Chinese American veterans of WWII

A generation of service members received a Congressional gold medal this week in Washington, D.C.

A wreath laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall honored Chinese American soldiers in the Second World War, September 29, 2021. Photo by the author.

This week my wife and I participated in the national Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony for Chinese American veterans of World War II. The ceremony in Washington, D.C., capped a five-year lobbying effort by Chinese Americans to recognize a generation of service members with a Congressional gold medal. Formally titled the Chinese American WWII Veterans Recognition Project, the effort was spearheaded by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, an organization that dates back to 1895 when it was founded in San Francisco as the Native Sons of the Golden State.

The breakthrough came in 2018 when the Senate and House both passed the Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act, introduced by Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Signed into Public Law 115-337 by President Trump, the act instructed the U.S. Mint to strike a commemorative gold medal in honor of the approximately 20,000 Chinese Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Second World War, with the original medal donated to the Smithsonian and duplicates awarded to individual service members and their families. There’s a short video about the project on YouTube.

Chinese Americans served in the U.S. military during the Civil War and WWI. But WWII holds a unique place in the American national story, forged in public memory as the great crucible of American patriotism. For Chinese Americans, as well as other minority groups, participation in the Second World War demonstrated that they, too, played an active role in the triumph of American democracy and the ascendance of the American Century. While military participation in other conflicts gets recognized as honorable and patriotic, participation in WWII has become elevated in American hagiography to a kind of hallowed status, continuing to captivate American hearts and imaginations.

For Americans of Chinese heritage, though, there are unique specters of history that loom over such a ceremony. The first is the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882 and not repealed until 1943. The Act remains the only federal policy to bar an entire ethnic group from entering the United States, a blatantly race-based legislation premised on a false belief that Chinese nationals could not assimilate into American society. Because of such policies, only 78,000 Chinese Americans lived in the continental U.S. at the outbreak of WWII. Approximately 40 percent of the Chinese Americans who served in the U.S. military were not U.S. citizens due to laws that denied citizenship to persons of Chinese descent.

Such ideologies continue to persist, even as the Exclusion Act has been repealed for nearly three-quarters of a century. Today, Americans who are ethnically Chinese continue to fight against stigmas of disloyalty. That discrimination has not only contributed to more than 6,600 hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic, but also abuse and harassment by security officials within the U.S. government. The Department of Commerce was recently revealed to have had a special unit within the agency that repeatedly violated federal law by targeting and harassing its Asian employees.

Those specters of xenophobia, as well as the geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, were principal motivations for the gold medal project, as articulated by project director Ed Gor. Gor is a Texas businessman whose father immigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1930s, establishing a grocery business. Gor not only wanted to recognize veterans such as his father at the national level, but also make the argument that Chinese Americans have been a crucial part of the fabric of the United States, equal contributors to the national story. That extends beyond the Congressional gold medal ceremony; the project aspires to have the stories of Chinese American veterans integrated into school curricula, passed down to current and future generations.

Joe M.F. Gor, father of project director Ed Gor, was born in Hoiping, China, immigrated to Waco, Texas, and served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Image courtesy the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

On a podcast in 2018, Gor spoke of immigrants such as his father who faced discrimination yet persevered in spite of it. Such is a central tension in the historiography of Asian Americans: a tug-of-war between what people did versus what was done to them. For many students of American history, Asian American immigration is significant only for what was done to immigrants: the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment. Lesser known and lesser studied is what those immigrants did. In part, this is because records of those accomplishments are in languages that most Americans do not read or understand. In part, it is because those stories have largely been confined to families and local communities, rarely celebrated on the national stage.

Hundreds of those families—and even a few veterans, all more than 90-years-old—traveled to D.C. this week, and my wife and I had the privilege to meet several of them. We met a young man from New York City whose grandfather served in the European Theatre of Operations and whose grand-uncles served in the Pacific. Though his family had been founding members of the American Legion in New York’s Chinatown, none had spoken about their military service. The young man was piecing together their military careers through old photographs found in a closet after his grandfather passed. Another man I met was attempting to recreate his father’s past, yet the official records had been destroyed in the infamous 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center. A theme throughout the week was how little the veterans had shared about their experiences, and how much the children and grandchildren yearned to know more.

Some stories of Chinese American veterans are preserved in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, a selection of which I’ve included further down in this newsletter. Others are being documented through the Congressional gold medal ceremonies. Yet, such efforts run the risk of reducing all Chinese Americans to the archetype of the Chinese immigrant who in the face of discrimination, kept a straight face, worked hard, and persevered. To truly listen to the stories is to find much more nuance than such a generalization provides. Some Chinese Americans had already been in the United States for three generations by the time World War II began; they were not immigrants, spoke English fluently and already had thriving careers and families. There were also tensions between American-born Chinese and new arrivals; the Native Sons of the Golden State began as an organization that only welcomed U.S.-born members, purposefully excluding new immigrants. As scholar Mae M. Ngai has written, the Asian immigration experience has both exclusion and inclusion entwined within it. The more one digs into the archives, the less tidy a singular narrative becomes.

Yet in national politics, as well as national origin stories, crafting tidy, singular narratives is a central component—as are highly symbolic gestures meant to resonate with particular constituents and media. Ed Gor grew up watching WWII movies, hoping to see someone on the bomber crew who looked like his father. He never did, and so he and others lobbied for five years to become more prominent characters in the national story, not solely confined to family histories. “We have contributions to be known,” Gor said on the 2018 podcast. “We are part of the story of where America is today.”

The minting of a Congressional gold medal is an important gesture towards that notion. It is necessary because of broader, more pernicious policies and ideologies that have pushed against inclusion for more than 100 years. History, then, becomes simultaneously a burden and a cudgel—a weight that must be continually carried by those who cannot escape it, as well as a sharp tool to be wielded in the campaign for equal treatment and equal rights.

Have a good week.

Below: The official gold medal minted in recognition of Chinese American veterans of WWII, now preserved in the Smithsonian. The medal depicts six men and one woman, representing the U.S. Army, U.S. Naval Reserve, U.S. Army Air Forces, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S Merchant Marines, U.S. Coast Guard, and a U.S. military nurse.

The official Congressional Gold Medal minted in recognition of Chinese American veterans of WWII. The medal was displayed at a private ceremony for veterans and their families on September 30, 2021, then transferred to the Smithsonian. Photo by the author.

Chinese American WWII veteran stories in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project include:

Ark G. Chin – A student at the University of Washington when the war began, Ark Chin served in the infantry in the Europe Theater of Operations. He was interviewed by two students as part of an intergenerational learning project. He suffered two shrapnel wounds during his combat tour: one in his arm, and one in his butt.

Hing Yee Chin – Born in Sacramento, Hing Yee Chin served with the Third Infantry in North Africa and Italy and was wounded in action, receiving a Purple Heart.

Ben E. Fong – Interviewed by two students at the Chinese Historical Society of Los Angeles in 2009, Fong served as a captain in a counterintelligence unit in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Fong was born in Sacramento, went to high school in Los Angeles, and was attending UCLA when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Fong attempted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps and was told by the recruiter that only White Americans could join. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942.

William Fong – William Fong joined the U.S. Navy at age 18, went to radio/electronics school and served on a submarine until 1946. He operated surface radar on battle stations and operated and repaired sonar equipment.

Henry T. Woo – Interviewed in Portland, Oregon, in 2005, Woo began his service in flight school and later served in the infantry on Okinawa.

Jack L. Wong – Wong was born in Hong Kong in 1921 and immigrated to Cairo, Illinois in 1937. He was drafted into the U.S. Army after being in the U.S. for fewer than five years. He participated in the invasion of Normandy and lived his adult life in Greenville, Mississippi.

Albert J. Fong – Interviewed by Veterans History Project staff, Fong had just graduated from high school when he enlisted in military service at the onset of World War II. He served in an all-Chinese American unit, the 407th Air Service Squadron, part of the 14th Air Force in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater.

Allen Gee – Interviewed during the National World War II Reunion on the Mall in 2004, Gee served as a medic in the Aleutian Islands from 1942 - 1945.

Recapping “Unfinished Live” in New York City

History Club held a special event last week live from New York City as part of Unfinished Live, a technology and media conference devoted to decentralization.

Our conversation was titled “Decentralizing the National Narrative,” and though it was not recorded, we touched on a number of important questions:

  • Has the American national narrative ever been centralized? I made an argument that the American story has long been “decentralized” — and, in fact, that decentralization is the norm as opposed to the exception. If one wants to make the argument that a centralized narrative has, at one point, existed, it would perhaps be concomitant with the formalization of the history profession, the professionalization of journalism, the increased size and power of the federal bureaucracy, and the rise of Hollywood, dynamics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that have each become unwound in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • Roger Huang, founder of the Tianxia Club on Clubhouse, joined us to speak briefly about efforts by the Communist Party of China (CCP) to centralize the national narrative in the People’s Republic of China. In particular, he cited the example of how the CCP has appropriated Confucius into official histories despite the contradictions between his teachings and the ideology of the Communist Party.

  • This segued into how national narratives depend upon the nation-state as an organizing principle, a relatively new innovation by historical standards. History has often been a powerful tool in the nationalist tool belt, as it offers a shared heritage and language that can unite disparate communities across wide geographies, as well as exclude and scapegoat other communities perceived as outsiders.

  • Will decentralization in our current era lead to more pernicious ideas becoming part of the national narrative? Removing power from gate-keepers and centralized authorities creates opportunities for fringe groups and extremists to shape the story of a nation to achieve their political ends.

  • Who is the centralizing authority that power is being taken from? Is it government? Academia? The intellectual classes? White America? The act of decentralization implies a redistribution of power and agency from a central authority to a wider group of stakeholders. Whose agency is being stripped and to whom is agency being conferred?

Many thanks to the hundreds of people who joined the conversation on Clubhouse and the dozens who attended in person, some of whom are pictured below.

It was a thought-provoking and enriching two weeks, juxtaposing decentralizing the national narrative with the celebration of Chinese American veterans in the Second World War. Such events remind me of why I chose to become a public historian, and the importance of this work. Thanks to you all for making it possible.

More to come...

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