Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Asian Americans are woven into fabric of U.S. military
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Asian Americans are woven into fabric of U.S. military

For Veteran’s Day, 2008: Hoang Nguyen, 37, knew as a kid that he would join the U.S. military. “I wanted to repay back the United States for helping my family after the fall of Saigon,” he says.

He remembers the chaos of the end of the Vietnam war in the late ‘70s. “We took a boat from Vietnam to Guam, then flew to the U.S. with the help of American troops,” he says. “The military had a big impact on me at a young age.”

That’s a common feeling among younger Asian Americans, he says, if they came out of the Vietnam War experience.

Hoang attended the Air Force Academy, earned a Bachelors of Arts & Science, and went into pilots training at 22. “My parents were initially slightly cautious” about his decision to join the military, he says. “My father did not want me to go through the rough times he went through. But my mother was elated.” (He’s shown above, with his mother, Hanh Ha, at the ceremony when he was promoted to the rank of Major.)

Luckily, the closest he got to combat duty was conducting fly-overs in the Middle East between the two Iraq wars. He left the Air Force in 2000 (the official word is “separated”) and joined American Airlines.

After 9/11, he said, his patriotism led him to join the reserves. He’s now a full-time active guard reservist and reached the rank of Major in 2005.

AAPIs fighting for America

When the subject of Asians fighting in the U.S. military comes up, the first thought is the Japanese American 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. Many of those soldiers enlisted even though their families were incarcerated in American concentration camps.

This “Go for Broke” battalion still holds the record as the most highly decorated combat unit in the history of the U.S. military for its size and length of service.

But other Asian Americans have a long and rich history of fighting for the United States (see sidebar article). And even within the Japanese American community there’s a lesser-known group of WWII veterans who fought as part of the Military Intelligence Service, or MIS, in the Pacific against the Japanese.

One member of the MIS was Yukio Sawada, a career Army officer, who retired as a Major and lives in Denver. He signed up to join the 442nd from the Gila River Internment Camp, but because he could speak Japanese, he was sent to the Army language school in Minnesota, and on to the Pacific to work with General Douglas MacArthur’s group.

His daughter, Dr. Kathleen Sawada, followed in his footsteps and also served in the U.S. military. She joined the Navy. She says her father’s Army career wasn’t a factor in her enlistment, because “my feelings were pro-military. I was never a radical hippie-type during my high school years.”

Instead, she says, “I needed to pay for medical school and there was an Armed Forces Scholarship program available for a full ride once you got accepted to school. This was in 1977, so there wasn’t much worry about going to war.”

But her father’s experience did steer her towards the Navy. “I had already been in the Army — as a dependent — so I wanted to see a different branch of the military. Navy was my choice because of the tradition and history associated with this branch of service and they had great duty stations and nice looking uniforms,” she says.

As an “Army brat,” she says her upbringing prepared her for life in the Navy. “My experiences as a dependent certainly made me comfortable with the military system, and so it was not a shock to me to be a part of the military,” she adds. “I have very positive feelings about my experience.”

Plus, being a doctor (she’s now a dermatologist in the Denver area), led to a different track for her career. “When you are in medicine, your experiences are probably different from the average enlisted recruit,” she says. She managed a department dealing with public health and environmental issues, and missed the combat zones during the two Iraq wars.

She retired from the Navy after 21 years, as a Captain.

Flying Tigers, fighting Asians

There are Asian Americans who worked with the U.S. military or fought alongside U.S. troops who weren’t members of the U.S. military. Many Hmong, for instance, fought for the United States during the Vietnam War. But they fought as non-U.S. citizens in secret campaigns for the CIA in Laos instead of in Vietnam.

During World War II, there was a much more public example of non-citizens fighting alongside Americans.

John Yee was part of the Chinese Air Force group assigned to work with the American Volunteer Group (AVG) led by pilot Claire Chennault, nicknamed the “Flying Tigers.”

Because the U.S. didn’t officially declare war against Japan in late 1941, the country couldn’t send troops. So Chennault convinced Congress to send fighter planes to southwest China and allow him to command a group of volunteer American pilots, with support from the Chinese government, from the city of Kunming. Yee was assigned as an interpreter and helped coordinate airlifts of supplies from India into Kunming.

He was sent by the Chinese government to the U.S. in 1944, and settled here after the war. A lifelong educator, he isn’t a U.S. military veteran. “I probably should have applied for veteran status,” he says. “I heard later that Congress passed a special bill to let anyone who worked with the AVG to apply for veteran status.

“But,” he notes with a chuckle, “it’s too late now.”

Many Filipinos fought during WWII, and though there are Filipinos who were part of the U.S. armed forces, those who were not U.S. military are still seeking official recognition for their efforts in the form of veterans benefits.

The latest version of a Congressional bill that has been submitted in every session of either the House or Senate since 1993 passed the Senate in September, but Elbert Eloriaga says the bill has hit a “stalemate” and may not pass this time around, either. Unfortunately, the generation of Filipinos the bill is designed to help is passing away while it gets delayed.

Eloriaga, the President of the Philippine American Society of Colorado, supports the bill but he doesn’t need it. He retired from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of Chief Master Sergeant. He enlisted during the height of the Vietnam War, but he didn’t exactly volunteer.

He was born and raised in the Philippines and immigrated to America in the ‘60s, hoping to attend college. But, thanks to the National Security Act of 1947 (the law that also created the CIA), he was required to fight for the right to study.

“They said ‘welcome to the U.S.,’ but to release my visa, ‘you have six months to report to the Selective Service Board,’” Eloriaga recalls. “I felt kind of obligated. I came here with a suitcase in my hand and a pair of shoes.”

As it turns out, Eloriaga spent a fulfilling career in the Air Force, working on classified technology including satellite communications. He re-enlisted when his assignment ran out, and then re-enlisted again. “By then, it was more than 10 years, so I thought, well, I might as well keep going.”

He didn’t feel he was discriminated against for being Asian American, but Eloriaga admits he had to balance his slight stature. “Leaders are expected to be big and tall. That was one thing I had to overcome – I had to project myself.”

Other Asian Americans note that their more recent experience in the U.S. military was free of racial tension.

“No, I just remember the stories that my dad told me about his experience in the Army as a young recruit, the prejudice in boot camp and in the town where he was being trained,” says Sawada. “My experiences were non-existent in comparison. Even on board ship during active duty as the Medical Officer on the USS Hector AR7, I never felt a racial issue. Gender issues yes, but not racial issues.

“I never felt discriminated against in the military,” Nguyen agrees. “I think it’s the reverse – I think the military accepts minorities and has always had people working together.”

Here are some notable AAPI military accomplishments:

• On July 23, 1863, Chinese-American William Ah Hang became one of the first Asian-Americans to enlist in the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War.

• Susan Ahn Cuddy was the first female gunnery officer in the United States Navy. She is the eldest daughter of Ahn Chang-ho and Helen Ahn, the first married Korean couple to immigrate to the United States in 1902. She joined the Navy in 1942 and served until 1946, reaching the rank of lieutenant.

• The 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed primarily of Japanese Americans, was the most decorated unit of its size with seven Presidential Distinguished Citations and 18,000 individual decorations, including the Medal of Honor, 47 Distinguished Service Crosses, 350 Sliver Stars, 810 Bronze Stars and more than 3,600 Purple Hearts.

• A Korean American officer, Young-Oak Kim, commanded the Japanese American soldiers of the 100th Battalion. When he was offered the chance to transfer out of the 100th (his superiors were afraid there would be friction because of the Japanese occupation of Korea), he said, “There is no Japanese nor Korean here. We’re all Americans and we’re fighting for the same cause.”

• Not all JAs served in Europe with the 100th/442nd during WWII. More than 6,000 trained as interpreters and translators in the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service Language School and 3,700 linguists served in combat — in the Pacific, against Japan.

• More than 20,000 Chinese-Americans served in the armed forces during WWII, and Filipino-Americans and Korean-Americans formed small units for the nation’s war effort.

• Hoang Nhu Tran, a former “boat person,” refugee from Vietnam, was valedictorian of the U.S. Air Force Academy graduating class of 960 students in 1987. He was also a Rhodes Scholar and Time magazine’s recipient of the 1986 College Achievement Award.

• Lieutenant Colonel Ellison Onizuka, USAF studied aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder and was part of the Air Force ROTC while there. He signed up for Air Force in 1970 and was an engineer and test pilot. He died in the Shuttle Challenger explosion, and is honored, among other places, with a statue in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles.

• Eric Shinseki, the first four-star General in the U.S. Army, was named Army Chief of staff in 1999, and is remembered for saying the U.S. should send more soldiers to Iraq than was being planned. The Bush administration publicly criticized him and he retired in 2003. He was proven correct.

Note: This is an edited cross-post of an article I wrote for the November issue of Asian Avenue magazine.