– by Dr. Benjamin Chang, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
World War II (1939-45) changed the lives of many individual Chinese Americans, and it was a watershed moment for the greater community. Due to major social, political, and economic changes related to the war, some young people of color were able to alter the restricted life paths that were typically structured for minoritized groups in the U.S. Many Chinese and other Asian Americans who participated in the war effort were able to capitalize on their participation and build opportunities that were not as available to their parents or previous generations, including as university graduates, white-collar professionals, and home owners. Their efforts also helped the Chinese American community to break some stereotypes including those related to patriotism, educational achievement, leadership, and gendered roles.
Eighty years ago, World War II was considered the “good war,” as the U.S. and its Allies framed their participation as a fight for freedom and democracy against fascism and Nazism. This framing in the U.S. popular discourse, and the underlying questioning of Asian Americans regarding trust, patriotism, and even masculinity, pushed many Chinese Americans to take part in the war efforts through a variety of capacities, whether as gunners, welders, nurses, cooks, interpreters, or technicians. While Chinese American participation in WWII has not been as heralded as other minoritized groups like the Native American Code Talkers and the Japanese American 442nd Regiment, there were significant contributions nonetheless.
“We knew we were doing the right thing,” said Fred Gong, Jr., a first lieutenant in the 15th Air Force in the 1940s. Fred’s parents had come to the United States through Mexico without documents, and ran a grocery store to raise their five children. When he was 19, Fred signed-up to be in the Army Air Corps. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service and after the war, he used the G.I. Bill’s financial support to fulfill his dream to go to art school.
Like Fred, other Chinese Americans received opportunities from being in service during WWII. Yet issues with discrimination and institutionalized racism have persisted over the years in the U.S., despite military service in successive wars conducted from Korea to Iraq. Editor Susie Ling shared, “My brother-in-law dealt with a lot of racism growing up in Boyle Heights after World War II. He was 21 when he got drafted in 1965 to serve in Vietnam. He said, ‘When I came home, I didn’t want anything to do with the military. I threw everything out, the whole duffle bag. I kept one fatigue jacket and wore it to go fishing for the next ten years… Being a Vietnam vet, you got nothing. You got no respect.’”
In recent years, Chinese and other Asian and Pacific Islanders have been among the racialized groups in signing-up for the military. Across the U.S., 13% of veterans are either immigrants or children of immigrants. This has occurred despite increasing reports of long-term mental health issues related to combat, reduced benefits for soldiers and veterans, and depleted resources for Veterans Administration hospitals. In addition, over 10% of today’s homeless are veterans, some of whom have serious mental health concerns. Others such as the WWII Filipino veterans—many of them manongs, their children, and now their grandchildren, have had to continue to fight for the recognition and benefits that were promised to them long ago.
We seek to recognize the WWII contributions of Chinese Americans, and the general community of soldiers and their families who have made tremendous sacrifices. We hope that the stories shared in this issue of Gum Saan Journal can add to greater knowledge, dialogue, and advocacy for more equitable treatment of all who have served in times of war.