Honoring the Service of Chinese American WWII Veterans

with Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee of the Chinese American World War II Recognition Project

More than 18,000 Chinese American men and women enlisted or served in the U.S. military during World War II.

Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, of the Chinese American World War II Recognition Project, shares the significance of this population of veterans, from their time in service to a forthcoming major Congressional honor.

Posted on:

Oct 30, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: From 1882 until 1943, people of Chinese descent were excluded from American citizenship. That changed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, though. That's when more than 18,000 men and women of Chinese backgrounds in America either enlisted or were drafted to serve in the U.S. military for World War II. Hello, and welcome to Comcast Newsmakers. I'm Tetiana Anderson. In 2018, those vets were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed formal presentation of that award. Joining me now to talk about all of that is retired Major General Robert G.F. Lee. He is with the Chinese American WWII Recognition Project. And, sir, thanks for being here.

Lee: Thank you, Tetiana.

Anderson: So, look, COVID-19 basically stopped a lot of things all around the world. But specifically talk to us about what that did on this project to honor these heroes.

Lee: Correct, Tetiana. And my past experience, the Congressional Gold Medal has always been awarded to the recipients in a very formal ceremony on Capitol Hill. Well, COVID-19 stopped all gatherings of any sort, so we're just waiting for an opening now when it would be appropriate for a gathering to honor the World War II veterans of Chinese American descent.

Anderson: And this really is about bestowing a legacy honor on these heroes. At the time, I think it was more than 18,000 people of Chinese descent here in America were participating in World War II. Many of them have passed on at this point. How important is it to get this done sooner than later?

Lee: Yes, Tetiana. Although when we embarked on this project, approximately 90% of our World War II veterans have already passed. But we felt it was just so important for the descendants of these veterans -- the extended families, the grandchildren, the great grandchildren that never knew grandpa or grandma when they served in World War II to receive this award and be aware of this honorable recognition by our country for their service. They stand in a very select group of honorees that will receive the Congressional Gold Medal from a very grateful nation.

Anderson: It's important to understand, I think, the historical context of what was going on in the United States at the time of World War II. And even beyond that, when it comes to Chinese in America, we had something at a certain point, 1882, called the Chinese Exclusion Act. And that really prevented Chinese people in the United States from fully participating in society. Explain that act to our viewers and how it sort of subjugated the people that were here.

Lee: Yes. That caused the Chinese American population in America to be much, much smaller. In fact, it was enacted after the completion of the transcontinental railway, where America didn't want any cheap labor from China anymore. And so those that were in America got to stay. But like the Chinese Exclusion Act, prevented them from becoming citizens, owning property, voting, and many other discrimination activities against the Chinese Americans until World War II broke out. And although they couldn't become citizens, they felt that America was their country and America was worth fighting for, so they joined.

Anderson: And I wanted to point that out, because the sentiment towards Chinese in America did change with World War II. And at that time, the Chinese that were here were participating in the war efforts, just like any other American. Not only were they drafted, but they enlisted to fight in the war, but they also participated in other ways. Can you tell us about some of those?

Lee: Yes. The the women of Chinese American descent, like many other women across America during that time, worked in the factories, built bombers, built the ships, played their role as Rosie the Riveter, that supported the industrial base that supported America's strength during World War II.

Anderson: So, when we talk about World War II, it's clear that there were a number of other groups that have been honored. We think about the Native American code talkers, women in the air service, Filipino veterans. You are a man of deep service. How do you feel that it's taken this long to honor the Chinese who were in America during World War II? And, you know, what do you make of the fact that it's actually now happening?

Lee: Well, Tetiana, I must admit that even with all my military experience, I was not aware of many factors. In fact, my army regiment is the famed 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit of renown fame during World War II. But during that time, the Japanese Americans served in segregated units. The Filipinos served in segregated units. The blacks also served in segregated units. So I thought everything was okay for the Chinese Americans. They did not serve in segregated units. They could serve in any branch of the military. And I didn't check further until I was aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act and all the discrimination activities against Chinese American veterans. But yet they still served, and so we undertook this project. And I have to thank the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, led by project director Ed Gor. If he and his group did not undertake the effort to lead this recognition project, it would probably never happen today.

Anderson: But it is happening. And quickly, explain to us, although this is underway, you haven't even found all of the people who should be recipients yet. Isn't that right?

Lee: That's correct. I want to thank Comcast for this outreach to the American public to ask them that if you know of any relatives that served in World War II as Chinese Americans, well, contact us and register, and you will get a Congressional Gold medal for the veteran if still living, but certainly for the family.

Anderson: And if people want to know more about your work or how to participate, what's your website?

Lee: Yes. Please go to caww2.org and you will find registration information and everything about the Congressional Gold Medal to date to include when we might have the award ceremony.

Anderson: Major General Robert G.F. Lee with the Chinese American WWII Recognition Project, thank you for being here.

Lee: Thank you, Tetiana.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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