Thousands of Chinese American World War II veterans have been honored with the Congressional Gold Medal 75 years after the war ended.
Congress presented the United States' highest civilian award Wednesday to about 20,000 Chinese Americans in a virtual ceremony, which was originally scheduled for April but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The veterans had received citations for heroism — including the Medal of Honor — despite discrimination that included limits on numbers allowed in the U.S.
Increased anti-Chinese sentiment in the 19th century resulted in the singling out of Chinese Americans through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That law prohibited most Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens and limited the Chinese population in the U.S.
Despite these barriers, thousands joined the military. They fought for a country that banned new entries, a restriction that wasn't repealed until 1943, and created an environment of inequality for Chinese people.
An estimated 40 percent of veterans with Chinese ancestry who were not U.S. citizens would end up fighting in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history. Congressional leaders condemned the exclusion act as they honored the veterans during the ceremony.
"What was extraordinary for these 20,000 Chinese American veterans was the choice they made in the face of gross prejudice despite facing racial discrimination at home, including the hateful Chinese Exclusion Act that remained in place until 1943," Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, whose father signed up to serve, said during the ceremony. "These men and women were proud to serve our country. They deserve our deepest gratitude, and it is with tremendous pride that we honor them today."
Anti-Asian sentiment has risen around the U.S. this year. The continued use of the phrase "China virus," rhetoric fueled by President Donald Trump, has had a strong impact on how Asian Americans are viewed, with a quarter of Asian American young adults reported to have been targets of racism this year.
Fewer than 300 of the service members are alive today, and they were eager to see the medal presented, Ed Gor, national director of the Chinese American WWII Veterans Recognition Project, said this year.
"Most of them came back to become professionals, businessmen, getting married, starting families, just contributing — I'd call it almost silently — into the fabric of the United States of America," Gor said. "These guys had never been acknowledged for their service."
Among those honored posthumously Wednesday were former Sens. Hiram Fong and Daniel Akaka, both of Hawaii. Fong, a Republican, served in the Army Air Forces, while Akaka, a Democrat, was in the Army Corps of Engineers, stationed in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Army Capt. Francis B. Wai, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military award given by the U.S., also was recognized with a Gold Medal. He was killed while saving fellow soldiers during an attack in the Philippines.
One of those honored Wednesday was Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo, whose nursing studies in Hong Kong were interrupted when the U.S. entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941.
Born in California and now 102, she served as a nurse in China and India. "About that time, the U.S. Army also came through, desperately needing English-speaking nurses," she told KHON-TV of Honolulu, Hawaii, in an interview last month.
So Chin enlisted. "I was the only Chinese American nurse stationed there back then. Sometimes a smallpox case that nobody wanted to handle happened. I would be the target for cases like that," she said.
She and other Chinese Americans "answered the call to duty when our country faced threats to our freedom,″ Chin said in a videotaped presentation at Wednesday's ceremony. "We have waited a long time for this moment. I hope our perseverance and our commitment and hard work will further inspire our young people to serve this wonderful country.″