By retired Army Maj. Gen. Bill Chen
The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the Congress and is the highest civilian award in the United States. It is awarded to persons "who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient's field long after the achievement.”
On May 4, 2017, bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate for the award of the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the Chinese American veterans of World War II. Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) were lead co-sponsors of H.R. 2358 on the House side; and Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) were lead co-sponsors of S. 1050 on the Senate side.
The bills were the result of a campaign organized by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (C.A.C.A.) to recognize Chinese American servicemen and servicewomen who volunteered or were drafted when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still in place – they fought for their country in the face of discrimination and injustice. Established in 1895, C.A.C.A. is the oldest Asian American civil rights organization in America.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States and proscribed entry of a specific ethnic group. The Act made it illegal for Chinese laborers to immigrate to the United States and limited the Chinese population in America.
At the start of World War II, there were approximately 78,000 Chinese Americans living on the United States mainland and 29,000 living in Hawaii. Despite the anti-Chinese discrimination at the time, some 20,000 Chinese Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces -- a high percentage of the total Chinese American population. Approximately 40 percent of those who served were not citizens of the United States.
Chinese Americans made important contributions to the World War II effort. About 25 percent served in the U.S. Army Air Force (former name of the U.S. Air Force). The remainder served in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces in all theaters of war.
Chinese Americans were in ground, air and ocean combat, and support roles throughout the Pacific Theater, including New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Philippines, Marianas, and the Aleutian Islands. They also served in combat and support roles in the European and African Theaters, serving in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Normandy D-Day invasion, and the Battle of the Bulge.
The 14th Air Service Group was an all-Chinese American unit assigned to the 14th Air Force (Flying Tigers) under the command of the legendary Gen. Claire Chennault in the China-Burma-India Theater. The 14th Air Service Group provided supply, transportation, and communications support and serviced and repaired aircraft and armaments for the 14th Air Force. Other Chinese American officers and men were integrated into the units and staff of the 14th Air Force. There were also Chinese Americans in the China-Burma-India Theater in U.S. Army units training the Chinese Army and involved in intelligence operations against the Japanese.
Chinese Americans flew in transport and bomber missions, served in infantry units and on combat ships, including Merchant Marine convoys vulnerable to submarine and air attacks.
Many Chinese American women served in the Women’s Army Corps, the Army Air Force, and the United States Naval Reserve Women’s Reserve, and some became pilots, air traffic controllers, flight trainers, weather forecasters, occupational therapists and nurses.
One Chinese American, Captain Francis Wai, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.
The Chinese American World War II Veterans demonstrated their skills, competencies, loyalty and patriotism. By their actions during the war, they helped to open up opportunities for all Chinese Americans to be a part of mainstream America post-World War II. Their commitment and sacrifice demonstrated a highly uncommon and commendable sense of patriotism and honor in the face of discrimination.
Timing is crucial for passage of the bills and time is running out:
Many of the Chinese American veterans of World War II have already passed away. Even the youngest who entered before the end of the war are aging, approaching their 90s.
We understand that in the next session of Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal will no longer be awarded to groups. Thus, passage in this session of Congress is crucial.
2018 will be the 75th Anniversary of the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Award of the Congressional Gold Medal for Chinese American Veterans of World War II would indeed make the 75th anniversary celebration a memorable event. We cannot say that the Chinese American veterans of World War II enabled the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, but we can say that their commitment and service to the nation was part of the necessary occurrences that facilitated the repeal.
Seemingly a bipartisan action, the passage of the House (H.R. 2358) and Senate (S. 1050) bills is not a done deal.
Progress on obtaining cosponsors for the respective bills has been slow. As of Aug. 28, there were 53 cosponsors for the H.R. 2358 and 11 cosponsors for S. 1050. Passage requires two-thirds of the members to cosponsor the bills, i.e., 290 in the House and 67 in the Senate. Currently the House and Senate versions are very similar; agreement toward the final congressional bill should not be a problem if the respective bills are passed and go to joint conference.
For Chinese Americans who advocate this recognition of Chinese American Veterans of World War II, passage of the bills could very much be a lesson in civics and citizenship, which gets to the heart of the American legislative process. In other words, how to generate support from members of Congress?
On the part of those advocating the award of the Congressional Gold Medal for Chinese American Veterans of World War II, resources have been limited to implement a full campaign plan that targets the congressional delegations from all the states, particularly those with small Chinese American populations.
Typically, Chinese Americans have become involved with the political process only recently. As part of normal activities, Chinese Americans probably have not been extensively involved with their U.S. representatives and Senators. So, when faced with the issue of garnering support for the Congressional Gold Medal for Chinese American Veterans of World War II, capturing the attention of members of Congress to cosign the respective bills can be difficult. The process to get the attention of the members of Congress also is made more difficult as they face higher priority issues, such as health care, immigration, tax reform and budgets.
After the recent Senate vote where senators voted No to the proposed “skinny” health care bill, there was national TV coverage showing people “calling-in” to the senators who voted No to thank them for their vote. It is hardly imaginable that Chinese Americans or the general public would mount a “call-in” like this to members of Congress to support the Congressional Gold Medal for Chinese American Veterans of World War II.
From a layman’s perspective, award of the Congressional Gold Medal to Chinese American Veterans of World War II is a bipartisan, no-brainer action. The award is a not-for-combat actions of valor. It is a group award to Chinese Americans who volunteered or were drafted -- and willingly served against the common enemy at a time when Chinese Americans faced discrimination and the injustice of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The 60+-year period of the Chinese Exclusion Act was a sad and painful anti-Chinese era. Award of the Congressional Gold Medal to Chinese American Veterans in World War II this year would make the 2018 75th Anniversary of the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act a truly meaningful event.
What then is needed?
A ground swell of support from constituents, communities, cities, and organization to members of Congress.
Within the House and Senate, lead co-sponsors need to garner the support of their colleagues who have not signed-on as co-sponsors.
Various affinity groups, such as veteran organizations, need to send in letters of support and convey the priority and importance of this recognition effort to members of Congress.
Given the right time, circumstances, and a champion in the 115th Congress – one respected by all his or her colleagues – we will be able to orchestrate the passage by a concerted campaign or “proclamation,”
Bill Chen, formerly of Edina, Minn., now resides in Belmont, Mass. He continues to be a China Insight contributor.