He was never famous. He never drove a car. He never flew in a plane.
But Denis Rodill, records would show, was among the first Filipinos to live in Kodiak. And he was a war hero.
Rodill’s fascinating story came to light after his 77-year-old daughter, Diane, spent seven years researching his life and his remarkable worldwide journey from Manila to ports around the world, surviving several wars as a Merchant Marine.
Diane Rodill, who holds a doctorate in international public health, was in Kodiak for the first time during the Fourth of July to commemorate the 100th anniversary since her father, Denis Rodill, worked at the cannery in Larsen Bay.
Denis was an “Alaskero,” or Filipino cannery worker, for just one season. But he migrated to the United States in 1908, making him a part of the earliest wave of Filipino migrants to come to the United States after the Spanish-American War.
In 1915, Denis traveled aboard the Star of Scotland to arrive at the Alaska Packers Association’s Larsen Bay cannery.
“In my father’s photo album was a picture of him dressed as a woman, with a caption that said the photo was taken on the Fourth of July, 1915, in Larsen Bay,” Rodill said, laughing. “I saw the photo and thought, ‘Where is Larsen Bay, and what possibly could he be doing?’”
The same photo, acquired from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was in the collection of the Baranov Museum.
Rodill connected with staff at the Baranov Museum as she tried to piece together clues in the photograph. She learned that the photo was a part of a set that shows cannery workers putting on a parade and pageant in Larsen Bay.
Rodill said her father, who died when he was 83, did not talk much about his past and nobody knew about his colorful work history, including his life as a poor immigrant before becoming a Merchant Marine who crossed six continents and three oceans in 90 voyages.
Denis Rodill, as a result of his daughter’s perseverance and diligence, would end up being honored with six medals about 35 years after his death.
“I was thrilled to connect with Diane, since we know so little about the personal stories of early Filipino immigrants to Alaska, or even to the nation, for that matter,” said Anjuli Grantham, curator of collections and exhibits at the Baranov Museum. “Diane’s research is not just about the fascinating story of her father, but also about the challenges and triumphs of being a Filipino-American immigrant in the early 20th century,” Grantham said.
On July 4, Rodill was in Larsen Bay, accompanied by Grantham. She said they slept in the bunkhouse with the cannery workers and saw the old building where her father used to work.
“The thought of visiting a place where your father had been 100 years ago, that by itself is emotional,” she said.
Rodill said she interviewed cannery workers at Larsen Bay.
“The good news there is, there are no more segregation in the mess halls,” she said, recalling that during her father’s time cannery workers were not allowed to eat their meals in the same room with white men.
“I saw how good times are today,” she said. “I could see they are very content and I could see they are not exploited at all.”
Rodill’s research began in 2008 when she found an old poster at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The poster mentioned the discrimination experienced by Filipino workers.
Rodill said her mother, an immigrant from Kiev, Russia, gave her a collection of photographs, including one showing her father in Larsen Bay.
At that time, she said, she didn’t know anything about Alaskeros. Until she went to the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980s.
Rodill, now based in Seattle, conducted the research with her husband, Paul Lewis, a retired attorney.
During Rodill’s presentation at the Baranov Museum, Grantham said Denis Rodill’s story was not only interesting, it was significant for the understanding of Filipino-American history.
“These are people that we see at places all over the world,” she said. “We see them in Hawaii, at sugar plantations. We see them at Naknek, working at the canneries, we see them working in the fields of Delano, California.”
Rodill said her father arrived in Kodiak “during the confluence of the most historical event — the first half of the 20th century.”
Dionisio Rodill, whose name would be Anglicized to Denis, was born in the tough neighborhood of Tondo, Manila. In 1908, he ran away as a spunky 14 year old, answering the sea siren’s call and sailing 6,000 miles — arriving in Seattle probably as a ship’s deck boy, helping load cattle.
In January 1910, he was shown in a photograph while in Hong Kong. Four months later, U.S. Census records would indicate he was in Hawaii working as a plantation worker. He was the youngest worker, performing stoop labor, 10 hours a day, 26 days a month, for about $20 monthly, Rodill said.
In June 1914, Denis was 20 years old and must have been euphoric. He signed on to the SS Hororata’s maiden voyage to Australia. He left Liverpool, went around Africa, Indian Ocean to Australia up to Townsville, Australia. There, they were to collect meat, wool and more passengers.
But on June 28, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, triggered World War I.
Britain commandeered the ship and it was refitted to carry troops.
In 1915, the Panama Canal has just opened, and Denis was 21. When he was in Hawaii, he already knew about cannery jobs in Alaska after cannery recruiters “raided” the plantations for good workers.
He left Liverpool, England and his ship would take him to San Francisco before changing ship. On April 7, 1915, Denis boarded the Star of Scotland with 220 salmon workers. Twenty-four days later, they were in Larsen Bay for the “dirty work.”
“They were essentially prisoners because there was no way to leave,” Rodill said.
Echoing their work in Hawaii, the Larsen Bay contract was only for six months. Labor was cheap and the Filipinos were paid less than other ethnic groups.
“And dirty work it was, with no interruption as long as fish kept coming, day in and day out,” Rodill said. “But for one day, the July Fourth holiday, the Filipinos were partying.”
They staged a grand celebration with floats, parade, acrobats, jugglers, music and dancing.”
During her presentation at the Baranov Museum, Rodill kept on describing her father as a “rascal,” in a soft, loving tone.
“Here’s Denis, showing his rascal ways, with his hands on his hips, in drag. You can see the costumes as they are playing the role of women,” Rodill said. “As you know, there were very few women there. And if you scan the faces in the crowd, you can see they are mostly, if not all, Filipinos.”
Many of the men in the photos wore fine suits, presumably purchased before they even got their jobs.
“The next day, after all their celebrations, they return to the numbing, dangerous cannery work,” Rodill said.
On Sept. 22, the workers would return to San Francisco with 58,790 cases of salmon for worldwide distribution. Most of them had as little as $30 to show for their efforts and they were again searching for work.
“This shows the beginnings of Larsen Bay as a global crossroads for migration and commerce,” Rodill said. “But then the question remains, ‘What happened to these Alaskeros after Larsen Bay?’”
As of the 2000 census, there were 115 people, 40 households, and 26 families in Larsen Bay. Racial makeup of the city was 20.8 percent white and 78 percent Native American.
Rodill said her father moved to New York in 1916 when he was 22.
He’s 22 in 1916. The United States has not yet entered World War I. He’s traveled from Larsen Bay to New York.
Then he would board the SS New York and sailed to Liverpool again, this time as a lowly “coal passer.”
Upon his return to New York, he took a job as waiter at a private school.
With World War I ending in November 1918, there were fewer shipping jobs, so Denis took whatever jobs in New York he could find.
He worked in Manhattan with the very wealthy, working as a houseman for the Harvard Club, butler and houseman for silent film star Theda Bara, cook and butler for Willis H. Booth, vice president of Chemical Trust.
Then in the 1920s, he was reunited with his first love again.
A photograph, likely taken in New York, shows him wearing a suit. He was 26 and preparing to board the SS Mongolia, where he was promoted to become a mess boy.
The SS Mongolia was the same ship that brought him to Hawaii 10 years earlier. On the Mongolia, their job was to transport troops from Germany, back home to New York and San Francisco.
Then in 1921, echoing Filipino mixed marriages in Kodiak and elsewhere, Denis married a Caucasian American, Agnes Margaret Warren, before Valentine’s Day.
The honeymoon was brief. Four months later, he sailed for Germany again. On his return, they moved to Washington, D.C., and there he worked in the Embassy circuit as houseman for Peruvian Ambassador Alphonso Pezet.
Rodill said that marriage fascinated her because there was a major citizenship issue.
She said that according to U.S. immigration laws between 1907 and 1922, “if an American woman married a Chinese, Japanese, Filipino or other men racially ineligible to naturalize, she forfeited her citizenship.”
“Yes, unconventional Margie probably lost citizenship, not because Denis was a national, not because he was alien, but because the law was race-based,” she said.
The Filipinos in the United States during this time were in an ambiguous position. For one, since the Philippines was a U.S. colony, Filipinos had no sovereign government to speak for them. The 1924 Immigration Act deemed the Filipinos as neither aliens nor U.S. citizens since they were a colonized people, although technically they were classified as U.S. nationals.
In 1926, Denis was 32, when he joined Weyerh, the timber company. He was on the ship Hegira, where he probably worked as chief cook and a letter from a cousin suggested he spent a lot of time in Seattle.
“So he probably lodged in Chinatown hotels, which were one of the few places where Filipinos were accepted,” she said.
In the 1920s, Filipinos were assimilating in Seattle; they were opening restaurants and businesses in Chinatown.
“But they were only partially welcome: They couldn’t buy a home,” Rodill said. “If they had relationships with white women, they drew anger. In rural areas, farmers took them for ‘rides’ and told them to return to the Philippines.”
In the late 1920s, Denis was in his mid-30s. Jobs are scarce, especially for Filipinos.
In the 1930 census, Denis and Margie were living in Newark, New Jersey, childless. He worked as a chef when jobs were available.
“So with marriage woes and so much hardship, he must have been hitting bottom,” Rodill said.
In 1932, the Depression job market was hostile. Denis moved to Philadelphia. He and Margie have parted ways, still childless.
In 1934, Filipinos were reclassified from nationals to aliens, and immigration closed to all of them but 50 a year. Worse, in 1935 the Filipino Repatriation Act offered free passage back to the Philippines for those who promised never to return.
“This is deportation in disguise,” Rodill said, “and Denis refused the bait.”
But despite the Depression and the anti-Asian mood, Denis married Agnes Margaret (Warren), an immigrant from Kiev, Russia, in August 1936.
“Mom came with a son, they settled in a poor immigrant Philly neighborhood,” Rodill said. “In his 40s, they rapidly produced three children.”
In 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed, Denis was a Merchant Marine.
In wartimes, the Merchant Marines became auxiliary to the military and their mission was to transport troops, supplies and arms.
In World War II, Denis had at least 17 dangerous transatlantic voyages.
In 1943, on the S/S WR Day, they aided the Russian and British allies, shipping resources to Basra, Iraq.
Then in 1944, from April to October, on SS Henry Clay, he departed from the United States and the ship was in Ireland, England, France, Belgium and Germany.
The ship’s log showed they supplied troops in Normandy after D-Day, Rodill said.
Denis’ performance vaulted him from “Messman” to “Chief Steward.”
In May 1945, he returned to purchase his first home.
In the post-war years, Denis was in his 50s when he worked at local Philadelphia restaurants. Denis was a very good cook, Rodill said.
“But surely, one best days of his life was July 12, 1950. Age 56, in true Filipino style, Hart Schaffner Marx suit, Stetson hat and Florsheim shoes, he trotted us down to the Philadelphia Custom House for his swearing-in (as a U.S. citizen),” Rodill said.
Finally, after 18 years in process, Rodill was an American citizen.
In 1951, nearing 60, he was revalidated for Merchant Marine, serving in Korea. Denis was in at least 50 embarkations, from West Coast to Japan, from the Gulf to Mexico, from the East Coast to Brazil and Argentina.
While in Philadelphia in 1977, Denis purchased both a Buick Regal and a Honda motorcycle.
“Dennis had no driver’s license and he didn’t know how drive,” Rodill said. “Of course, the joke was, he bought the Buick in lieu of his dream car, Cadillac.”
About 35 years after his death, Denis received honors.
“I was long ignorant of Denis’ risky wartime service,” Rodill said. “But the research bared the perils he faced.
Of all the World War II military losses, the Merchant Marines suffered the highest rate of casualties and deaths, she said, explaining that as soon as the ships left U.S. ports, they were subjected to attack by battleships, submarines, bombers, Kamikazes, sea mines and land-based artillery.
In 2012, the Maritime Administration awarded Denis Rodill a Testimonial Letter, signed by former President Truman. The World War II Merchant Marines were the only group ever to receive such a letter for their service.
Denis also received six medals, including the Atlantic War Zone Medal and Bar, Merchant Marine Medal and Bar, Mediterranean War Zone Medal, and the Korean Service Medal and Bar.
And with only a brief exception, Denis never returned to the Philippines, Rodill said.
“Despite that, I think the rascal from Tondo fulfilled his American Dream,” Rodill said.