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    Looking Back at the Filipino Pioneers of Navy Medicine

    Looking Back at the Filipino Pioneers of Navy Medicine

    Photo By André Sobocinski | Photo collage of some of the Filipino pioneers in Navy Medicine. These include...... read more read more



    Story by André Sobocinski 

    U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

    Filipino-Americans have long played vital roles in the U.S. Navy and have helped to shape Navy Medicine through their numerous contributions as leaders, healthcare providers, medical administrators, and scientists.

    The story of Filipinos in the Navy began in wake of the Spanish-American War after Spain ceded the Philippine Islands (P.I.) to the United States. In 1901, President William McKinley issued an Executive Order permitting Filipinos to enlist in the Navy. Among those early Filipino pioneers were Teleforo Trinidad, the Navy’s first Filipino Medal of Honor recipient (1915) and David Nepomuceno, the first Filipino Olympian (1924).

    After the Philippines gained its independence from the United States in 1946, the U.S. Navy—still entrenched in the country—established an agreement allowing Filipino nationals to enlist. With few exceptions most Filipinos were limited to the Navy’s steward branch through the 1960s.

    This is a history that is personal for Rear Adm. Eleanor Concepcion “Connie” Mariano. The trailblazing naval officer and White House physician was the daughter and niece of Navy stewards. She was born at Naval Station Sangley Point while her father was detailed as a steward to a flag officer.

    “Joining the U.S. Navy as a young man was certainly a step up for my father even if the Filipino stewards, especially on shipboard deployment, were like glorified house boys,” said Mariano. Whether shipboard or ashore, stewards were typically engaged in the tedious and menial tasks of cleaning, cooking, preparing meals, and making beds.
    Those stewards and mess attendants assigned to senior medical officers, hospitals and hospital ships in the first decades of the twentieth century represent the first Filipinos in Navy Medicine.

    The Northcott Brothers -- Corpsmen and POWs:

    The Northcott brothers—John (b. 1918), Robert (b.1920) and Thomas (b.1921)—were three seamen apprentices-turned hospital corpsmen who miraculously survived a gauntlet of disease, torture and deprivation over their first years of naval service.

    They were born in what was still the U.S. Territory of the Philippines to a British-American father and a Filipino mother.

    The brothers enlisted in the U.S. Navy in January 1941 and were assigned to USS Vaga (YT-116), a tug used for patrolling the Filipino coastline from the Cavite Navy Yard to the island of Corregidor. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941, the Northcotts helped scuttle the Vaga off Corregidor and joined a naval unit attached to the 4th Marine Regiment in defense of Corregidor until their own capture on May 6, 1942.

    Along with fellow defenders of Corregidor, the Northcotts were transferred to the Bilibid detention facility in the heart of Manila. Throughout the Japanese occupation, Bilibid was used to process thousands of American, Filipino, Dutch, British, Australian and Kiwi prisoners to labor camps throughout the Philippines and Japan. Among Bilibid’s internees were physicians, dentists and hospital corpsmen who had once staffed the U.S. Naval Hospital Canacao. Despite suffering from tropical disease, malnutrition and lacking sufficient medical supplies and equipment, the personnel of this “hospital unit” continued to treat the sick and wounded, operating what was termed the “Bilibid Hospital for Military Prison Camps of the Philippine Islands.”

    The Northcotts were employed as “sick-bay strikers” working Bilibid’s makeshift hospital wards and receiving special instruction from doctors and pharmacy warrant officer in nursing, first aid, and administration. Bilibid’s hospital unit even had regular examinations for rate advancement. John, Robert and Thomas would each be examined and promoted to pharmacist’s mate third class in November 1942.

    In spite of many setbacks—including bouts of dengue fever and amebic dysentery—the Northcotts remained on near-continuous duty. As it was later reported in their Bronze Star citations, each continued their duties as corpsmen despite limited rations, constant harassment by guards; and each willingly shared their meager supplies of food, clothing and other necessary articles to less fortunate and ill prisoners.

    On October 21, 1943, John, Robert, and Thomas were among 228 Bilibid prisoners “drafted” for work detail on an old rice farm in Cabanatuan, 90 miles north of Manila. There the brothers remained working in malaria-rife conditions until they were finally broken up. John and Thomas were sent to mainland Japan aboard the “hell ship” Oryoko Maru. Robert remained at Cabanatuan until his liberation.

    In December 1944, John and Thomas were loaded into the ship’s cargo hold with 1,617 others. Each were required to subsist on one-fifth of a canteen cup of steamed rice, two ounces of water, limited air, and no sanitary facilities. On that first night at sea 70 POWs would suffocate or die of dehydration. Two days later, while off Olongapo, the ship was strafed and bombed by aircraft from USS Hornet (CVA-8) killing another 270 prisoners. Those lucky enough to survive the sinking were herded onto a cattle boat which would be sunk off the island of Formosa killing an additional 268 prisoners. The remaining POWs were then loaded onto a third ship. Over the course of its 17-day voyage an additional 656 prisoners would die of exposure, starvation and disease before arriving in Japan on January 30, 1945—the very same day Robert Northcott was rescued from Cabanatuan. John and Thomas Northcott would spend the remainder of the war at prison camps in Japan before finally being liberated in September 1945.

    After the war, the Northcotts remained in the Navy. John and Robert served through 1961, rising to the rank of Chief Hospital Corpsman (HMC). Thomas was promoted to HMC in 1950 and served with the First Marine Division in Korea until wounded in action in September 1950. He was later awarded the Silver Star for his actions in theater.

    The Twelfth Anchor:

    On January 6, 1942, 12 nurses were taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese forces in the Philippines. Eleven of these nurses were U.S. Navy; the twelfth was a Filipino civilian nurse named Basilia Torres-Steward.

    Mrs. Torres-Steward was married to a U.S. naval civil engineer corps officer, who was also interned during the war. During a 37-month imprisonment these 12 nurses (sometimes referred to as the “12 Anchors” for their strength and resilience) were held captive at Santo Tomas and later Los Baños prison camps. Despite suffering from the same deprivations and nutritional diseases as their fellow prisoners, Basilia Torres-Steward and the Navy nurses continued to care for the sick and injured. For many of the prisoners these nurses were the embodiment of selfless devotion and helped keep morale afloat during the lowest points of captivity.

    After repatriation, Mrs. Torres-Steward moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen.

    Combat Heroes of Vietnam and Iraq:

    Like Admiral Mariano’s father, Bienvenido Dona enlisted in the Navy as a mess steward. At 27, the Northern Mindanao-native was older than most recruits in-processing at the Naval Base Sangley Point, Cavite, P.I. in 1955.

    Dona was among the rare few able to break from the steward rating—going from steward to striker and finally to Hospital Corps School in San Diego, Calif. After graduating from “A” School, Dona became one of the first Filipino-national to serve as hospital corpsman.

    Following a tour at Naval Hospital San Diego, Dona attended Field Medical Service School at Camp Pendleton, Calif. On May 19, 1965, he was assigned to the Headquarters & Service Company, 3d Battalion, 7th Marines (Rein) FMF with orders to Vietnam.

    As an FMF corpsman, Dona was the cherished “Doc” to his Marines—a first responder instilled with the knowledge to “stop the bleeding, clear the airway, protect the wound, and treat and prevent shock.” And it was not be long before he put these lifesaving skills to use.

    On January 15, 1966, while on patrol near the village of Phu An, north of Saigon, Dona’s platoon was hit by a “withering volume of small arms and automatic weapons fire.” As others in his unit later testifies, Dona disregarded his own safety and ran over 100 meters against a barrage of enemy fire to reach wounded Marines. Calmly and coolly, he administered first aid and evacuated the casualties to safety. Two days later, Dona was again seen dashing through a hail of gunfire playing the role of lifesaver.
    Tragically, Dona’s life was cut short on March 23, 1966. While taking part in a search and clear mission in a well-fortified village in the Quang Ngai Province, Dona was shot and killed in the final act of attending to a fallen Marine. For his professional skill and unfaltering dedication to duty under duress, Dona was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

    Today, Bienvenido Dona’s name is one of 645 hospital corpsmen and 57,939 servicemen enshrined on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

    Over the ensuing decades other Filipinos in Navy Medicine exhibited valor and while on the frontlines of wars and conflicts. Among them was HM2 Allan Cundangan Espiritu.

    A native of Metro Manila, P.I., Espiritu emigrated with his family to California in 1981. He grew up with an interest in marine biology and dentistry. Inspired by his brother, Espiritu enlisted in the Navy in 1997 becoming a hospital corpsman. As an FMF Corpsman, Espiritu qualified as a scout sniper, a master parachute jumper, and received special training in mountain warfare, jungle warfare, and Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE). Using these skills he served two combat tours in Iraq. Espiritu volunteered for duty with a Marine Explosive Ordnance Device (EOD) Team while on his second tour in 2005. He was killed in the vicinity of Ramadi on a mission of detonating a roadside bombs. HM2 Allan Cundangan Espiritu was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V” in 2006.

    Expanding Roles for Filipinos in Navy Medicine:

    The 1960s and 1970s saw new opportunities afforded to Filipinos in the U.S. Navy. And during these decades some of the first Filipino physicians, dentists, nurses and Medical Service Corps officers were commissioned. These pioneers included Drs. Honorato Nicedemus, Ofelia Maralit, Estelita Carandang, Remedio Galang in the Medical Corps and Dr. Napoleon Dimayuga Rivera in the Dental Corps.

    Dr. Robert Mendoza Poquis was a second generation Filipino born in Hawaii. In 1961, he become the first Filipino-American optometrist commissioned in the Navy. He remained in service for 30 years, becoming the Navy optometry specialty leader before retiring as an 0-6.

    Melchor “Mel” Flondarina of Agno, P.I., enlisted as a mess steward in 1957 before transitioning to the hospital corps. In 1967, Flondarina was commissioned as a Medical Service Corps officer, becoming one of the first Filipino-born MSCs in the Navy.

    Dr. Jose Sotto Cruz of Angat Bulaca, P.I., was commissioned in the Navy Medical Corps in 1971. He remained in service through Gulf War rising to the rank of Captain. Cruz instilled in his four children the importance of education and an aspiration to serve as leaders in whatever fields they chose. Two of their children—Anatolio and Raquel—chose the Navy. Anatolio attended the Naval Academy, graduating in 1980. Raquel Cruz—later Bono—was commissioned in 1979 through a Health Professions Scholarship Program. Both siblings rose through the ranks becoming the only brother and sister flag officers in the Navy. And among her many distinctions, Dr. Bono became the highest ranking officer of Filipino ancestry in Navy history when promoted to Vice Admiral in 2015.

    Dr. Connie Mariano received her Navy commission as an Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) student in 1977. In 1992, she became the first Navy medical officer of Filipino heritage to serve in the White House Medical Unit. The next year she became the first Filipino and only the second woman to serve as primary physician for a U.S. President. And in 2000, Mariano became the first Filipino naval officer to achieve the rank of Rear Admiral.

    Eleanor Valentin was the daughter of Filipino immigrants who met in San Francisco, Calif. Her father was a grocer and tailor; her mother was a detective who had formerly worked in the Manila Police Department. Her parents instilled in Valentin the mentality that if she worked hard she would succeed in anything she did. After obtaining master’s degrees in public health and biostatistics, Valentin was commissioned in the Medical Service Corps. She ascended the ranks becoming Rear Admiral and in the process earned the distinction as the first woman to serve as Director of the Medical Service Corps and first Filipino-American to serve at the helm of a Navy staff corps.

    Dr. Godofredo Liboon Navarro took the helm of Naval Hospital Subic Bay, P.I., in 1989. He is the first Filipino commanding officer in Navy medical history. In 1991, following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Navarro helped to lead the relief effort. Under his command the naval hospital provided medical care to some 1,182 native Filipinos.

    In every community within Navy Medicine Filipino-Americans have excelled as officers and enlisted, and serving with distinction in positions of command, leaders and as caregivers.

    Today, 11,208 Navy active duty service members identify as Filipino. Among them are 1,480 physicians, dentists, nurses, MSC officers and hospital corpsmen who continue to build on a proud tradition of service and heritage in Navy Medicine.


    Dona, Bienvenido. Vietnam Casualty Card Collection. BUMED Archives.

    Dona, Bienvenido. Silver Star Citation. Vietnam Awards Collection. BUMED Archives.

    Burdeos, Ray. Filipinos in the U.S. Navy & Coast Guard During the Vietnam War. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse Books. 2008.

    Carlson, Larry. Before the Colors Fade: God, Cebu and War. Xlibris, 2008.

    Dixon, Benjamin. “Manila Bay Episode—Postscript.” The Hospital Corps Quarterly, Vol. 19, May 1946, No. 5.

    Ling, Huping, and Allan W. Austin. Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis Group, 2010.

    Mariano, E.C. The White House Doctor: My Patients Were Presidents - A Memoir. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010.

    Nelson, Jean. “Government Urged to Aid ‘Man Without a Country.’” The Times Standard, 5 July 1968, p1.

    Northcott. “Book of War Records.” Hospital Corps Archives Memo 268-45. BUMED Archives.

    Northcott, John Florence. Casualty Card. Hospital Corps Collection, BUMED Archives.

    Northcott, Robert Patrick. Casualty Card. Hospital Corps Collection, BUMED Archives.

    Northcott, Thomas Voicey. Casualty Card. Hospital Corps Collection, BUMED Archives.



    Date Taken: 05.06.2021
    Date Posted: 05.06.2021 14:05
    Story ID: 395831
    Location: FALLS CHURCH, VA, US 

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