– Herbert P. Leong (1922–2010)
Herbert P. Leong was a distinguished educator, principal, and Los Angeles Unified School District administrator. He was a founding member of the Asian American Education Commission in 1971 and a charter member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. Born in Los Angeles, he joined the Army Air Corps in December of 1942 and was with the 434th Bombardment Squadron assigned to the 12th Bombardment Group. This is from an interview with Gilbert Hom on 7 December 1996.
Before World War II, I knew what was happening between China and Japan. At that time, the radio and printed media kept us informed. On our street in the City Market region, there were only two Chinese families. There were a lot of Japanese American kids that were good friends of mine. On Friday nights, they would show these movies at the Japanese school about Japanese invading China. They showed all the soldiers overrunning all the Chinese cities. All the Japanese Americans didn’t think much of it, but I felt shame. At that time, nobody supported China. When the war came, I was glad to be able to do something.
When the war broke out, I felt real strongly about fighting for the United States. As China was being overrun by Japanese, I thought I could do two things: represent our country and do something for China. I really felt that. When the recruiter asked what theater I wanted, I said, “I want CBI (China, Burma, and India Theater); I want to fight the Japanese.”
My brothers were conscripted. My oldest brother went in first, and my other brothers went after me. I enlisted. My father died when I was five, and my mother had eked out a living for us. She didn’t speak English so she did a lot of menial work like housework. She had very little time to think about things. I had an older sister who was working too. I had just graduated from high school, and was working at a gas station. We were lucky to get a few dollars a day. I then worked for about half a year at a shipyard in San Francisco. When I got the call that I would begin service in about three months, I came back to Los Angeles and worked at the produce market.
When I got called in, we were sent to Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls. We spent a few months there and then got cadet training in Santa Ana for about three months. We got our first flight training at Twenty-Nine Palms. Then I went to Castle Air Force Base in Merced. I got my advanced training at Stockton Army Airfield. Then I got my commission. I was sent to Columbia, South Carolina. We got our all-Chinese crew—all the officers were Chinese. There were two pilots and myself: Stanley Lee from Washington DC and Kin Foo Lee from Los Angeles was the bombardier navigator.11 We trained there for several months. We then got more training in Florida in gunnery and bombing. We flew overseas over North Africa to India. We got attached to our squadron for over a year. We spent the operational time from India over to Burma.
For a while, I was detached to temporary duty to a cargo squadron. I flew supplies to the British troops who were moving quickly from Burma to Mandalay pursuing the Japanese. They really needed supplies badly. We flew fuel, food, canned goods, and other types of equipment. Some of the airfields were just being vacated by the Japanese and there were snipers around the airfield. I was shot at. Things were “interesting.” A tail gunner was killed overseas in a crash right after a mission. I flew some bomb runs toward Mandalay. Our squadron was also involved in the low-level bombing of Mandalay to support the British. Mandalay was like a big fort.
I came back on a ship in September of 1945. I was officially discharged in December of 1945.
There were about six or eight Chinese at the Columbia Army Air Base. Stanley may have asked to be there. The enlisted men, the radioman, and the gunner were Caucasians. We were a very close crew. We did some flights into New Jersey, and we did some leave time in New York together. We all slept together in a bridal suite in a New York hotel (laughs). Our squadron meets annually every year since 1950. My wife, Louise, Stanley, and I attend regularly. We just went to a reunion in Anaheim. Kin Foo Lee passed away in the early 1980s. I still exchange Christmas cards with my radioman. We don’t know what happened to our engineer.
I went over as a co-pilot. Stanley was the first pilot. He stayed in the service and came out a major. They talked him into flying the “hump” into China. Afterwards, he stayed with the Air Force. My sister talked me out of staying in the service. She said I should go to college, which I did. Fortunately, I had the G. I. Bill.
If it weren’t for the war, I would probably not have had opportunity to go to college. I got a bachelor’s degree from UCLA, and then I got another degree from USC. I became a teacher and a counselor. When I was involved in counseling, I got active in the community. Mrs. Reynolds, the principal at Castelar Elementary School in Los Angeles Chinatown, drafted me to be the chairperson of their Advisory Council. I stayed involved with Castelar for several years. I got involved with Paul Louie and the Chinese Community Coordinating Council. I stayed involved with many organizations including the Chinatown Service Center Board of Directors. I supported the Chinatown Library. I felt it was of the utmost importance that children get access to education. There were so many needs in the community. I was director of the Asian American Education Commission (AAEC). When you work with the Board of Education, a lot of it was struggling for financial support. But the AAEC tried to get teachers to be sensitive and aware of Asian American issues.
11 Lt. Stanley G. Y. Lee (1921-2016) was born in Washington, D. C. and the oldest of ten. He was one of the first Asian American pilots for the Army Air Corps and served the military for thirty years—including in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He then worked as a computer programmer. Kin Foo Lee, born in Oakland, was a 1st lieutenant bombardier navigator for the 434th Bomb Squadron. His service record was from September 1942 to February 1946.