By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The oldest Asian American civil rights organization in the country is spearheading an effort to award Chinese American World War II veterans and their families Congressional Gold Medals. It is a way to honor their devotion to a country that, at the time, discriminated against them and other Asian Americans.
The awarding of the medals, which required intense lobbying of Congress and which will take place in spring of next year, also comes at a time when many veterans in general are discouraged with their healthcare.
“When people get excited about the little things, they have the confidence to take on greater things,” said Ed Gor, former president of Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA), which was established in 1895.
Still, enabling Chinese American veterans to receive Congressional Gold Medals is hardly a small matter.
While other Asian Pacific Islander groups have lobbied for and received medals, it took Gor years of keen observation, investigation, and lobbying to make it happen.
As president of CACA, from 2013 to 2017, he found that many Chinese American World War II veterans paid their dues, but did not come to meetings.
His own father was a World War II veteran, maintaining engines for P-40 airplanes used by the Flying Tigers that helped protect China, and he was curious.
He found that many aging veterans had joined CACA in the first place because they had been excluded at the time from joining the American Legion due to their race. Now even at their advanced age, they still worked long hours, 12 to 14 hours a day, as small business owners or grocers, and couldn’t come to meetings.
And yet during World War II, many of the veterans had shown unwavering devotion despite outright discrimination.
At the time, the United States had not yet lifted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred many Chinese from becoming citizens.
In the United States, on the eve of the war, there were 100,000 Chinese Americans in the country. Out of those, nearly 20 percent, or 18,000, served in the military. And of those that served, 40 percent were not even citizens.
As president, Gor visited nearly every CACA lodge and chapter around the nation to muster support for the project.
“We had people making phone calls, writing letters to congress,” he said.
The turning point came when he enlisted several Chinese American generals who walked through the halls of Congress with him and other CACA activists, making both planned and surprise visits to legislators to push the bill that would grant the medals.
“These young staff members really perked up when these generals came in,” he said.
The generals also helped artists design the picture that will be emblazoned on the medals.
The ceremony to award the medals, which will take place in Washington D.C. followed by a smaller one in Seattle for those too frail to make the trip, is also an acknowledgment at long last that the Chinese American veterans are deserving of equal honor.
“It is more symbolic than anything else,” he said. “But it is a recognition by the U.S. that they dutifully and honorably served alongside everyone else, and this is lost among a lot of people who didn’t know the Chinese served.”
Through its campaign, and with the help of the media, over 100 veterans or their family members have registered in Seattle, said Cathy Lee, president of the Seattle chapter of CACA. Two or three will make the trip to the capital for the national ceremony.
CACA has already raised $50,000 towards its goal of half a million to cover all costs, including purchasing a medal for each veteran — 3,000 in all — paying for travel and a color guard.
Although one national organization has agreed to pay for the first 1,000 medals, raising the rest is still a challenge.
“It will not be easy,” said Gor.
Raising awareness for all veterans
Through their work, Gor also hopes to raise awareness about other issues facing veterans, such as healthcare coverage.
In recent years, veterans have been committing suicide at a rate one and a half more times the national average, according to a recent article by the New York Times. A spate of suicides has taken place in parking lots outside of the Department of Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals.
At the most recent CACA national convention, Gor invited members of the VA to brief members about how to navigate the system, oftentimes a cumbersome and byzantine process.
“We want to raise awareness and provide encouragement through this process,” he said.
But the challenges are numerous. The VA hospital system has suffered from computer and staffing problems, and is now facing possible privatization under the Trump administration.
Major Weldon Lee, who assisted Japanese American veterans to get a high-ranking speaker for their ceremony to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, said he would be joining forces with CACA.
Families or veterans seeking more information can visit caww2.org or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.