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Why An LA Real Estate Agent Is On A Quest To Name A Naval Ship

A black and white photo of the USS San Diego and an inset photo of Telesforo Trinidad, who in 1915 saved two crewmates during a boiler explosion.
In 1915, Telesforo Trinidad saved two crewmates during a boiler explosion on the the USS San Diego.
( Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command )
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Before he set down roots in the San Fernando Valley and became a real estate agent, Rene Trinidad grew up in the Philippines on the southern shores of Manila Bay. At the helm of a sprawling extended family was his grandfather, Telesforo.

“When he spoke it sounded like God was talking to me from heaven, because he was a man of few words,” Trinidad said.

His grandfather spoke so little that, as a child, Rene had no idea the white-haired man had received a Medal of Honor from the U.S. Navy decades earlier, while the Philippines was under U.S. colonial rule.

To better his financial situation, Telesforo Trinidad joined the Navy through a base in his province and set sail on the USS San Diego as a fireman. In 1915, while in Mexican waters, the ship’s boilers exploded, killing nine. Trinidad rescued two crew mates while sustaining burns to his face.

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More than a century after the catastrophe, Trinidad remains the only sailor of Asian descent to have received the Navy's highest recognition for valor. (The Army has given the honor to dozens in the AAPI community.)

It was not until his grandfather’s funeral that a teenaged Rene realized how his ancestor's legacy was tied up with the U.S. military.

“It was at that time I noticed: Wait a minute, why is my grandfather's coffin covered with an American flag?

Now in his 60s, Rene has joined a campaign to name a naval ship after his grandfather. The effort began last year when Filipino American naval brass began discussing their desire to recognize a service member of Filipino descent and zeroed in on Telesforo Trinidad, a non-citizen U.S. national.

Bay Area historian Cecilia Gaerlan is a campaign leader who recruited Rene Trinidad to the ship-naming crusade. Both their families are from the same province in the Philippines, Cavite.

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A black and white photo of Rene Trinidad with his grandfather Telesforo Trinidad in the Philippines
Rene Trinidad being held by his grandfather Telesforo Trinidad in the Philippines.
(Courtesy of Rene Trinidad)

“I think this will be a validation of the historic contributions of Filipino Americans,” Gaerlan said. ”Not only in the U.S. armed forces, but to U.S. history.”

Generations of enlistees of Filipino descent have joined the U.S. Armed Forces since 1898, after the U.S. won the Spanish American War and took control of the Philippines.

The tens of thousands who joined received a steady paycheck, travel and an easier pathway for their relatives to emigrate to the U.S. A select group has risen to the top echelon of the U.S. military.

But Vicente Rafael, a historian at the University of Washington who studies the Philippines’ colonial past, said that the perks of military service were often offset by the military’s racist and exclusionary practices.

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Rafael said that after World War II, Filipinos who served alongside U.S. troops were promised the same health and pension benefits. But in 1946, President Truman reneged on the pledge. Not until 2009 did President Barack Obama sign an act that offered Filipino veterans $15,000 if they lived in the U.S. The sum was even less if they still lived in the Philippines — ”a pittance” for risking their lives, Rafael said.

Sepia-toned photos of six Filipino sailors in their uniforms from 1923
Filipino sailors in photo dated 1923
(Filipino American National Heritage Society
/
Filipino sailors in photo dated 1923)

Rafael said putting Trinidad’s name on a destroyer is “part and parcel of this desire, not just for recognition, but also for some sort of compensation, however symbolic.” For Rafael, it would be more productive to focus on appropriately recompensing veterans and their survivors than naming “military machinery.”

Rene Trinidad said naming a ship after his grandfather wasn't something he would have conceived on his own because, culturally, “you're supposed to be humble. You don't want to bring attention to yourself.”

But Rene said his late father would have appreciated this recognition for the family patriarch. Also, the military tradition carried on in the family. Two of Teleforo’s sons enlisted in the Navy, although he was reportedly unhappy when the younger one did, because he feared his child being a low-ranking cook would make him more vulnerable to racism and mistreatment.

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“Supposedly, he wouldn't give his blessings to him joining the U.S. Navy, unlike with my older uncle, who was a dentist,” Rene Trinidad said.

These days, Rene is gamely serving as the family representative on the campaign, giving interviews and asking supporters in Southern California to write their local politicians. The effort already has the support of U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower. Campaign leaders are hopeful that President Biden’s nominee for Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, will be confirmed and receptive to their bid.

Rene Trinidad said naming a ship after a Filipino man would show that the U.S. is a “melting pot of people” and would also demonstrate support for Asian Americans, who have seen a rise in racist attacks over the past year.

“I suppose,” he said, “it's just one of those things where it's just time.”

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.