– Ann Chan Woo (1922–2011)
Ann Chan was born in Merced and trained as a registered nurse at Fresno State during the war years. In this interview, she discusses her involvement with the Cadet Nurse Corps (CNC), and her husband’s service as an aviation cadet with the Army. Her husband, Young Nee Woo (1922-1976), was discharged as a second lieutenant with the 449th Fighter Squadron in the China-Burma-India Theater. Ann served thirty years as a teacher for Los Angeles Unified and obtained a Master’s in Education from Pepperdine University. After retirement, she volunteered at Valentine Elementary in the San Marino School District. She was the mother of four. Ann Chan Woo interviewed with Marji Lee on 19 August 1997.
To go to nursing school in Fresno, I would take the bus from Merced on Highway 99. I got kicked off the bus several times because I am Asian. They kept thinking I was Japanese. I even had a letter from the Sheriff that said I am Chinese and American-born. It got to the point where I would carry this hard-shelled cosmetic travel case that was shaped like a box, so that when I got shoved off my seat to give to a White person, I would still have something to sit on in the bus aisle. A group of us from Central California would get-together. One time, we went to the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco for a Big Band dinner dance, but Chinese were not allowed in. This was in 1941.
There had been a lot of Japanese Americans in Central California. A lot of jealousy forced them to concentration camps. I had gone to school with Japanese Americans. One of my friends asked me for a letter of reference, to say that she had graduated from high school and was never any trouble. But one of my relatives tore up my letter.
I had graduated from high school before the war. I started Fresno State in 1939 to get my general units. By 1940, I was at General Hospital in nursing training. At the end of 1941, there was recruitment for the Cadet Nurse Corps.30 By 1942, we were all signed-up, and we got a small government subsidy to finish our education. Across the street from our Fresno General was the basic camp for incoming soldiers, and Hammond Field was up the street. Soldiers were streaming in. We’d go to the camps to do immunizations and the like. Some of the soldiers would get injured and come to Fresno General.
The guys would come to our nursing school to find dates. We enjoyed socializing. At that time, we would never have opportunity to socialize with boys from the Midwest or back East. We were group dating. My parents would never have allowed this interracial dating. Some of my cousins weren’t even allowed off their farm.
In fact, this Chinese American guy got into a car accident on Highway 99. His friend came to visit and that was my future husband, Young Nee Woo. Young and his friend were both from Los Angeles Chinatown. Young ferried planes back and forth from Burbank to Merced for the Army Air Force.
We were Army Nurse Cadets. We still wore our school uniform but we got a little ID that said we were Army Nurse Cadets. At the end of our term, we would become Army nurses or join another branch of the service. Most of us went into the Army because discrimination against women was more serious in the Navy. A couple of the nurses had boyfriends in the Navy, but they still joined the Army.
I was an Army Nurse Cadet for a year and three months. On the day after I graduated and got my nursing certificate, I was supposed to go to Texas with my friends. We were all excited. I think we all signed-up except for two Chinese girls; one girl’s parents wouldn’t allow her. I was the only Chinese in the program. My parents didn’t want me to sign, but I did it anyways (laughs). I had been betrothed since I was nine years old, and this was my bid for freedom. If I was in the Army, I would have to go out of the state to train in Texas. And then, you wouldn’t know where you’d be stationed. The Army needed nurses.
My father was old school, but my mother was more modern. They were both from the Sam Yup area of Guangdong province. My mother encouraged all us girls to go to school and make a career for ourselves. In America, she said, you have to be independent and not depend on a man to support you for the rest of your life. My father was really against my joining the Army Nurse Corps. He actually talked to the Sheriff of Merced County to cancel my application. The compromise was that I would work for Merced County Hospital for two years. I was now just a regular R.N. My father was fairly well-known in our area because he was associated with Suey Sing Tong 萃勝工商會. I was disappointed. But I couldn’t argue back then. Women’s freedom was limited, especially if you are a minority.
I became an emergency nurse in 1942, and then I went into Ob-Gyn. We were very busy. The County Hospital was on the west end of Highway 99. People of color had to live west of the railroad tracks, but the White doctors lived east of the tracks.
I got married in 1946 after Young came back. My husband was a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force. My husband didn’t talk about the war. They were looking for military embankments. They were looking for troop gathering or activity. Every day, they would fly in small squadrons of about four planes. Pilots had to have a lot of self-confidence. He was then assigned to China for about eight months. He was shot down once while flying reconnaissance over Burma. He flew a P-38, and he couldn’t make it back to base in Chungking. He got rescued.
My husband had a lot of ambition as he was the oldest of eight children. In fact, his father’s mother was part of the Quon family of Tuey Far Low31 and Grand View. He was Sze-yup (laughs)—and I’m Sam-yup. We had both saved a little money during the war, and we wanted to buy a lot. In the 1940s, we still had difficulty buying land. We couldn’t buy in MontereyPark. We tried, but we couldn’t buy in Baldwin Park. We were told to leave Glendale. We found a place in Tujunga, but the distance was too much. We then thought to move down to Alhambra as Prudential was putting up houses near Valley Boulevard where the municipal airport used to be.32 We were told to leave; the real estate people wouldn’t even talk to us. A friend of ours bought the house and then sold it to us. There was no law against this.
After we moved in, a contingent of people came to see us who wanted us to sell the house back at a loss. We said, “No. We are American, and he was a serviceman. We are both American-born. We put our life savings in the house just like everybody else.” We already had two kids. Our generation avoided confrontation. As a nurse especially, you learn that confrontation just makes things worse.
Eventually, we got better accepted. The lady that was the most outspoken against us had severe allergy problems. With my nursing training, I had to go next door a couple of times to resuscitate her. After she got pregnant, I helped her again. Eventually, I hired their daughter as a babysitter for my kids. We lived there from 1948 to 1963. My children were probably the first post-war Asians to go to Martha Baldwin Elementary School in Alhambra.
30 The nursing shortage caused the establishment of the Cadet Nurse Corps (CNC). High school graduates and college students were targeted. Participating nursing schools compressed their program of 36 months to 30 months. The program was “nondiscriminatory” as part of Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order 8802 deal with A. Philip Randolph and other African Americans.
31 Tuey Far Low restaurant was established on Marchessault and Alameda streets in Old Chinatown by Quon Soon Doon. It was at Tuey Far Low where the Los Angeles Chinatown Corporation was founded in 1937. The restaurant later moved to the center of “New Chinatown” between Hill and Broadway in the 1938.
32 Between the 1920s and 1946, the Alhambra Airport address was 620 E. Valley Boulevard. This residential area is called “Airport Tract.”