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Chinese American WWII vets were ‘forgotten, ignored and excluded.’ That’s no longer the case

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

Raymond Chan, a World War II veteran who enlisted in the Army Air Corps the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, wore a suit and tie for a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon as he received his Congressional Gold Medal.

He didn’t say a word, only flashed a smile. During the war, Chan, now 97, worked as a radio operator on an aircrew that dropped supplies in combat zones.

The day before Veteran’s Day, Raymond Chan and Hing Lee, 95, became the latest Chinese American WWII veterans to receive the Congressional Gold Medal honoring them for their service nearly 80 years ago.

The medals were awarded under a 2018 law that formally recognized their service. One-quarter of the country’s 78,000 Chinese Americans served in the conflict.

“The recognition of their service has been slow in coming,” retired Maj. Gen. William Chen said. “Chinese World War II veterans were largely forgotten, ignored and excluded.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and subsequent legislation banned Chinese immigration to the United States until 1943. Despite this, Chinese Americans fought on the frontlines in WWII. Their participation helped integrate Chinese-Americans into mainstream American society and break down some of the racial barriers for the generations that followed, historians said.

“World War II changed the lives of all Chinese-Americans,” said Montgomery Hom, a Chinese American historian and filmmaker. “The war was a monumental event that was the impetus that forever changed the Chinese community.”

Eager to serve

Alfred Chan, another 97-year-old World War II Navy veteran, was harvesting pears on his family ranch in Sacramento Delta in California in 1941 when he heard President Franklin Roosevelt announce over the radio that the United States was going to war. He knew he would be called into action.

Japan had already invaded China, so his home country had entered the war as well. “For me to serve, it meant fighting for freedom for both China and America,” Chan said.

Chan worked as a Seabee aboard an aircraft carrier in Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean for two years.

“We zig-zagged across the ocean to hide our destination and avoid submarines,” he said. As the only Chinese American working on the air carrier, Chan worked alongside other Seabees to fortify Midway, building airfields, munition dumps, submarine pens and Quonset huts for storage and soldiers.

He fondly recalls Sept. 2, 1945, the day Japan surrendered and the war ended. “I don’t remember much, but the beer flowed freely,” he said.

The desire to serve wasn’t limited to men.

“I wanted to join the military because I felt, as women, we wanted to do our part,” said Ruth Chan Jang, a 99-year-old Army veteran. Jang first was a clerk before working at a New York Air Force Base, aiding wounded soldiers recover from injuries.

Jang said she enjoyed the camaraderie between her and the servicemen. One of her fondest memories was when she got an opportunity to take a group of recovering soldiers to two Broadway shows.

“And Uncle Sam paid for it,” she said.

Marietta Chong Eng, 98, said she took immense pride in being one of the few Chinese American women to serve. After the war, her military pride stuck with her when she insisted on being married in her military uniform instead of a wedding dress.

Another veteran, Margaret Gee, made history as one of two Chinese American pilots flying in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.

Changing the future

Before the exclusion, Chinese workers joined the rush of migrants to the West Coast after the 1849 Gold Rush. Many worked in gold mines, but others worked on farms and factories. In the 1860s, thousands of Chinese workers were instrumental in building the transcontinental railroad, despite being paid less than American workers.

Economic and cultural tensions rose and an anti-Chinese sentiment developed because they were taking jobs some people believed only Americans should hold.

Chinese Americans were harassed, beaten, and murdered, including the Chinese Massacre of 1871, in which 17 Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles were tortured and murdered; the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885 where white rioters killed 28 Chinese miners and burned 75 of their homes in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and the Hells Canyon Massacre of 1887 where 34 Chinese gold miners were ambushed and murdered in Hells Canyon, Oregon.

As a result of anti-Chinese attitudes, Congress in 1882 passed the first law to ban a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the U.S. The exclusion act was extended several times and kept many Chinese nationals from entering the country and fueled further mistreatment of those already in America.

The racism continued into the 20th century. Alfred Chan remembers attending segregated schools in California before the war because the “Chinese were not allowed to mix with whites.”

A theater in Sacramento once refused to sell him a movie ticket. Another time, he went home hungry when no one at a restaurant would take his order.

“I knew my place,” Chan said.

It would take the devastation at Pearl Harbor to break down some of the social barriers and to ease some of the overt racism. When America entered the Second World War, many Chinese Americans volunteered or were drafted.

Chinese Americans served in all branches of the military, including combat infantry, medical units, fighter and bomber squadrons, engineering, intelligence and support units, said K. Scott Wong, an Asian American history professor at Williams College.

When Chinese American veterans returned home, they capitalized on the benefits they earned. The G.I. Bill allowed them to attend college or buy a home. Hing Lee finished his high school education before enrolling and graduating from Cornell University.

“World War II changed the lives of all Chinese Americans,” Hom said. “The returning veterans got their benefits. They went to school, they started businesses, they became entrepreneurs, they became professionals.”

The U.S. repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and its extensions in 1943, which permitted Chinese people already living in the country to become citizens and allowed Chinese immigrants back into the country. The War Brides Act allowed Chinese Americans to bring their wives to America. The World War II veterans paved the way for future generations.

“Now as I look at the contributions of Chinese American World War II veterans, aside what they did in the war, what they did as well after the war was open up opportunities for all Chinese Americans to be a part of mainstream America, and through their hard work and sacrifices, they enabled the following generations like us to live the American dream,” Chen said at Wednesday’s ceremony.


(c) 2021 USA Today

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