carry important intelligence data, vital radio parts and medical supplies through heavily garrisoned enemy-held territory."
“Although she knew that detection by the enemy would result in torture and execution, Corporal Leones fearlessly continued her perilous missions between guerrilla forces throughout Luzon with notable success. Through her intrepidity and skill as a special agent, Corporal Leones contributed materially to the early liberation of the Philippines.”
The document is signed by Lt. Gen. O.W. Griswold, commanding officer, U.S. Army.
Leones was just in her 20s when she answered the call to join the Philippine American military effort.
The citation and a replica medal have been on display at the Filipino Veterans Education Center in San Francisco’s Civic Center since it opened last January.
Rudy Asercion, a Vietnam War veteran and the leader of American Legion Bataan Post 600 in San Francisco told NBC News that even in the Filipino community, Leones’ heroism was little known until 2004.
“She was very private and deeply religious who never talked about her exploits,” Asercion told NBC News. “No one knew anything about her. We didn’t hear about the Silver Star until we commemorated the Leyte Landing and MacArthur’s return in 2004. Then I vetted and researched her and found out the truth. She’s a Filipina, an Asian woman. A Silver Star holder. The only one.”
At a small, private funeral last weekend, family members mourned Leones, who moved to the U.S. in the late 1960s and worked for the phone company.
Asercion was surprised he was the only veteran at the service.
“Even with the Silver Star, there were no top brass, no admirals, or generals, to remember her. It’s very sad,” Asercion said. “No obit in the mainstream papers about her heroism either. Nothing.”
Asercion said it was par for the course for the Filipino veterans, who answered the call of President Roosevelt to help the U.S. to defend their homeland. And yet, in return for their service, they were denied the promised pay and benefits by the Rescission Act of 1946.
Not even a Silver Star could help Leones get her due.
Only after lobbying efforts by Filipino veterans groups was equity pay established through legislation passed during the Obama administration. Ascercion said Leones was one of the lucky ones able to apply and receive a $15,000 lump sum equity benefit available to Filipino scouts and guerrillas in 2009.
But Asercion said it’s more than the money.
In tribute to Leones, Asercion is doing what he can to make sure she is remembered after death.
He’s trying to help the family raise funds through a crowd funding site to pay for her funeral costs, including transporting Leones’ body back to the Philippines to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the resting place of that country’s heroes.
“The biggest issue to me, is she was not recognized by anybody, in the Philippines or the U.S.,” Asercion said, still troubled by her lack of recognition. “She’s elite, a one of a kind hero.”