We Must Preserve the Untold Stories of BIPOC WWII Veterans
Stephen Ambrose, a historian, said in Citizen Soldiers, his book about World War II (WWII), “The world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.”
Both of my husband’s Chinese American grandfathers served in the U.S. military during WWII. The photo above shows his paternal grandfather and seven grand-uncles (three brothers, a cousin, and three brothers-in-law). Thankfully, the eight of them (as well as his maternal grandfather) all returned home safely.
I never realized there were so many BIPOC Americans who served in the military in WWII. When I think about what I learned in high school about WWII, I recall the horrors of Nazi Germany and their brutal genocide of Jews (and only later learned of their targeted murders of other minority groups like the Romani). But that wasn’t enough for the U.S. to join the Allies.
It was the bombing of Pearl Harbor that finally brought the U.S. into the war. Once America joined the Allies, we started sending our men overseas to fight Japanese forces throughout the Pacific and German forces in Europe.
I knew about Rosie the Riveter and how many women entered the paid workforce in order to keep the factories going while the men were fighting. But I don’t recall learning much (if anything?) about the contributions of the many communities of color who served in the U.S. military.
It wasn’t until college that I started to learn a bit more about who else served in the U.S. military during WWII.
Japanese Americans in the U.S. Military
As an Asian American Studies minor in college, I learned about and admired the 442nd, the U.S. Army’s infantry regiment composed entirely of Japanese American men born in the U.S. Most of them were American-born children of immigrants, referred to in Japanese as the Nisei, or second-generation.
These volunteers often had parents, siblings, and friends imprisoned in American “internment” camps, yet they still stepped forward to put their lives on the line for the same people that imprisoned their loved ones.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the US Military. In total, about 18,000 men served, ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented seven Presidential Unit Citations. — Go For Broke National Education Center website
While 120,000 Japanese American men, women, and children were imprisoned in U.S. internment camps, 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. military. There were also 6,000 Japanese Americans who served as interpreters and translators. Learn more here at the National World War II Museum’s website.
Black Americans in the U.S. Military
I think I was in college before I learned of how Black Americans who volunteered to serve were initially only allowed to support white units in non-combat roles (like transporting supplies).
Black Americans were later allowed to become soldiers, pilots, and medics when extensive troop losses forced the U.S. military to create segregated units. The heroic Tuskegee Airmen were Black pilots who escorted American bombers in raids over Europe and North Africa. They courageously demonstrated their valor despite the extreme racism they still faced at home.
Our Black WWII veterans returned home to a deeply segregated and racist country. “Still, African American MPs stationed in the South often could not enter restaurants where their German prisoners were being served a meal.” Learn more here on the National World War II Museum’s website.
Native Americans in the U.S. Military
I also learned about Native American codetalkers during WWII but only because I saw Nicholas Cage’s 2002 movie, Windtalkers. The movie tells the story of how members of the Navajo Nation used their language to pass covert messages to American military officers, successfully evading Japanese attempts to break the code.
Sadly, the plot is centered on the white soldier ordered to protect the code above all else, with orders to kill the code talkers to avoid their capture by the Japanese. Still, the movie did raise awareness about the important role that Native American codetalkers played during WWII. Read more on the National Word War II Museum’s website here.
Filipino Americans in the U.S. Military
I also recall learning in college about how Filipinos, as American nationals at the time, were asked to serve in the U.S. military and promised the same veterans’ benefits as Americans. Yet then these veterans were betrayed and denied benefits, despite their valiant service.
It was not until 2009 that the U.S. government provided a lump-sum payment to those who met the requirements.
Under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, Filipinos fought alongside American soldiers in the Battle of Bataan. After the defeat of the Allied forces and the escape of MacArthur to Australia, Filipinos were among the estimated 10,000 soldiers who died during the Japan-led, 60-mile “Death March” across the Bataan Peninsula. — History.com
Chinese Americans in the U.S. Military
I only learned about Chinese Americans who served in WWII after I started dating my now-husband and heard of his extended family’s service. His paternal grandfather was one of four sons and all four brothers served in WWII. Their 3 brothers-in-law also served, as well as a cousin. My husband’s maternal grandfather also served, joining the Army Air Force.
I didn’t even realize that there were many Chinese Americans who were 3rd or 4th generation Americans. Every Chinese American I met in high school and in college was either an immigrant or a child of immigrants. I had wrongly assumed the Chinese Exclusion Act and other racist laws barring immigration from China before 1965 had caused all the Chinese bachelors who immigrated here to build the railroads and seek their fortune to die childless. My husband is the first fifth-generation Chinese American I ever met.
According to the Chinese American Veterans Recognition Project, as many as 20,000 Chinese Americans served in the U.S. military in every theatre of WWII. This was 20% of the Chinese American population.
Moreover, 40% of those volunteers were not U.S. citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act was still in place. The law severely restricted immigrants from China (allowing only those who were wealthy merchants, teachers, students, or the children of U.S. citizens to immigrate here). It also forbade any Chinese American who wasn’t born here from seeking citizenship. So despite that bar, as well as the prevalent xenophobia and discrimination at that time, Chinese Americans still stepped up to serve.
I never knew that so many Chinese Americans had served. The photo above is a powerful reminder to me that Chinese Americans have been part of this country for much longer than I had ever realized.
My husband’s grandfather (whom we called Papa) was born in San Francisco as the second son and fourth child of an American-born Chinese woman and a Chinese man who immigrated here as a student. Papa graduated from UC Berkeley in 1940 and then volunteered to join the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant in 1943. Papa told my husband many stories and also shared some stories with me after I met him in 1998.
The Army sent Papa to Yale University to work on his Mandarin language skills and study military intelligence. Like many Chinese Americans in the U.S. before immigration laws were changed in 1965, he only spoke Cantonese since most Chinese Americans at the time came from the Canton region of China.
After his time at Yale, Papa was sent to inland China to train a specialized combat team of Chinese troops to coordinate with the projected invasion landing of Allied Troops along China’s coast. Even though he spoke Mandarin, he had an official translator with him. This way, Papa could listen to what the Chinese officers were saying when they assumed he didn’t understand them.
Chinese American volunteers were integrated into white units, unlike volunteers of other racial backgrounds. I remember Papa telling me that his fellow soldiers, all white, nicknamed him Spud (a term usually used for a potato). I always wondered if it was in reference to Yukon Gold potatoes because Papa was shorter than them (standing at 5'1" or so and somewhere around 100 pounds of lean muscle) and yellow-skinned.
Dealing with Anti-Japanese Hate
One time Papa went out after sunset and was warned, “You could have been shot because you look like a [Japanese.]” The person used the shortened form of Japanese, which is a slur so I won’t type it here.
I assume anti-Japanese sentiment affected the Chinese American soldiers (since so few can tell us apart). Yet they likely received only a fraction of the hatred our Japanese American soldiers must have faced.
See this website for a collection of racist WWII propaganda trying to distinguish Chinese allies from the Japanese enemy. I still cringe when I see historical photos of Chinese Americans wearing buttons that said “I am Chinese” to try and prevent racists from attacking them. It feels to me, from the comfort of my home in 2021, like their eagerness to avoid harm made them complicit in what happened to so many Japanese American families.
Yet I also recognize that there were very few Chinese Americans in the U.S. in the 1940s, with limited political and economic power to protect themselves, let alone speak out on behalf of Japanese Americans being rounded up and imprisoned in “internment” camps.
Stories from the Battlefields
Papa shared that one of his most frightening experiences was when he was sent to China and had to take a plane over the Hump. This is the nickname given to the air route over the Himalayan mountains into China. There were no parachutes on board because he was told that if the plane went down, parachutes would be useless.
The route was particularly perilous due to terrible weather, severe turbulence, extreme altitude (given the Himalayan mountains), and difficult conditions (e.g., a shortage of mechanics and parts to service the planes). See this article to read more about the challenges of flying the Hump.
Papa wasn’t a religious man, but he prayed he would make it so he could eventually go home to his wife. We are so thankful he survived the flight and returned to California safely later.
Papa’s eldest brother, Eddie, served with the U.S. Army’s 41st Infantry Division. He earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Silver Star for bravery and valor during combat in the South Pacific. Family records show he earned a battlefield commission and several promotions that ultimately led to his commanding 3,600 men.
Those same records state that General Douglas MacArthur gave his own wings to Grand-Uncle Eddie so that could display his proper rank.
Grand-Uncle Eddie had trained as a photographer before the War, working with eight different photographers who mentored him, including Ansel Adams.
He used his skills to rig a camera with a compass and photographed the entrenched Japanese forces using nighttime artillery from a mountain lair. Once he developed the photos, he was able to see that the Japanese hid their guns behind camouflage during the day. This led to a demolition team destroying the Japanese guns.
Grand-Uncle Eddie also arranged for their youngest brother, Grand-Uncle David, to come and work under him in the South Pacific.
Papa’s brother-in-law, Grand-Uncle Larry, was a recon scout in the 782nd Tank Battalion in Europe with General George S. Patton’s Third Army.
His other brother-in-law, Grand-Uncle George was a sergeant who was stationed in New Guinea and largely worked in the office due to his good writing skills.
I’m not sure what role his third brother-in-law had, as he and Papa’s sister divorced and the family records don’t include much mention of him.
Congressional Recognition of WWII Heroes
On December 20, 2018, the President signed the Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act. That year, 2018, was also the 75th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, so it was particularly poignant. The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded in recognition of distinguished achievements and contributions.
This medal was also previously awarded to the Navajo Code Talkers in 2000; the Tuskegee Airmen in 2006; Native American Code Talkers (presumably to honor those from other tribal nations beyond the Navajo, who were recognized in 2000) in 2008; Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of WWII in 2009; the Japanese American members of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service, United States Army, in 2010; the Montford Point Marines (a group of about 20,000 Black Americans who were finally allowed to serve in the Marine Corps from 1941–1949) in 2011; and Filipino veterans in 2016. See the Congressional website for a full list.
Compare them with the white officers who were honored decades earlier for their service during WWII, including George Catlett Marshall, General of the Army, and Fleet Admiral Ernest Joseph King, who both received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1946; General Douglas MacArthur, who received his Congressional Gold Medal in 1962; and Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, who received his in 1978.
Sadly, none of the nine grandfathers and grand-uncles lived to receive replica copies of their medals in person. Still, I hope this effort means that Chinese Americans who served during WWII will have more visibility in future history books.
For more information, see the Chinese American World War II Veterans Recognition Project.