“All or nothing will leave us with nothing.”

That’s what Senator B.J. Cruz told listeners on K57’s Breakfast Show last Friday morning, in reaction to the news that the Guam war claims bill had been removed from the U.S. defense spending bill. The bill would compensate descendants of anyone who was killed on Guam during the Japanese occupation of the island, those who suffered during the occupation, or the descendants of those who suffered and have since passed away.

It’s that last provision that Congress always seems to have trouble with, yet Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo rejected a compromise proposal that would have compensated only first generation descendants of those killed during the war and living survivors of the occupation.

Bordallo acknowledged that some members of Congress objected to payments to descendants of war survivors who have since died because of the legal precedent it would set. So far, the United States has only compensated those people that are alive on the date of enactment of any type of compensation bill. 

 As a member of the Guam War Claims Review Commission, years ago Senator Cruz pointed me to a section in the back of the nearly inch and a half thick report released by the commission in June 2004, entitled “Legal Experts Conference.” During that conference, which took place in February 2004, Jim Hergen, an attorney for the State Department with experience in claims cases, said something Cruz considers essential to Guam’s war claims case:

“…I suggest that the Commission, in its further deliberation, should be very attentive to the possible precedential impact (my italics) of any report it may issue on other claims and other pending claims programs,” said Mr. Hergen.

In that same meeting, Tink Cooper, an attorney in the Department of Justice who dealt with the claims of Japanese Americans interned during WWII, noted that a key provision of those claims, covered under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, was to pay the oldest individuals first. She pointed out that the first criteria for eligibility of those claimants was that they had to be alive on the date the act was passed.

The precedent has been set in black and white. For anyone killed during the war, only their immediate survivors (parents or children) are entitled to compensation and only war survivors alive on the date of enactment of a claims act are entitled to compensation.

But certain political elements here continue to insist that descendants of survivors who have passed away should be compensated. In response, my friend Cathy Gault once put it this way: “How is my buying a new washing machine going to compensate for what my mother suffered during the war?”

Senator Cruz is right, and he has been right all along. Not listening to him is costing his mother, my mother-in-law, and all those who actually suffered at the hands of the Japanese on Guam during World War II any sort of redress.

“The house will pass anything to give its members a chance at re-election,” Sen. Cruz said last week, in response to a query about why the section for payment to survivors of survivors was included in the first place. The inference is that house members know their counterparts in the Senate will not let something go through that would open a Pandora’s box for the U.S., and this section would do just that. Cruz said it was included in deference to the late Speaker Tony Unpingco, who was adamant that everyone who suffered be acknowledged, whether they were living at the time the act was passed or not.

Similar versions of Guam war claims bills have been passed by Congress before, only to see the provision compensating survivors of survivors kill it every time.

Toward the end of that legal conference, there was an exchange between commission member and former Congressman Robert Lagomarsino and former Speaker Joe T. San Agustin regarding a claims proposal brokered by former Congressman Ben Blaz and Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii in 1990 that would’ve paid survivors of those killed $20,000, and given a lesser amount to war survivors alive at the date of enactment.

Mr. Lagomarsino: “And my understanding is that the government of Guam or at least the Guam Reparations Commission turned that down.”

Mr. San Agustin: “Yes, you’re right…”

Mr. Lagomarsino: “In my humble opinion, it was a big mistake.”

Mr. San Agustin: “I think so, too.”

Several thousand people who suffered during the war that were alive in 1990 have since passed on, and more will pass away this year, and the next, and the next. Congress seems ready to compensate the actual survivors. Will it be enough? Of course not.

But it’s better than leaving them with nothing because of a pie in the sky notion that people who were not even alive during the war should get some extra spending money in acknowledgement of the sufferings of their parents.

War survivor Eloy Hara had it exactly right when he agreed with Senator Cruz last week: “It is a survivor’s issue.”