In my continuing quest to help reshape public perception on the true nature and identity of the Igorots, I have been writing about chronicled accounts of Igorot patriotism and gallantry that were somehow left out of mainstream literature. It is so disheartening to learn that while highly respected personalities around the world have high praises and respect for our culture and its significant contributions in many aspects of our growth as a nation, many of our countrymen still harbor disparaging notions when referring to our ethnicity. With these stories I attempt to retell in my humble little way, I hope that our role in history will be justly put in place and our heritage be proudly cherished not only in our own backyards but by the entire Filipino people.
In an article by Louise Steinman (Repaying a Debt Never Forgotten) published by the Los Angeles Times on January 2, 1997, the Igorots' stunning audacity during World War II was said to have inspired then US Army Cpl. Sylvan Katz, a WW2 Veteran and a retired Administrative Judge in Los Angeles County, United States. He attributed his unit's victory against the Japanese forces to the courage of the Igorots who fearlessly sacrificed their lives to ensure the success of the daring mission for liberation.
According to the narrative; "Smoke was thick and mortar fire shook the ground when Cpl. Sylvan Katz first caught a glimpse of the Igorot people. It was January 1945, and Katz's U.S. Army 32nd Red Arrow Division was locked in combat with Japanese troops on the rugged Villa Verde trail in northern Luzon, the Philippines. When Katz first landed in Luzon, an old Army sergeant told the troops they would meet pagan headhunters if they were sent to the mountains".
What Katz saw through the tumult was a contingent of small-statured men, women and boys carrying 5-gallon cans of water, heavy boxes of ammunition, rations and sacks of letters from home. "We were amazed to see this group of cargadores coming up the front lines where they were exposed to enemy machine gun fire," recalls Katz. He believes that the Igorots' selfless performance was crucial to the success of the campaign against the Japanese.
"It was the Igorots who trekked in supplies and ferried out wounded and dead U.S. soldiers from steep areas inaccessible to Army vehicles. Igorot scouts struck at enemy supply dumps and boldly rode on the fronts of tanks attacking the Japanese. Their bravery was legendary", Katz says. He then went on to quote Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur, who praised them, saying: "For sheer, breathtaking and heart-stopping desperation, I have never known the equal of those Igorots."
After the war, Katz went on to become a teacher and later on a Judge in his county. Throughout his life since then, his admiration for the Igorots never ceased and in his first return to the Philippines in 1975, he embarked to what has become his lifelong advocacy- and that is to repay his debt of gratitude by granting financial assistance to deserving Igorot students who lacked the means to pursue college education.
Katz's relationship with the Igorot people is evident in his daily life. In his condo in Santa Monica, wooden carvings of animals and rice deities vie for space with photos of grandchildren. His study is lined with boxes bulging with correspondence from his scholars. Katz was never too busy to mentor a faraway student, to offer congratulations on a successful exam, to inquire about a parent's health, to comment on a proposed course of study. At his retirement party in 1990, the indomitable silver-haired judge joined in ritual tribal dances with members of Los Angeles' Igorot community. He was the only male dancer wearing a business suit instead of a G-string.
He died in December of 2009 carrying his fondness of a great people- The Igorots he so loved and championed both in memory and in life.