By Randall Yip
The U.S. Congress bestowed its highest honor to 500 Chinese Americans, both living and dead, in San Francisco this July 4th weekend to honor their service to the United States during World War II despite being relegated to second class status.
Congress did not rescind the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law in the United States banning the immigration of anyone solely because of their race, until the start of WWII. From 1943 – 1965, the immigration of Chinese would be limited to 105 per year under the Magnuson Act. Despite that, 20,000 Chinese Americans, 1 out of 5 Chinese Americans in the country at the time, enlisted to serve in the U.S. military during WWII.
I proudly accepted the Congressional Gold Medal for my late father, Leonard Yip, who served in the U.S. Army as a member of the TC5 26th Signal Center Team, CP Crowder, MO. My dad, together with members of his unit, relayed critical information to the front line troops about enemy formations and positions- information that was critical for what ultimately would be a victory for U.S. troops and its Allies over Nazi Germany, the empire of Japan and fascist Italy.
While excited about being able to accept this award, it really didn’t begin to hit me until the days leading up to the ceremony.
A co-worker, Kate Eby, asked me via Slack, a professional messaging app, what I was doing on the Fourth. I told her I would be accepting the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously on behalf of my dad.
“Wow. That’s a big deal. Congratulations” she said.
Her response frankly surprised me. I didn’t think anyone outside my family or the Asian American community would care.
As I walked up to the Chinese American Citizens Alliance in San Francisco where they conducted six separate award presentations, a short line had already formed waiting to get in 45 minutes before its scheduled 6pm start time Sunday.
Another family walked up behind us and shared that this would be their second ceremony, explaining they had two family members receiving the award, but were unsuccessful scheduling them at the same time.
“It really is a nice ceremony,” she said. “They did a good job.”
Once they opened the doors, my family was told to get a seat while I, as the family representative who would be accepting the award, needed to register.
They handed me a certificate made out to my father along with a copy of the Congressional Bill that passed authorizing the award. I also received a box to safely store the award once i received it. I learned I would not be allowed to sit with my family, but would sit with the other award recipients.
It reminded me of a graduation ceremony.
Retired Major General William Chen of the U.S. Army, in a short video presentation, compared the World War II Chinese American veterans to the Chinese who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad.
“Both groups were forgotten, ignored and excluded, yet both groups were unsung heroes,” he said.
Retired Rear Admiral Jonathan Yuen, U.S. Navy, who helped to present the medals, pointed out that 40% of those Chinese who fought for the United States, were not U.S. citizens.
“We stand on the shoulders of our World War II veterans. They fought for the country of their choice,” said Yuen.
Melanie Chan, National President of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the group which spearheaded the drive for the medal, said it’s “Never too late to recognize veterans and their families. We had to do something about it.”
Retired General Stephen Tom, U.S. Army, explained the significance of the medal. One copy, he said, is made of solid gold, and would be put on permanent display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Families would receive replicas made of solid bronze from the U.S. Mint.
The two sided coin includes images of seven Chinese American veterans-6 men and one woman. Each figure represents a branch of the military, including the Army Nurse Corp.
On the other side is an image of a Sherman Tank representing land. An outline of a P40 Warhawk flown by the Flying Tigers in Kumming, China representing air. Finally the Battleship Missouri where the Empire of Japan surrendered to U.S. forces, representing sea.
One by one, people were called up to accept their medal. Among them was a spouse of a veteran as well as several brothers who were veterans. It’s too bad none of the actual veterans could be present-most likely because they had already passed or were too far or too frail to attend.
As Retired Colonel Baldwin Au presented the medal to me for my father, I thought of the significance of getting this award on the Fourth of July. The recognition of my father and others as true Americans is especially significant given the increase in anti-Asian hate we’ve seen in the last 18 months.
We wrapped up the ceremony by singing American the Beautiful. A rush of pride, American pride, shot through my veins. Kate was right. This really was a big deal.
(Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Edward Sung. We apologize for the error.)
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