By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
This Memorial Day will mark the first time Chinese American World War II veterans and their families will be able to celebrate the holiday with a Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded to them.
At a ceremony on Nov. 13, 2021 in Meydenbauer Center, sponsored by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (C.A.C.A.) Seattle and the Seattle Regional Chinese American World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Committee, the highest civilian honor was presented to three of the five living veterans and the families of the deceased Chinese American World War II veterans from this region.
“It is an honor that was long, long overdue,” said Congressman Adam Smith, at the ceremony.
The in-person ceremony was preceded by a virtual ceremony on March 13, during which former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a proclamation naming that day in honor of the veterans.
Following that lead, other officials have proclaimed March 13, 2021 and Nov. 13, 2021 as Chinese American World War II Veterans Day.
Serving despite racism
Officials paid respects to the sacrifices made by all Chinese American World War II veterans who served proudly despite the racism of the time.
“Why is it that they fought on behalf of this country, a country that excluded immigration of people of Chinese ancestry, a country that banned ownership of land by Asian Americans, why did they fight for a country that discriminated against them?” said former Governor Gary Locke, at the March 13 virtual ceremony.
“Because they believed in the essential goodness of and destiny of America that, despite our flaws, had great promise.”
It was not until 1965 that the full force of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—barring immigration of people of Chinese ancestry—was repealed, he noted.
“Your impact has been felt for generations and will continue to inspire for generations as long as we keep telling the story of your heroism,” said Dow Constantine, King County Executive at the Nov. 13 ceremony.
Among veterans receiving medals were two Seattle men who in different ways played roles to the success of the sustained war effort.
Gene Moy, 105, the oldest living Chinese American World War II veteran in the United States, immigrated to the U.S. from China when he was 13 and grew up cooking in a Chinese restaurant. At Fort Lewis, he cooked for troops during basic training and then overseas.
Upon receiving his medal, he said, smiling, “Wow, 75 years! How lucky I am to be able to live long enough to receive this medal!”
He added, “And I want to thank everybody that’s been involved.”
Lip Mar, 95, who performed nursing and other duties, was visibly moved upon receiving the medal. “Very nice,” he said softly. “There it is.”
Chinese Americans in WWII
Nearly 20,000 Chinese Americans fought in World War II, in every branch and all theaters of the war. And yet 40% of those were not eligible to become citizens.
One out of every five Chinese Americans living in the U.S. at the time served in that war.
They earned Combat Infantry Badges, Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, Distinguished Service Crosses, Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military award.
“Stand tall, Chinese American WWII veterans, because you have joined the ranks of other distinguished recipients of the highest award that Congress can bestow on behalf of the American people,” wrote Major General Robert G.F. Lee, the design chair of the Congressional Gold Medal, in a letter included in the commemorative book.
The Recognition Project
Ed Gor, past national president of C.A.C.A., led the “Chinese American WWII Veterans Recognition Project” that called upon the organization’s 20 lodges in 12 states to fundraise and lobby Congress to pass the Congressional Gold Medal bill.
Support also came from the American Legion and the families of the veterans.
Along the way, C.A.C.A. garnered 30 endorsements from veterans and military organizations, Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations, as well as state and municipal organizations.
Years of efforts culminated in the signing of Public Law 115-337 on Dec. 20, 2018. During a national virtual ceremony on Dec. 9, 2020, Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal collectively to the Chinese American World War II veterans in recognition of their service.
Regional lodges of CACA later held their own ceremonies for the veterans.
Findings of the Act
The Congressional Gold Medal Act enshrines key findings about their service.
Chinese Americans served in combat and support roles “in all four theaters of war,” including in the European and African theaters, in the Normandy D-Day invasion, and in liberating Western and Central Europe. They served in infantry units and combat ships in the Battle of the Atlantic, including aboard Merchant Marine convoys vulnerable to submarine and air attacks.
In the Pacific, they also served in air roles, including bomber missions. The first all Chinese American group was the 14th Air Service Group in the China-Burma-India Theater, against the Japanese military in China. The Chinese American soldiers were “widely acknowledged for their role in the 14th Air Force, widely known as the “Flying Tigers.”
Many Chinese American women served in the Women’s Army Corps, the Air Force, and the Naval Reserve Women’s Reserve, and some became pilots, air traffic controllers, flight trainers, weather forecasters, occupational therapists, and nurses.
“Chinese Americans, although small in numbers, made important contributions to the World War II effort,” the act states.
The Congressional Gold Medal
The medal itself was designed to enshrine the Chinese American World War II veterans’ contributions.
The front of the medal features seven figures, to represent the six branches of the armed forces, in which Chinese Americans served, along with a figure of a Chinese American nurse, to represent the Chinese American women who served, according to Brigadier General John Y.H. Ma, U.S. Army (retired), who described the medal during the Nov. 13 ceremony.
On the back of the coin is the “equipment of the war,” he said. This includes P40 fighter planes used over the China-Burma-India Theater, an M4 Sherman tank, used in Europe and the Pacific, and the Battleship Missouri, symbol of the Navy, and also site of the signing of the treaty to end the war.
The Congressional Gold Medal is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. A bronze replica of the medal has been or will be gifted to each registered Chinese American World War II veteran, courtesy of C.A.C.A. National.
Cathy Lee, C.A.C.A. Seattle president, besides assisting in lobbying on a national level, presided over the formation of the committee that organized the Seattle regional efforts.
“Each member took on jobs, they were all so passionate,” she said.
Members of the Seattle Regional Chinese American WWII Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Committee include: from C.A.C.A. Seattle, Mimi Gan, Cathy Lee, Jerry Lee, JoAnne Lee, Cheryll Leo-Gwin, Bettie Luke, and Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman; from the American Legion Cathay Post #186, Terry Nicholas and Kent Wong; from the Wing Luke Museum, Vivian Chan; from Catalyst Presents, Michelle Locke; and community members Dorrienne Chinn, Sue Mar, June Wong, and Tina Young.
Dorrienne Chinn was the first who contacted C.A.C.A. Seattle about honoring the Chinese American veterans and organizing a Congressional Gold Medal event. Chinn said she was inspired by her father, James M. Mar, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, who had devoted his life to efforts to help the community.
“We grew up knowing that the years my father was in the Army were formative and impacted his life greatly,” said Chinn.
The Seattle Regional Chinese American World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Committee worked practically non-stop for four years to honor and share the legacy of the Chinese American World War II veterans. Fathers, family members, and friends of the committee members were among the 20,000 who served during World War II.
Committee members contacted and helped veterans and their families to register for the Congressional Gold Medal. They volunteered their time and skills and raised almost $40,000 that included $10,000 from Cathay Post #186 for the recognition project.
The funding of $30,000 produced two events: the virtual event on March 13, 2021, honoring the Seattle region living veterans, and the Nov. 13, 2021 event at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, honoring Washington state’s living and deceased veterans. With support from C.A.C.A. National, the funding included the $48 cost per bronze medal replica as a gift presented to each veteran.
Spearheaded by Jerry Lee, almost $10,000 was raised for the printing of the commemorative book, designed by Kelly Ou, featuring a page for each of the nearly 200 regional Chinese American World War II veterans. Committee members helped the veterans and family members to share their stories, which culminated in the publication of “Chinese American World War II Congressional Gold Medal Recipients of Washington State,” a gift to each veteran’s family from the book’s sponsors.
Looking out from the pages are men and women from eight decades ago in uniforms, bomber jackets, sailor suits and hats, and in various locales around the world.
“Working on the book was a way to honor my father,” said Tina Young, whose father was a veteran. “For the children, nieces and nephews, cousins, widows, and family members, the awarding of the medals made them talk with each other about where they had come from and deepen their sense of self,” said Young. “And the commemorative book has created a very strong community between those on the committee that worked on it.”
“For members of the Seattle Regional Committee, working on the recognition project has been an honor to share and celebrate the legacy of our heroes,” said the committee in a statement.
Cathay Post #186
Committee members Terry Nicholas and Kent Wong with Cathay Post #186 said Cathay Post #186 holds the distinction of being founded by Chinese American veterans in Seattle following the end of World War II. The post is part of the American Legion, our nation’s largest wartime veterans’ service organization. Today, Cathay Post #186 has a diverse membership and is open to all veterans.
Since 1945, Cathay Post #186 has a legacy of patriotism and service to the community, such as sponsoring spaghetti feeds to raise funds for scholarships, working closely with the Nisei Veterans Committee, participating in the annual Chinatown-International District Seafair Parade, and hosting the annual Memorial Day Ceremony, which is on Monday, May 30 this year at 4 p.m. at Hing Hay Park.
More than 20 organizations will be participating in the ceremony and presenting memorial flowers.
The stories go on
In her closing remarks at the Nov. 13 Seattle Regional Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony, Cathy Lee said to the more than 400 attendees, “We are lucky to have been a part of this project to recognize and celebrate our Chinese American WWII veterans. We have been inspired by every story we heard and every person we met along the way. It has been an unforgettable experience.”
After the event, one participant emailed Lee that he had “tried to sing along” with “America the Beautiful,” the closing song, “but halfway through, I started to cry.”
Another praised the committee for making it possible for her to remember her deceased father.
“I will always remember walking on the stage, holding my dad’s photo, and receiving the medal from the Major General,” she wrote. “What an honor.”
To watch videos of the Seattle Regional Congressional Gold Medal Ceremonies: the March 13, 2021 Virtual Ceremony and the November 13, 2021 in-person ceremony at Meydenbauer Center, go to cacaseattle.org/index.html.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.
Members of the Seattle Regional Chinese American World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Committee contributed to this article.