A Little Too Late: Some Chinese American Vets to Never Receive WWII Gold Medal

by Chunxiang Jin. To read the original article in Chinese, please visit the World Journal website.

Corky Lee (second from left) was showing his photo of Peter Woo (right) at an event at Post 1291.

Peter Woo would never get the chance to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for his indelible service during World War II.

He died unexpectedly only six days before President Trump signed the Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act into law on Dec. 20, 2018. Woo, along with many other Chinese American veterans of World War II, have passed away in the past few years. Now there are less than 100 veterans who might be able to receive this recognition for their service.

Flying Tiger Squadron

Woo was born in 1919 to a literary family in Taishan, Guangdong province. He came to the United States as a teenager and attended New York University in 1937. Not long after he started his own seafood business, he was drafted into the military. Similar to other drafted Chinese American men, Woo was initially sent to work in a kitchen, simply because he looked Chinese and was presumed incapable of speaking English. However, as soon as commanders discovered his multi-lingual language talent, he was transferred to Camp Robinson in Arkansas for six months of special training. Immediately afterwards, he was sent to China along with the U.S. Army Air Force, Intelligence for 407 Squadron, 14th Air Force—called the Flying Tigers in the China-Burma-India theater.

Woo ended up serving as the translator for Flying Tigers in East Asia. When he later became the chairman of American Legion Post 1291 in New York Chinatown, he often proudly told others, “I got to work on many confidential documents from U.S. Army.” After WWII ended, he was appointed as the key translator to the Chongqing Negotiations where he saw the famous Chinese diplomat, Zhou Enlai, who would become the first premier of the People’s Republic of China.

Woo then returned to New York with a firm faith and dedication to building a place for all the subsequent Chinese American soldiers and their offspring. He financially secured a permanent location for the Lieutenant Kimlau Post 1291 headquarters.

Most importantly, Woo would become the central pillar of the Post, where he routinely came almost every day for over 50 years, sharing his personal stories with and mentoring youngsters. Even on December 15, 2018, the day he would peacefully die, he spent the whole day at the Post talking with members and playing his favorite game, “Sky Nine.”

At his memorial, on Jan 4, 2019, Vietnam War veteran Gabe Mui said in his eulogy, “Peter Woo taught us that we have to earn respect by ourselves, rather than asking for it.” Although Woo earned respect from many people, the country’s recognition came a bit too late—he would never be able to wear the gold medal on his chest below his beaming smile.

Living in Gray Shadow

Before the repeal of Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, Chinese Americans suffered humiliating discrimination and violence. In addition, many were banned from citizenship even though 20,000 of them bravely fought for the U.S. during WWII.

Despite their courage and service to this country, Chinese American veterans had not been very outspoken about their past, keeping their military experience deep in their hearts and minds. Even their spouses would be surprised later to learn about their other half’s war experiences. Within the Chinese community, the veterans are unsung heroes whose many untold stories should be shared with younger generation.

Samantha Cheng, founder of a national campaign called Chinese American World War II Veterans Recognition Project, said veterans kept their stories secret because of the feeling of dread about what might happen to them given the wartime anti-Chinese sentiment. Even after the veterans returned to civilian life, they still had to deal with all kinds of discrimination.

Cheng’s father, also a WWII veteran, never revealed anything about his time in the military to any of his family members. As a result, it took a long time for her to gather his military information after his death.

Corky Lee, an activist and photographer who has been documenting the fast-emerging Asian American community for almost 50 years, is also the son of a WWII veteran. His father volunteered for army duty, in order to acquire citizenship. He finally became a U.S. citizen nine years after retiring from military service.

Katie May Leo Porter, the granddaughter of Kwong Yee, one of the remaining WWII veterans at Post 1291, made a documentary of her grandfather memorializing his military life. Like many other veterans, Yee only shared his military past when surrounded by his fellow comrades-in-arms. Only when with others like themselves, would veterans reminisce about their army days, while laughing and passing time while talking, joking and playing games.

The New Gold Medal Act

The Chinese American World War II Veterans Recognition Project was formed to recognize, honor and celebrate the military service of Chinese Americans who fought in the Second World War. Since 2016, the project has compiled information on almost 2,000 veterans and formed a public database. It also helped to expedite the passing of the Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act. Now that the Act has been signed into law, the project still works to document and memorialize the contributions of Chinese Americans to the warm, while the group has access to a dwindling number who remain.

Most people readily assume that the American veterans have all received the Congressional Gold Medal, thinking this is a systematic procedure. However, this is far from true. Although other Asian American groups, such as Filipino and Japanese American, veterans have already received their medals, Chinese Americans have not until now.

In May 2017, bipartisan members of Congress, Representatives Ed Royce, a Republican, and Ted Lieu, a Democrat, both of California, joined forces with Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, and GOP Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi to introduce bills creating the Gold Medal honoring the Chinese American veterans. Over the following 18 months, veterans, their offspring along and many others went to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the act’s passage.

Among them, Corky Lee headed to the U.S. Capitol twice to lobby for the two bills along with other Chinese American military officers. The Senate version passed with 69 votes on Sept. 12, 2018, and the House version passed on Dec. 12. The president signed the act into law on Dec. 20, 2018.

Peter Woo, along with many other Chinese American WWII veterans, would not be able to receive the Gold Medals. However, they have been and would always be national heroes, whom those Medals made for.

 

Chunxiang Jin wrote this article for the Chinese-language World Journal with the support of journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generation and AARP. Her English translation of the story was edited by Paul Kleyman.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.