By Sarah Yee
Northwest Asian Weekly
At their 24th formal reunion, Wayne Wong and his friends recollected serving as Flying Tigers. They belonged to the 14th Air Force and the 987th Signal Company — the only all-Chinese American units that served the U.S. Army during World War II.
In 1945, they were received by Seattle’s Chinese American community with a hero’s welcome upon returning from duty. Last week, the city of Seattle welcomed them once again during their annual reunion.
“We are like brothers. We are blessed people. We served our country,” said Harry Lim.
Attendees at the reunion included Mack Pong, Albert Chinn, Wilfred Eng, and Tom Lew — all proud veterans in their 80s.
“In a sense, they learned that they were over in another country fighting for freedom and democracy. When they came home to America, they wanted freedom and democracy, too,” said Christina Lim, daughter of Harry Lim and this year’s reunion co-chair. “They wanted equal treatment.”
These veterans enlisted in or were drafted into the U.S. Army during the time of severe racial discrimination. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited immigration of Chinese people into the United States to a quota of 105 per year.
However, something took place at the turn of the century.
“The fire in San Francisco, however unfortunate, was very fortunate for the Chinese,” said Wong, recalling how the 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused a fire that burned down city hall and all official documents.
“In this country, you have to have paper documents to prove [your citizenship. At the time,] the government had nothing to prove, so they had to take our word [that we were natural-born citizens],” said Wong.
Due to falsified documents, Chinese Americans as young as 14 and as old as 50 were drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II.
“Some guys had unclear citizenship. But if they were drafted, they had to go because they were afraid their family members would be deported,” said Christina Lim. “There was a 14-year-old ‘paper son.’ ” Paper sons were young Chinese males who entered the United States with purchased identity papers that claimed that they were ‘sons’ of U.S. citizens. “His paper said he was 18. He was drafted, and his dad told him, ‘You gotta go.’ ”
As the war progressed in 1943, the units were sent to the China Burma India Theater (CBI) to support Chinese troops against Japan. The CBI was made up of U.S. forces working in conjunction with British and Chinese forces in China, Burma, and India during World War II.
The Flying Tigers talked about flying the hump — the lower level on the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains from India to China. It was an extremely dangerous task to fly over the Himalayans due to the lack of reliable charts and radio navigation aids. They helped carry bombs, food rations, and various supplies to China.
In order to resupply the Chinese war efforts of Chiang Kai Shek and the U.S. Army Air Forces based in China, some drove on the Burma Road, which linked Burma and China. It was a rugged road, no more than two lanes wide, that stretched 717 miles.
“If you slip off, you are gone. There are 52 major turns, not minor turns. You could only [operate] during daytime, and you were not supposed to turn on the lights at night, to hide from the Japanese troops,” Chinn said.
“Before we started the trips, we didn’t have any communication at all, no radio, no nothing. Each of us would bring a pack of morphine. In case we got shot, we were supposed to take the morphine and shoot it close to where the wound was to ease the pain,” he added.
When the units were in China, the troops taught the Chinese troops how to service the planes. In their spare time, they played the saxophone, watched movies, and ate at Chinese restaurants.
During and after the war, the unit troops were received warmly by many Chinese civilians.
“It’s what the Chinese Americans accomplished after the war that’s more important. Before the war, there was a lot of prejudice. But it was a slow progress,” said Pong.
Christina Lim explained, “All these guys came from very modest beginnings, and they came back as veterans of the United States Army. In the time after the war, veterans had a very high status. Going from being poor and barely making ends meet, now you are a U.S. Army veteran. You can help your family, and you can help your community.” ♦
Sarah Yee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.