Little is known about Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ military service prior to the twentieth century. President Andrew Jackson’s notes mentioned that Filipino soldiers fought with him in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.
Chinese, Filipino and Indian Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War. Edward Cohota, a native of China, served 30 years in the U.S. military. He applied under the Homestead Act, which provided land to U.S. citizens. Cohota’s application was denied under the 1892 Chinese Exclusion Act that limited citizenship petitions to persons who were White or Black.
A 1908 law provided that one Filipino could be appointed to each class at West Point. Despite such discrimination, the first Asian recipient of the Medal of Honor was Filipino, Jose Nisperos, a member of the U.S. Army’s Philippine Scouts. Another Filipino, sailor Telesforo Trinidad, received it in 1915.
Veterans of Japanese descent also faced discrimination. An 1894 statute provided that aliens who served five consecutive years in the U.S. “shall be admitted to become a citizen” upon petition. After honorably serving in the Navy for the requisite number of years, Namyo Bessho filed for citizenship. Noting that Chinese persons not born in this country have never been recognized as citizens of the United States, a federal court denied this Japanese man’s request. 178 F. 245 (4th Cir. 1910)
Japanese born Buntaro Kumagai was also denied citizenship after he was honorably discharged from the Army. A federal court stated: “The general policy of our government in regard to the naturalization of aliens has been to limit the privilege of naturalization to White people, the only distinct departure from this general policy being soon after the close of the Civil War, when, in view of the peculiar situation of inhabitants of this country of African descent, the laws were amended so as to permit the naturalization of Africans and aliens of African descent.” 163 F.922 (W.D. Wash. 1908)
Mr. Knight had an English father and a half Chinese/half Japanese mother. Knight served in the U.S. Navy and was honorably discharged. Stating that a person of the Mongolian race cannot be naturalized even with honorable military service, a federal court denied his petition. 171 F. 299 (E.D.N.Y. 1909)
AAPIs and World War I
Draft posters and war bond ads were printed in 1917 in Mandarin, Japanese, Korean and Tagalog to remind Asian immigrants of their obligation to serve. While the exact number is not known, thousands of Asians served in the first world war. Nevertheless, when they applied for citizenship after the war, they were met with extreme anti-Asian bias.
The New York Times published overlooked obituaries in 2019. About Lau Sing Kee, the obituary stated Kee enlisted in the Army in 1917. As a runner through machine gun and flamethrower attacks in France, he was crucial to communications between units. After all other runners were killed, he continued single-handedly for 24 hours. The Times said he was the first Chinese American to be awarded combat medals: the Distinguished Service Cross, a Purple Heart and France’s Croix de Guerre for valor. According to the Times, the Los Angeles Evening Herald reported on Kee’s accomplishments at the time, stating Kee was “a quiet, law-abiding, little almond-eyed chink.”
Born in Japan, Hidemitsu Toyota honorably served in the Coast Guard for ten years. A Massachusetts federal court granted him naturalization. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, canceling Toyota’s certificate of naturalization. 268 U.S. 402 (1925)
Tokutaro Nishimura Slocum was born in Japan and came to the United States when he was ten. He was adopted by the Slocum family in North Dakota, graduated from the University of Minnesota and enrolled in law school at Columbia. He left college to fight in World War I, reaching the rank of sergeant major.
After Slocum was turned down for citizenship, he fought for legislation that would guarantee a path to citizenship for Asian American World War I veterans. The Japanese American Citizens League, established in 1929, the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization in the U.S, supported Slocum.
The 1935 Alien Veteran Naturalization Act, aka the Nye-Lea Act, provided that World War I veterans were entitled to a certificate of citizenship. Slocum received the pen President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to sign the legislation into law.
Indian born Bhagat Singh Thind immigrated to the U.S. in 1913. He served with distinction during World War I, and became a U.S. citizen shortly after the war ended. In revoking Thind’s citizenship, our nation’s highest court stated: “It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority.” 261 U.S. 204 (1923)
AAPIs and World War II
In December 1941, President Roosevelt ordered that the Filipino flag be inverted “to denote the valor, firmness, and fortitude with which the Filipino people aim to prosecute war to victory.” On December 16, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East inducted the entire Philippine Army into the service of the United States.
U.S. Army Philippine Scout regiments became the first units to see combat during World War II. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the men on the islands were down to half rations. When the Battle of Bataan ended in April 1942, 70,000 starving prisoners of war, 16,000 Americans and 54,000 Filipinos, were taken on the Bataan Death March in the blistering heat. The first three World War II Medals of Honor went to Philippine Scouts.
Formed in late 1943, the Alamo Scouts were a combination of U.S. Army rangers and Filipino guerrillas. A special training school was set up in New Guinea, led by General Walter Krueger. Operating deep within enemy lines, they gathered intelligence, infiltrated enemy territory and conducted raids in the Pacific Theater. They were best known for liberating prisoners of war.
World War II was particularly harsh on Japanese Americans. Over 110,000 were interned without trial after the Pearl Harbor attack. Decades later, a bipartisan congressional committee concluded that the internment was due to prejudice, lack of political leadership and war hysteria.
Immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese Americans were considered potential enemies and not allowed to serve. The exception was 1300 soldiers of the Hawaiian Territorial Guard. Along with those residing in relocation camps, who were eventually permitted into the military, they composed the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, almost all Nisei, the American-born descendants of Japanese immigrants. The regiment’s 18,000 men were repeatedly called upon to perform the most dangerous and difficult assignments.
Don Miyada of Westminster, California, one of the few living veterans who served in the 442nd, was interned at the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona in 1942. He joined the 442nd in 1944. After earning his Ph.D. in chemistry, he taught at UC Irvine. In a May 28, 2021 interview, Dr. Miyada said he was proud of the Nisei “despite the discrimination and hardships imposed upon them by the government.”
The 2021 obituary of Frank Wada, another member of the 442nd, relates why he received France’s highest military award – the Legion of Honor. In October 1944, a small Texas battalion was completely surrounded by German forces. Nisei soldiers of the 442nd hurled themselves at the dug-in German soldiers and engaged in hand-to-hand combat to rescue the Texans in Bruyeres, France. Wada was seriously injured in the battle.
Stephen K. Tamura and his family were also interned in Poston, Arizona. Captain Tamura served in the 442nd. He was wounded in action, and survived to be a trailblazer in civilian life. He became the first Asian American County Counsel in the U. S., then a superior court judge in Orange County, and later was the first Asian American judge to sit on a state appeals court – California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal. A courthouse in Westminster, California is named after him.
Daniel K. Inouye also served in the 442nd. Losing his right arm to a grenade, he received the Medal of Honor. He became the first Japanese American in the House of Representatives, and afterward served as a U.S. Senator.
Sgt. Kazuo Masuda was killed in action on August 27, 1944 while fighting in the 442nd. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously. Meanwhile, in 1945, shortly before the medal ceremony, Masuda’s family, after being released from an Arizona detention camp, attempted to settle in Santa Ana, California, only to be met with threats of physical violence. In his book “Achieving the Impossible Dream,” author Mitch Maki relates what happened at that medal ceremony. As part of an intensive government campaign to defuse anti-Japanese American tensions, the U.S. Army dispatched a group of officers to present the medal to the family. Among those officers was none other than Captain Ronald Reagan. Captain Reagan read a statement: “Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all one color. America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but on a way – an ideal. Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. This is the American way. Mr. and Mrs. Masuda, just as one member of the family of Americans, speaking to another member, I want to say for what your son Kazuo did – Thanks.”
Kazuo Mazuda’s remains were returned to Orange County in 1948 but the Masudas were informed that because of restrictive covenants he could not be buried in their selected location. The public protest was so swift that the Westminster cemetery reversed course, allowing the burial. The Kazuo Masuda Middle School is in Fountain Valley, California.
Sadao Munemori, called “Spud” by his family in Glendale because he preferred potatoes to rice, was first selected for the military’s language school. Because a family member was in Japan’s military, Munemori requested transfer to a unit that would not be sent to the Pacific, even though it meant taking a reduced rank. That landed him in the 442nd. When the squad leader was wounded, Munemori took over. He single-handedly knocked out two machine guns with grenades. After a live grenade bounced off his helmet toward his men, Munemori dove onto the explosive, saving his men. He was killed two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday. His family accepted his Medal of Honor.
The feats of courage of the 442nd are legendary. They earned more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented seven Presidential Unit Citations. The regiment received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011. The 442nd became, for its size and length of service, the most decorated unit in the history of the United States military. When the 442nd returned from overseas in July 1946, President Harry Truman reviewed the unit in a ceremony at the White House. He told the veterans, “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice – and you have won.”
Sing Yung Yee, one of the 20,000 Chinese Americans who served during WWII, headed Chinese radio communications technicians who were persuaded to join the Army. In 1942, Lieutenant Yee received permission to recruit other Chinese Americans to serve in China in support of General Claire Chennault and his Flying Tiger’s efforts in the China-Burma-India Theater.
Chinese American soldiers provided communication and liaison between American and Chinese military organizations. From Yunnan Province, small field teams deployed on horseback to remote locations to assist American and Chinese units along China’s border with Japanese occupied French Indo-China. Their long-range reconnaissance patrols penetrated deep into Japanese held territory.
Veteran Harry Lim described how his 14th Service Group not only supported the Flying Tigers, they flew “the hump,” the aerial supply route over the Himalayas. In 2009, he told SFGATE that being in China for the first time made him appreciate his parents’ decision to come to America. He and other Americans pulled Chinese soldiers from a crashed plane and rushed them to a Chinese hospital. The hospital refused to take them, viewing its own soldiers as expendable.
From the USS Hornet, on April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. James Doolittle led a bombing mission of Tokyo industrial targets, demonstrating the vulnerability of mainland Japan. But the B-25s could not carry enough gasoline for the pilots to return to the ship. Those who could, landed in China. Among the rescuers were members of the14th Service Group. According to an article in the Diplomat, 250,000 Chinese were slaughtered by the Japanese in retaliation for giving help to the American crews when they landed. The 2001 film “Pearl Harbor” has depictions of these landings.
When World War II broke out in the Pacific, Korean Americans welcomed it as a promise of retribution upon Japan for its centuries-long aggression against Korea. Thus, they were stunned to find themselves regarded as enemy aliens, required to wear badges indicating they were Japanese while working in defense industry factories.
In December 1943, President Roosevelt met with Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Cairo, Egypt to discuss the future of Asia. Following the Cairo Conference, Korean Americans working in the defense industry were permitted to include a printed notation on their badges: “I am Korean.”
Thereafter, Korean Americans joined the California National Guard and formed a unit known as the Tiger Brigade. A Los Angeles Public Library site states that 20% of the City’s Korean population joined this unit. Young-Oak Kim was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at the Battle of Anzio. He also received a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for actions earlier in the war. Fred Ohr, who served in the Army Air Corps, was a flying ace who is credited with destroying 23 enemy aircraft.
Navy Lt. Susan Ahn Cuddy, the daughter of Korean immigrants, blazed a trail when she became the first Asian American woman to join the Navy alongside her brothers. Cuddy would go on to become a code breaker and the first female Navy gunnery officer.
Herbert Choy achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. He later became the first person of Korean ancestry to be admitted to the practice of law in the U.S. as well as the first Asian American to serve on a federal court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
It was difficult to find Asian Indians who served in World War II. Prior to 1946, Indian nationals were not eligible to naturalize or obtain any form of permanent residency in the United States. After the war, the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 provided a yearly quota of only 100 Indians to immigrate to the U.S.
Dacco A. Singh was born to a Punjabi Sikh father and a Mexican mother in Yuba City, California. He served in the Army, landing on Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Singh died in action the following November.
AAPIs and the Korean War
The Korean War was particularly difficult for AAPI soldiers. Both North Korea and China were our enemies, and AAPI soldiers were mistaken for them. To make matters worse, the U.S. Army supplied uniforms to our allies in the South Korean Army. They were so similar to American uniforms that AAPI soldiers were mistaken for members of the South Korean Army as well.
Many AAPI soldiers and sailors performed heroically during the Korean War. Herbert K. Pilila’au, a native Hawaiian, stayed behind to cover his unit’s withdrawal in the face of an intense attack by North Korean forces during the 1951 Battle of Heartbreak Ridge. He held them off with his rifle, grenades and hand-to-hand combat, saving the others, but losing his own life. Anthony T. Kaho’ohanohano, also a native of Hawaii, although wounded, single-handedly held off an enemy advance while the rest of his squad reached safety. They were both awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Japanese American Hiroshi H. Miyamura saved his men in much the same way the two Hawaiians did, but in a different battle against Chinese soldiers. Miyamura was captured. As a prisoner of war, he was required to march 300 miles over five weeks. He supported a wounded buddy during the march even though he was starved. While a prisoner, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, classified as Top Secret to avoid enemy retaliation against him.
Former San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Ben Kayashima was an Army sergeant first class in Korea, earning the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. In 1942, Judge Kayashima was interned at the Japanese internment camp in Parker, Arizona.
The first person of Japanese descent to be appointed to a federal court, Robert Mitsuhiro Takasugi, was in the Central District of California. During World War II, he and his family were interned in Tule Lake, California. Corporal Takasugi served in Korea.
Chinese American Kurt Lee was a U.S. Marine. After his company survived four days and nights under constant attack by Chinese Communists in Korea, Lee led 500 of his men to safety, earning the Navy Cross. Lee went on to serve in Vietnam.
The son of the first Asian American elected to the House of Representatives, Dalip Singh Saund, Jr., served in the Korean War.
AAPI served an even greater role in the Vietnam War
During America’s cultural revolution of the 1960s, the terms Asian American and Asian Pacific American were coined. An AAPI identity was born.
According to PBS, of the 8.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam, approximately 35,000 were Asian American. Looking like the enemy was again a challenge for AAPI soldiers. In the limited visibility of Vietnam’s dense jungle terrain, AAPI were in constant danger. On the cover of a 1972 dissident newspaper in Los Angeles was a cartoon showing a Caucasian officer ordering an Asian American soldier: “Kill that gook, you gook.”
Chinese American Ming Chin was awarded an Army Accommodation Medal and a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam. He later served on the Alameda County Superior Court, the First District Court of Appeal and became the first Asian American on the California Supreme Court.
Ronald Lew was in the Army from 1967 to 1969. In 1975, he was one of the founders of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association, establishing a professional network and legal services for minorities. He later served on the Los Angeles Superior Court and then on the Central District of California.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry served in Vietnam. Two were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor: Terry Kawamura and Rodney Yano.
Born in Hawaii while three of his uncles were serving in the 442nd during World War II, Eric Shinseki is likely the most recognizable person of Japanese heritage who served in Vietnam. He did two tours of combat, earning three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Shinseki went on to become Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army in 1999. After discharge, he was Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
On November 11, 1995, the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial was formally dedicated in Los Angeles, replicating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. The names of 116 Americans of Japanese ancestry KIA and MIA in the Vietnam War are etched in the black granite.
AAPIs recently in the military
For the first time in U.S. history, Congress set a numerical limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere in the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The number of immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere swelled. Over the decades since then, the number of people of AAPI heritage serving in the U.S. military has greatly increased.
Teresita Coalson grew up in Guam and served in Army military intelligence, reaching the rank of Master Sergeant before separating from the service in the 1990s. In training exercises during the Vietnam War, she was the one selected to role play a Vietnamese barmaid or enemy Viet Cong. One time, a soldier who had deployed to Vietnam three times picked her up and threw her against the wall in the midst of a flashback. She still thinks about that, but what really causes her much more anxiety was the sexual harassment she endured. After another sergeant was labeled a slut and a liar when she lodged a sexual harassment complaint, Coalson fantasized driving off the road, and had to seek treatment at a Vets Center.
John Fugh was born in Beijing, China. He was brought up with “Confucius bias,” which held that “Good metal shouldn’t be used to make nails, and good men do not become soldiers.” Nonetheless, he was the first Asian American General in the U.S. Army. He served in both the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars.
Tammy Duckworth, born in Thailand, earned a Purple Heart in Iraq. In 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade hit her helicopter. She lost both legs and partial use of her right arm. She retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. She was later appointed Assistant Secretary of the V.A., then elected to the House of Representatives. Today, she is U.S. Senator Duckworth, and a strong advocate for veterans, particularly those deported after service.
Sergeant Uday Singh was killed after being shot in the head in Iraq when his convoy was ambushed just outside Baghdad. He joined the Army because that’s what his family did. Both his father and uncle were officers in the Indian Army. Also of Indian descent, Captain Suni Williams was an American astronaut and a US Navy officer. She had the longest spaceflight by a woman, the highest number of spacewalks, and the most spacewalk time for a woman.
Tulsi Gabbard, now in Hawaii, was born in American Samoa. After deploying to both Iraq and Kuwait, she was the first American Samoan, the first Hindu and the first female combat veteran to serve in the House of Representatives. She was a 2020 presidential hopeful.
Korean American Army Colonel Abraham Suhr grew up in San Luis Obispo. He is a deputy commander. His grandfather was captured by the enemy during the Korean War, and never heard from again. American service members helped his father immigrate to the United States.
Born in the Philippines, Rear Admiral Eleanor Mariano became the first female Filipino American Navy Admiral, and the first military woman appointed White House Physician, as President William Clinton’s personal doctor.
When Ted Lieu was three years old, his family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. Lieu joined the United States Air Force, where he served in the JAG corps. He is currently in the House of Representatives, representing a Los Angeles district.
On the night of April 22, 1975, Quang X. Pham’s mother woke up the ten-year-old and his three sisters. With two suitcases, the five of them fled South Vietnam, eight days before the war ended. His father remained behind to try to prevent Communist takeover. The family was not reunited until 1992. Growing up in Oxnard, Pham went on to become a U.S. Marine pilot. He deployed during the Gulf War and Desert Storm. After discharge, he discovered corporate America, starting his own marketing company in 2000 and a pharmaceutical company in 2014.
It is fitting to honor and thank AAPIs who served in the U.S. military as a part of AAPI Heritage Month. Many not only fought for the United States, but also for citizenship and against invidious discrimination. The impact these soldiers had on the acceptance of Asians into the fabric of American life cannot be overstated.