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After 90 years, US Medal of Honor returned to heirs of Filipino soldier

SAN FERNANDO, North Philippines — Even when she was a young girl, Maria Delilah Turzar, 40, had always been fascinated by the framed, faded magazine article displayed on the wall of her grandmother's house in San Fernando City in La Union (north Philippines).

The Philippines Free Press article, written in 1957 by Primitivo Milan, was titled, "The First Filipino Awardee of the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor," and talks about Turzar's great grandfather, Private Jose Nisperos, of the 34th Company of the Philippine Scouts.

Nisperos was the first Filipino and Asian to receive the medal, the highest U.S. military honor.

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"I kept on reading the story about Lolo Jose and wondered where the medal was," Turzar said.

When she was 10, she accompanied her Lola Guia (Nisperos' daughter) to Mass. After the Mass, her grandmother knelt down and started to cry.

"I understood that deep in her heart there was no closure of that chapter in their life. I promised her then: 'When I grow up, I will exert my best effort to find what is rightfully due your father and our great grandfather.' I made the same promise to her sisters, Leonila and Concepcion," Turzar said.

Her grandmother had told her that a relative took the medal days after Nisperos died in 1922, supposedly to help Nisperos' widow, Potenciana, claim benefits from the American government.

But since that day, the family never saw the medal.

It was five years ago when Turzar embarked on a mission to find the medal, meeting different people along the way, some of whom tried to take advantage of her search.

"There were people coming even from the United States pretending to be writers and knowing about Lolo Jose. They said they could help us approach people to get it back, for a fee of $5,000. Of course, we did not have that money to give them," she said.

But Turzar's effort and patience bore fruit. After 90 years, Nisperos' Medal of Honor is now with the family for safekeeping.

"After 90 years of praying and hoping, the medal of our great Lolo Jose -- the first Filipino, the first Philippine Scout, the first Asian and the first non-American recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor, the highest U.S. military award --was given back to us, the rightful heirs," Turzar said.

San Fernando Mayor Pablo Ortega was instrumental in locating the medal, she said.

Ortega appealed through the media to spread information on the missing medal and sought its return to the family.

Early this month, the mayor's friend, an antique dealer who runs a store in a shopping mall in Metro Manila, informed him that he knew the collector who bought Nisperos' medal at an auction of the Philippine Numismatic and Antiquarian Society in 2010.

Turzar said the collector, who asked not to be identified, learned about the family search and appeal from media reports. A meeting for the medal's return was then set. "We finally met the collector on June 7 and he just gave it back to us, without asking for anything in return," Turzar said.

Turzar was ecstatic when she read her great grandfather's name engraved on the medal.

"My grandmother Guia, her sisters Leonila and Concepcion and even my mother Virginia never saw the medal in their lifetime. Now my promise to them had been fulfilled," Turzar said.

According to Ortega, the collector wanted the medal to be placed in the custody of the city government and displayed in a museum. The medal, he said, would be kept in a vault of a government bank until the city sets up a museum.

In General Order No. 64 issued on Nov. 25, 1912, the U.S. War Department honored Nisperos with the medal for "most distinguished gallantry," after he repulsed a group of rebels who ambushed the 34th Company of the Philippine Scouts in Basilan on Sept. 24, 1911.

"Having been badly wounded (his left arm was broken and lacerated and he had several spear wounds in the body so he could not stand), Private Nisperos continued to fire his rifle with one hand until the enemy was repulsed, thereby aiding materially in preventing the annihilation of his party and the mutilation of their bodies," read the citation.

During rites at the Luneta Park on Feb. 5, 1913, Nisperos received the medal from Brig. Gen. Franklin Bell, the commanding general of the U.S. Army's Philippine Division. The US Army discharged Nisperos and gave him a pension of $55 a month. He died at age 34 in 1922 following an illness.

"Lolo Jose left behind his wife Potenciana and three young daughters Guia Esperanza, Leonila Flora and Concepcion. The pension never came and Potenciana worked as a market vendor to support the family," Turzar said.
 

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