Cape veteran earns highest civilian honor
Ponciano “Poncho” Mauricio can be found three days a week at Kurt Donaldson Park on Hancock Bridge Parkway playing tennis, or at Cape Coral Hospital as a volunteer, or even at home riding his stationary bike while watching the news.
It’s all something that has U.S. Rep. Frances Rooney in awe, seeing as Mauricio just turned 100 on Nov. 17.
What is perhaps even more awe inspiring is the route Mauricio took to get where he is today, including surviving World War II.
But survive he did, and on Friday at Cape Coral City Hall, Rooney presented Mauricio with The Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor which commemorates the service and sacrifice of more than 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers during World War II.
Although Mauricio was unable to attend an official ceremony was in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25, he was in attendance Friday, along with friends and family and area dignitaries.
Brian Ramos, regional director for the Phillipines Veterans Recognition and Education Project, said this day was 75 years in the making, yet it took only five days to put it all together.
“The Filipino veterans lost history after the Rescission Act that stripped them of all their benefits and they have fought 70 years to get them back,” Ramos said. “(Mauricio) just turned 100 and we didn’t want to wait anymore. It was our determination to get it done by the end of the year.”
Mayor Joe Coviello was able to offer them council chambers, while Ramos and Pearl Cruz, of the Filipino-American Association of Southwest Florida, were able to bring in Rooney, who was busy in Washington, D.C.
Lt. Gen. Gary Speer spoke of the honor it is to recognize such a hero, highlighting Mauricio’s accomplishments and explaining the details that led to the Bataan Death March.
Rooney called Mauricio both an American and Filipino hero who should have been recognized long ago.
“It’s part of the American culture to give credit where credit is due and gives thanks to Maj. Mauricio to keep us free,” Rooney said. “It’s very moving to see this man in such great condition. It’s heartwarming when we correct wrongs.”
Mauricio said he got a call in the fall about him being honored, but since it was in Washington, D.C., Mauricio said no, as he doesn’t fly anymore.
“I was really surprised. This is so sudden. I don’t know what to say,” Mauricio said. “I’m so glad. The good Lord helped me.”
For Mauricio, the sacrifice was great. He joined the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East in October 1941. The day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, it also attacked the Philippines. The Filipinos fought hard, but many were captured in early 1942 after the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese. Mauricio became a prisoner of war in 1942 and survived that, as well as the Bataan Death March in April 1942.
It is believed that of the 75,000 soldiers who surrendered, more than 31,000 died either during the brutal 70-mile journey on foot, or in the prison camps.
Mauricio is one of a scarce few Filipinos still living who endured the march and the camps, where they endured brutal treatment.
In September 1942, the Filipino government entered the camp and arranged for them to be released.
“Our governor stood for us. They promised the Japanese army that if we were called for duty we would report,” Mauricio said.
Mauricio served until 1948, attaining the rank of major. It was around this time that President Harry S. Truman signed the Rescission Act that stripped away promises of benefits for the 250,000 Filipino soldiers who served in World War II when the Phillipines was a U.S. territory.
It took decades for some of the benefits to be restored. Some received back benefits as part of the 2009 stimulus package. In 2016, President Obama signed the Filipino Veterans Congressional Medal Act that allowed them to get their medal, of which Rooney was a sponsor.
Mauricio came to the United State in 1950 and obtained a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1952 (he was an engineer before joining the military).
He soon joined the Army Corps of Engineers and moved to Silver Springs, Md. He retired in 1980 and moved to Cape Coral in 1985.
“The daughter of my second wife was working here. She said she was going to Cape Coral and I went with her,” Mauricio said.
Mauricio quickly became tired of staring at the walls of his home and decided to give back to his community. He started volunteering at Cape Coral Hospital, where he has been ever since, having worked more than 4,000 hours fixing televisions and phones for the nurses.
“I was looking for a job in the hospital. I met this lady who was in the auxiliary and she talked me into volunteering instead of getting a job,” Mauricio said.
Today, Mauricio is about as spry as a 100-year-old man can be. He walks, he drives sometimes, when he’s watching TV he is also riding a stationary bike, and even finds time to play tennis three times a week.
“I just do what I’m supposed to do every day. It’s no secret. I exercise and play tennis,” Mauricio said.