Asian Americans, veterans and civilians in the U.S. and the Philippines are campaigning to name a Navy warship for a Filipino sailor who bravely rescued two crew members when their ship caught fire more than a century ago, earning him a prestigious and rare Medal of Honor.
Supporters say naming a ship for Telesforo Trinidad would honor not just the only Asian American in the U.S. Navy granted the nation’s highest award for valor, but the tens of thousands of Filipinos and Americans of Filipino descent who have served in the U.S. Navy since 1901, when the Philippines was a United States territory.
“I don’t believe it’s a long shot at all; it may be a long timeline, but we’re hoping it’s not,” said retired Navy Capt. Ron Ravelo and chair of the campaign. “We’re going to be making Navy ships into the foreseeable future, and there’s no reason one of those can’t bear the name of Telesforo Trinidad.”
Trinidad, who died in 1968 at age 77, was so eager to join the U.S. Navy that he stowed away on a lifeboat from his home island of Panay to the main island to enlist, said grandson Rene Trinidad. In 1915, while on patrol on the USS San Diego, he risked his life and suffered burns to rescue two crewmates when boilers exploded, killing nine. He received the medal that year, at a time when the honor could be awarded for noncombat valor.
Rene Trinidad, a real estate agent in Southern California, recalls his grandfather was a man of few words.
“He let his actions speak for himself,” he said, “and I suppose that’s why he did what he did.”
The campaign has grassroots enthusiasm, and support from Democratic Congress members who sent a letter last month to Thomas Harker, acting secretary of the Navy.
Traditionally, different types of ships have different naming conventions, but there are exceptions, said Samuel J. Cox, retired rear admiral and director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, which suggests names and has previously submitted Trinidad’s for consideration. The secretary of the Navy has final authority and discretion to name and rename ships, he said.
Some memorialize states, U.S. cities, Navy heroes or distinguished Americans. The number of Navy ships receiving names varies widely by year but averages roughly to about eight, of which three or four are named for people, Cox said.
“There simply are far too many heroes compared to the number of ships to be named,” he said.
Norman Polmar, author and naval analyst, agrees.
“And I hate to say this, I’m getting a little pain when I say this: Increasingly it becomes political — what party you’re in and who’s in the White House, and occasionally the White House gets involved,” Polmar said.