Chinese American WWII Veterans Recognized with Congressional Gold Medal

December 14, 2020Matt Fratus
Chinese American World War II veterans congressional gold medal coffee or die

A valued Chinese member of a halftrac armored car crew at Fort Knox, Kentucky, learns the art of making it hot for the Axis in any battle situation. The Fort Knox school for men of the armored service is teaching many American soldiers how to use mechanized striking equipment to best advantage. Its graduates are now on many of our far-flung battle lines, ready to meet the enemy on more than even terms. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

Chinese Americans from World War II are the latest honorees to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, which pays tribute to historic accomplishments. A virtual ceremony held Wednesday recognized the contributions of some 20,000 Chinese Americans who served in all branches and all theaters of the war. 

Chinese Americans “flew bomber missions over Europe, served on our ships in the Pacific, stormed the beaches of Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate Central Europe,″ Rep. Mark Takano, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said during the online ceremony.

Specially designed each time the award is bestowed, the Congressional Gold Medal on one side depicts Chinese Americans in all the service uniforms, including a female nurse.

Chinese-American World War II veterans congressional gold medal coffee or die
Photographs from the virtual ceremony for Chinese American World War II veterans receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. Screenshot from YouTube.

One of the nurses honored Wednesday was 102-year-old Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo, who served in China and India. “I was the only Chinese-American nurse stationed there back then,” she told KHON-TV in a recent interview. “Sometimes a smallpox case that nobody wanted to handle happened. I would be the target for cases like that.”

The medal’s reverse side shows the USS Missouri battleship, a Sherman tank, and a P-40 fighter plane, the same planes the famed “Flying Tigers” flew over the China-Burma-India theater. The Flying Tigers, as they were affectionately called, were pilots from the American Volunteer Group who fought in the Republic of China Air Force against the Japanese during World War II, and Chinese American mechanics were recruited to keep their planes flying. Chinese Americans also served as pilots and aircrew in the European and Pacific theaters.

Army Capt. Francis B. Wai, who was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his courageous actions on Oct. 20, 1944, at Leyte in the Philippine Islands. Wai took charge at Red Beach, where he witnessed the first four waves of US Army soldiers in a state of confusion, lacking the leadership needed to overcome the chaotic situation.

Chinese American World War II veterans congressional gold medal coffee or die
Screengrab from the virtual ceremony of Chinese-American World War II veterans receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.

He calmly called out clear and concise orders, “and disregarding heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire, he began to move inland through the rice paddies without cover,” according to his citation. “The men, inspired by his cool demeanor and heroic example, rose from their positions and followed him. During the advance, Captain Wai repeatedly determined the locations of enemy strong points by deliberately exposing himself to draw their fire. In leading an assault upon the last remaining Japanese pillbox in the area, he was killed by its occupants. Captain Wai’s courageous, aggressive leadership inspired the men, even after his death, to advance and destroy the enemy.” 

Wai’s Distinguished Service Cross was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Chinese Americans served the nation even in the face of discrimination, in an era when the Chinese Exclusion Act barred them the right to obtain citizenship. President Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed that legislation in 1943 to aid in achieving the nation’s wartime goals, writing to Congress that the change was “important in the cause of winning the war and of establishing a secure peace.”

The Congressional Gold Medal has been awarded to World War II military veterans in similar circumstances, including Filipino veterans, the Montford Point Marines, the Native American Code Talkers, and the Tuskegee Airmen, among others.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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