By Sonia Tam, AsAmNews Staff Writer
Chinese American WWII veterans are set to receive a Congressional Gold Medal in a virtual ceremony.
Following delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony will take place today at 3 pm EST.
“It’s incredibly significant,” said E. Samantha Cheng, who led the lobbying effort to pass the bill that would award these veterans the Congressional Gold Medal. “When we first started this project, there were over 500 Chinese WWII vets still alive and kicking, articulate, etc. Now we’re down to just less than 50.”
Efforts to enact the Congressional Gold Medal Act for these Chinese American veterans first began in December of 2016. An exploratory committee led by Cheng set out to secure the support of members of Congress. The bill was first introduced to the Senate and the House of Representatives in May of 2017 and was ultimately passed on December 20, 2018.
Nearly two years later, Chinese American WWII veterans will finally be honored for their service to the United States, a momentous occasion for a group that was once completely barred from American citizenship.
“At the onset of WWII, there was no path to citizenship for most US ethnic and minority cultures, especially Asians,” Cheng said.
“The Chinese were one of the first to have a law specifically written preventing them from becoming US citizens,” she added, citing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was still in effect at the beginning of WWII.
Cheng noted that Congressional Gold Medals have already been awarded to Japanese American and Filipino American WWII veterans. Advocates of the medal hope that Chinese American veterans that served in WWII can also be fully recognized for the accomplishments in the United States as well as their patriotism as Americans.
“I can assure you that these men and women served because they believed in the United States, the American Dream, and that this country had afforded them something and they wanted to give back,” said Cheng. “Not only that, they were drafted, so we were like any other American story.”
Cheng also noticed the lack of an extensive record of Chinese American servicemen. Alongside lobbying for the Congressional Gold Medal, she also set out to compile a fuller record of the service of Chinese American WWII veterans in her recently-published compendium Honor and Duty: The Chinese American WWII Veterans.
“I was able to identify 22,827 Chinese and Chinese Americans who served in the five branches of the US military, plus the United States Merchant Marine Corps, on the behalf of the United States,” she stated.
“There is no single record that you can go to to see these names and their service records.”
Keeping this record of the contributions of Chinese Americans is particularly important to Cheng, as she notes that these stories are often neglected and left untold.
“It was quite a detailed and arduous process, but something very, very important because Chinese American history is not taught in public schools. We have been discriminated against since day one because we cannot change what our face looks like.”
She hopes that her efforts in compiling data for her compendium as well as lobbying for the Congressional Gold Medal will help to bring more attention to Chinese Americans’ place in American history, a goal that is particularly important for a minority group that has historically — and even currently — been denied recognition as Americans.
“Chinese and Chinese Americans have made significant contributions to American history, and we’re just not taught that,” she said. “So here is some irrefutable evidence that we contributed and that we made significant contributions.”
Years after the initial inquiry into the Congressional Gold Medal, Cheng and her fellow organizers will finally see their efforts come to fruition.
“These guys have waited so long,” Cheng said. “Not just them, but their loved ones, their wives, their children, who may or may not have heard the story of their fathers’ service, or their mothers’ service.”
“I’m just glad it’s finally happening. I’m glad that these 22,827 veterans are getting their due.”
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