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95-year-old Chinese American awarded Congressional Gold Medal for WWII service

Congressional Gold Medal. (Sgt. Timothy Smithers/US. Marine Corps)

A Chinese American World War II veteran from Sacramento was honored with a Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday.

Kenneth Mar was a high school sophomore when he was drafted into World War II and sent from Sacramento to join the 2nd Infantry Division in Brest, France. The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the highest honors the United States Congress can award civilians, and often goes to military veterans.

Mar, 95, was one of 10 people during the online ceremony to receive a special Congressional Gold Medal for Chinese American WWII veterans, made possible by a 2018 Congressional Act to recognize Chinese American contributions to the war. According to Ed Gor, national director of the Chinese Americans WWII Veterans Recognition Project, there are 18 Chinese American WWII veterans still living in the Sacramento area.

During an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Mar hefted the heavy gold disc in his hands, carved with the faces of Chinese American soldiers.

“I’m just honored,” Mar said. “I didn’t expect it. They still remember me, (after) all these years.”

The virtual ceremony, originally scheduled to take place at Emancipation Hall in Washington, D.C., featured performances from the U.S. Army Band and remarks from government leaders such as U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance. Of the more than 15,000 Chinese Americans who fought in WWII, Pelosi said, less than 300 are alive.

“The men and women we honor today weren’t always considered equals, weren’t in some cases even U.S. citizens,” said U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown during the ceremony. “But nonetheless, they committed themselves … and distinguished themselves in their service during World War II.”

From Sacramento teen to World War II soldier

Mar was born in China in 1925, moving to Sacramento as a teenager. He still remembers where he was the day of the Pearl Harbor attack — in a movie theater on K Street, watching “Gone with the Wind,” when suddenly the film was interrupted by a theater worker announcing that Japanese bombs had struck.

Soon after came the draft notice, he said, signed off by President Franklin Roosevelt. There were very few Chinese Americans in the infantry, he said — he was the only one in his entire company.

He remembers how narrowly death missed him on the first day he saw action in France. It was in a hill camp overlooking Brest in 1944, and he was down in his freshly dug foxhole to make sure it was big enough to fit him.

Suddenly, his company was showered by German mortar shells. His friend had been standing right next to him, halfway into his own foxhole. Mar watched shrapnel rip through his friend’s back, and his friend died the next day.

“It hit almost into my foxhole, but not quite,” Mar said. “You could hear the sound of the shrapnel versus the shells … That’s the most narrow escape.”

Mar went on to have a few more strokes of luck and narrow misses, but he was never injured during the war. He spent 10 months in Europe from 1944 to 1945, spending the last three months as a prisoner of war in a German camp. He missed the Battle of the Bulge — one that saw many of his friends captured or killed — by two days while recovering from a bad cold with a fever.

Mar recalled some of his friends in the company would tremble with fear on the battlefield. He was also afraid, but he charts his relative ambivalence to the inexperience of his youth.

“I was scared, but not to the point of shaking,” Mar said. “I was only 18 years old … When you’re 18 years old, you’re not afraid of much.”

He was also motivated by his desire to return to his mother in China, who he hadn’t seen or communicated with since he’d left as a teenager.

After the war ended in 1945, Mar went to China to see his family for a year before returning to Sacramento, working in government service for 33 years before retiring. He still lives in the same Arden Arcade house where he raised his family with his wife, May Mar, 94.

When asked what the medal meant to him, Mar was matter-of-fact. He doesn’t see himself as the most deserving, or a soldier who took particular risks. Rather, he was the ultimate soldier, one who carried out his duty faithfully and to the fullest.

“Some people are more brave than me, and they should be getting … more recognition,” Mar said. “I just did my job. I just did what I was told. That’s about it.

“At the end, I kind of feel I am lucky, by all means.”

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