Hidden History

The Kids the Americans Left Behind

Decades after they left the Philippines, shadows of the U.S. military loom over the misfit “Amerasian” offspring of long-departed servicemen and forgotten prostitutes.

The Kids the Americans Left Behind

His schoolmates could tell just by looking at his face that his mother was a prostitute and his father had abandoned him. Emmanuel Drewery, a tall and thin young man, has skin a pinch lighter than his neighbors. He was born twenty-six years ago in Olongapo, a city in northwestern Philippines.

Olongapo is next to Subic Bay military base, the largest American overseas naval facilities during the Cold War. Drewery’s father was one of millions of soldiers who, over many decades, visited Olongapo’s red light district, Barretto, a hotbed of crime, unrest and sex for sale.

“This city was completely dependent on the sex industry. There were lots of girls and lots of pimps on the streets,” says Drewery, whose grandparents moved to Olongapo to manage a nightclub, which was a cross between a brothel and a pub. His mother, who has a beautiful voice, was fifteen back then and sang as a sidekick to strip acts. But music was not what soldiers were looking for. “Customers didn’t want only a music band, there had to be nude shows or they got bored,” he says. Drewery’s mother couldn’t make a living from singing, so she started to go out with the clients. A few months later, she became a prostitute.

According to the People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance (PREDA), a local NGO, by the end of the 1980s there were some 500 brothels and 15,000 prostitutes in Olongapo to meet the high demand of the naval base. Clark Air Base, some thirty miles east of Olongapo, was even bigger, covering 230 square miles near the city of Angeles. Olongapo and Angeles were known by American soldiers as the “twin sin cities” of the Philippines: Sodom and Gomorrah in Southeast Asia.

Today, these cities are filled with auburn-haired kids with bright eyes, sometimes white-skinned, tall and thin like Drewery, and others with much darker skin than most Filipinos. They are the children the U.S. soldiers left behind, the offspring of a war the Philippines never fought. They are commonly referred to as “Amerasians,” a group that bears the stigma of orphanage and prostitution.

Emmanuel Drewery, twenty-six, born to a Filipino mother and an American father.
Emmanuel Drewery, twenty-six, born to a Filipino mother and an American father.

G.I. Drewery spent two years living with Emmanuel’s mother in the Philippines until he was reassigned, and returned to the U.S. in 1989. He never contacted his son again, and Drewery’s mother continued working as a prostitute. She had a daughter by another service member, and the family lived with him for a while. Then, in 1992, the government of Corazón Aquino voted to close the bases, and the last American soldiers lowered the flag in Subic Bay, pulled up their anchors and set sail. Drewery, his sister and his mother became homeless.

“Imagine that your mother, who used to work in the sex industry, who has not been educated at all, suddenly finds herself with the bases closed, with no means of income at all, with no preparation,” says Drewery.

This April, President Barack Obama visited the Philippines to support a new military agreement that allows for the return of U.S. troops, warships and aircraft fighters to the archipelago. The accord, penned in April and known as the Philippines-U.S. Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, strengthens Washington’s alliance with its former colony.

Obama delivered a joint press conference in Manila with his Filipino counterpart, President Benigno S. Aquino III, the son of Corazón Aquino, who expelled the foreign soldiers two decades ago. Facing the journalists, Obama said that the increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines isn’t meant to provoke China, the region’s military powerhouse, but “to make sure international rules and norms are respected.”

It took Beijing less than one hour to get angry. China, involved in territorial disputes on its southern sea with the Philippines, as well as with Taiwan, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia, criticized the agreement through Xinhua, its official news agency, calling the Philippines “a troublemaker.”

“Given that the Philippines is at a bitter territorial row with China, the move is particularly disturbing as it may embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing,” read the statement.

However, there were thousands of Filipinos who were much more upset than the Chinese officials.

The U.S. and the Philippines share a long and complicated history. After 300 years under Spanish rule, the archipelago was invaded by the U.S. in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, and remained under American control for the first half of the twentieth century. After three years of Japanese occupation, the nation finally achieved independence following WWII. However, a large contingent of U.S. troops remained in five massive military bases, and over the following decades the American service members left a controversial legacy that includes some 50,000 abandoned children: three generations of Amerasians.

Antimilitary activism contributed to the removal of U.S. forces in 1992, and the new Philippine constitution forbade the presence of foreign troops and military bases in the archipelago. Since the Visiting Forces Agreement was passed in 1999, U.S. Navy ships have regularly visited Philippine ports for combined military exercises, although they now have no permanent presence here. The dormant activist movement was awakened when President Obama visited to ratify the agreement. Many people think the agreement has the whiff of neocolonialism, and there were several protests in front of the U.S. embassy in Manila.

Addressing the constitutional obstacles, President Obama assured that the U.S. will not occupy the old bases. “I want to be very clear,” Obama said, “the United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases. At the invitation of the Philippines, American service members will rotate through Filipino facilities. We’ll train and exercise more together so that we’re prepared for a range of challenges, including humanitarian crises and natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan.”

Drewery says that his mother is not against the U.S. military’s return. “As many other people,” he says, “she thinks that foreigners will bring money and that will be good.” He doesn’t agree.

Contemplating dusk from a hill in the middle of Olongapo, Drewery remembers the days when he had to fight other kids. They called him pekeng tisoy — “fake American.” The teachers called his parents whenever he got involved in a quarrel, but only his mother showed up, which embarrassed him even more. “My only advantage was being white-skinned,” he says. “The African-American children had it worse.”

Drewery requests not to be called Amerasian, a name coined by the writer and human rights activist Pearl S. Buck. “My mother is from the Philippines and my father was American — “Phil-Am” is a more proper term, I believe.”

“Poverty is the number-one problem for Phil-Ams,” he points out, noting that social exclusion and psychological trauma often lead to economic hardship for many people like him. When he was eight years old and living on the streets, Drewery got in touch with PREDA, which was created to rescue children from abuse and exploitation. Drewery began working as an advisor to PREDA at age seventeen. After going to college to study social work, he is now corporate secretary of the foundation. “We are not happy about the defense agreement,” he says, but “as much as we would like to oppose, we can’t do anything about it. It’s history repeating itself.”

The sun bites underneath your clothes in Angeles and Olongapo. When night arrives, both cities start boiling. Prostitution and pornography are illegal in the Philippines, but you wouldn’t know it from the dusty neon strip clubs situated alongside fast food dens and pay-by-the hour motels. It is nothing compared to what it looked like during the Vietnam War, but sex tourism remains a key element to both cities’ economies.

Jeepneys, former military jeeps converted into buses, parked in Angeles.
Jeepneys, former military jeeps converted into buses, parked in Angeles.

The best way to avoid the heat here is on the back of a jeepney, former military jeeps converted into small buses that crowd the roads all around the country. Ten minutes by jeepney from the former Clark Air Base in Angeles there is a little building that contains a restaurant, pub, post office and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2485. Nearly a hundred former U.S. service members gather here most days, a pretty respectable number for a place so far from the U.S.

John Gilbert, sixty-six, is the veteran post’s commander. Gray-haired, tanned and brawny, he waves to his comrades at his own relaxed pace before sitting down in front of a soft drink on the rocks. The TV plays NFL highlights, although the volume is low enough for Gilbert to keep his voice down, as if he is telling some sort of secret.

Gilbert spent twenty-two years in the army and fought in the first Gulf War. He has been married for twenty-seven years to a Filipino woman, and they lived in Las Vegas before moving back here.

“This was a very different city in the 1980s,” he points out amid the noise of pool balls breaking. “There were many more children wandering on the streets. You saw them, sandy-haired, sleeping under the bridges. If the girls wanted to find a job, they had to go to the bars. And the negritos (a term used to describe the offspring of African-Americans) were much more segregated.”

John Gilbert, sixty-six, is the Commander of Veterans of Foreign War Post 2485 in Angeles.
John Gilbert, sixty-six, is the Commander of Veterans of Foreign War Post 2485 in Angeles.

Gilbert changes his speech when asked about the U.S. soldiers’ role on the island. He views Amerasians, a group that includes his own two children, as an integral part of this diverse country. “There have been Amerasians here since Legazpi first came,” he says, referring to the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer. “The most prominent families [in the country now] are either Spanish or Chinese. When the British invaded the archipelago, many Indian soldiers remained. Maria Venus Raj, Miss Universe candidate a few years back, was a descendent of them,” he says. The offspring of Americans, he reasons, are at this point not markedly different from other multi-ethnic Filipinos.

Gilbert does not think the new generation of American military men will leave similar legacies to those who came before him. “Troops will be rotational now. They will perform a lot of engineering and medical training. They are not going to be here; they are not going to be at Subic Bay; they will stay in the countryside or onboard the ships,” he says. “There won’t be the same problems.”

In 1982, Congress passed a resolution granting citizenship to illegitimate children fathered by U.S. soldiers in Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea. It did not include children from the Philippines.

Justin Ray Labandello is a nineteen-year-old philosophy student whose mother and grandmother worked in the Barretto red light district. He faced bullying at school from an early age. “They yelled at me that my grandmother was a prostitute,” he recalls. “That was very offensive. Nowadays, I can’t deny it. I have learned to accept it and to avoid confrontation.”

His friend Joseph Guarino, five years older than him, says that many Amerasians continue to struggle. “One of my friends has really suffered severe psychological problems,” he says. “He is living in a mental hospital right now.” Guarino himself chooses to deflect the situation with humor: “Sometimes I say that I have royal blood.”

Women stand outside of a bar in the red light district, Barretto.
Women stand outside of a bar in the red light district, Barretto.

Both Labandello and Guarino encourage me to visit Barretto to see what it is like today. Olongapo’s most brightly lit street is packed with women wearing provocative outfits. They are waiting at the entrance of the many clubs and waving at the passersby. Whenever they attract a client, they accompany him inside the club, where there are dancers, waitresses and mama-san who are in charge of the girls. The owner of the place is an American.

Jane, an attractive twenty-five-year-old waitress at the Bunny Ranch, doesn’t want to acknowledge her Amerasian origins, but her features betray her. A long wavy mane of hair reaches her wide hips, falling down onto the brown skin of her back. It’s hard for her to feel at ease, but when she gains confidence, she acknowledges her African-American lineage. Her father was a G.I., as was the father of her own two children, who left six years ago.

“He died in the war,” she says, but she doesn’t know which one. Her three-year-old son and five-year-old daughter are called negritos by their neighbors. A few minutes later, two other girls approach her and Jane stops being Amerasian. “I’m Filipina,” she suddenly says. “Pure Filipina.”