WASHINGTON, D.C. — It wasn’t just his name that made Fame Academia distinctive.
At the time of his death at age 93 Dec. 29, the Philippines-born Catholic was one of the few remaining witnesses to the Bataan Death March carried out by the Japanese military in the early days of World War II against U.S. and Filipino soldiers.
Fame (pronounced FAH-may) — not yet an adult, not yet a soldier and not yet an American citizen — helped rescue two U.S. pilots who had escaped, although one was later recaptured and killed.
Academia served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, followed by 20 years working for the U.S. Postal Service, while marrying and raising three children to be Catholics every bit as devout as their father.
But that merely scratches the surface.
Academia’s own father was the mayor of the Philippine town where the family lived. The Japanese invaded near the end of his father’s mayoral term, and wanted him to serve another term. Francisco Academia refused, saying he had served his time as mayor, but knowing that agreeing would lend legitimacy to the invading forces.
The Japanese soldiers beat him up for his obstinance — and when Fame tried to stick up for his dad, they beat him up, too.
At age 17, Academia joined the Merchant Marines because no branch of the U.S. military would take enlistees that young. He served eight years, helping take ammunition and war cargo to allied forces during World War II and the Korean War. He received a Purple Heart for protecting his ship from intruders and sustaining injuries in the process.
In 1954, and by this time a U.S. citizen, Academia joined the Navy, serving 20 years, including assignments in Korea and Vietnam. He also served as the personal aide to Adm. Thomas Moorer, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We used to go to the White House. We hated going to the White House. ‘Who wants to go?’ ‘Noooo! We don’t wanna go,'” remembered one of his daughters, Lynnette Herbine of Glenmore, Pennsylvania. “Now that I’m older, I think, oh, we were so privileged as kids.”
She added, “He would take us in. We wouldn’t go in. ‘Now you wait here until I come back.’ And then he would go in.”
“There’s not that many people that grew up the way we did,” she told Catholic News Service.
“He was also very dedicated to the service,” Herbine said. “I would remember my dad and mom, they would be going out for dinner, like on New Year’s. He would get a phone call. ‘No, don’t answer it.’ ‘Yes, sir, yes, sir, yes, sir,’ and he’d hang up the phone and leave the house — and he’d be gone for six months.”
Academia’s daughter Elaine Schaller of the Washington suburb of Bowie, Maryland, recalled: “Dad was very faithful. If he left the house, anything, he would say his routine of prayers. He was a very big devotee of the rosary, and Divine Mercy. And he was the sacristan” at St. Andrew Parish in Cape Coral, Florida, where he lived in retirement.
“He actually went to school in the seminary,” Schaller added. “I think that’s where a lot of his faith came from.”
After his Navy service, Academia worked as a mechanic for the Postal Service in another Washington suburb, Capitol Heights, Maryland. But when he wasn’t working, he’d take the family to the Ice Capades or the Fourth of July fireworks on the National Mall.
“My father was very active. I take a lot of that from him,” Schaller said. “He would work his job, come home, set up his boat and go out to the (Chesapeake) Bay, Patuxent River, go out and catch fish and crabs, bring it back, come home and sleep a little bit and go back to work. He would call friends and share the fish and the crabs.”
Another indication of his active lifestyle: In retirement in Florida, Schaller said, “he would climb fruit trees and share that with his friends. ‘Dad, you’re in your 80s!’ ‘Oh, I’m OK.'”
So much of the time, the story — and the stories — end there. But Academia hadn’t told his family of his military encounters at all.
“He never did. We never knew what he did. I think a lot of stuff that he did was top secret,” Schaller said. “He never told my mom, or anything. We didn’t know.”
That is, until 2016.
Academia wanted to go to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, but he didn’t have a ticket. That didn’t matter. He took a flight there anyway.
So, too, did Kristen Fedewa, a publicist and media consultant. Fedewa had been offered a ticket, and decided at the last minute to accept it. She booked the same flight to Cleveland and, just before boarding, got her seat changed.
As luck would have it, Fedewa ended up sitting next to Academia, fully attired in his Navy uniform.
They struck up a conversation and, by the time the flight had touched down in Cleveland, Fedewa had heard more about Academia’s military exploits in two hours than his family had in over five decades.
Fedewa found a hard-to-get RNC ticket for Academia. It turned out people still like a man in uniform, even — maybe especially — if he’s 5-foot-6, Asian American and pushing 90.
When Academia returned home and started making disclosures to his family, “we were shocked!” Herbine said. “He really didn’t tell us much about his childhood, how he witnessed a lot of the Japanese killing his fellow people.
“He ended up being a guerrilla for the U.S. forces and he was only like 13, 14 years old. But he would spy on the Japanese soldiers that were on the beach, and he would try to give the coordinates of the soldiers. But he never really talked about it until just recently.”
Fedewa got Academia connected to the annual “Bipartisan Annual Tribute to Veterans and Those Who Serve in Congress” on Capitol Hill, and he was showcased for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 gatherings. COVID-19 canceled the 2020 tribute, and Academia felt too sick to attend the 2021 event, held Dec. 22, but had hoped to attend the 2022 affair. He died exactly one week after the tribute.
A funeral Mass was celebrated for Academia Jan. 14 at St. Andrew Church in Cape Coral, followed by burial at Memorial Gardens Cemetery. His wife, Leonida, preceded him in death. Besides Lynnette and Elaine, he is survived by another daughter and a son and 12 grandchildren.