A Civil War veteran who fought for the Union, Cohota saw combat in significant battles in Virginia. He went on to serve 30 years in the Army, married and had six kids, and settled down in the Midwest to start a business.
Cohota was unlike most Civil War veterans: He was Chinese, adopted by a merchant ship captain who discovered the half-starved boy (and another who later died) aboard his boat named the “Cohota” after it left Shanghai. He arrived in the United States in the 1850s.
“He was a highly patriotic individual who raised and lowered a flag in front of his house every day,” said Montgomery Hom, a filmmaker who researched Cohota’s story for a documentary in post-production entitled “Men Without a Country: Chinese in the American Civil War.”
Amid rising anti-Chinese sentiment, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited most Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.
Before its passage, Cohota had failed to submit his second set of naturalization papers. He died in 1935, following an unsuccessful decadeslong battle for citizenship.
“That’s kind of the greatest tragedy,” Hom said. “He did all this for his country, but his country didn’t recognize him.”
Some have paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives; some have barely survived saving others. While fighting the enemy, they also fought discrimination at home, from those who viewed them as less than American. Sometimes that included their fellow troops.
From the Philippine-American War to the Vietnam War, close to three dozen Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration for valor, according to Daniel P. McDonald, director of research and development at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, part of the Department of Defense.
Over the last decade, Japanese, Filipino and, most recently, Chinese American veterans who served during World War II have also had their contributions recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal for each group — an honor that advocates say was long overdue.
“It was good satisfaction in seeing that the award was made,” said retired Maj. Gen. William S. Chen, the Army’s first two-star Chinese American general who helped lobby for the medal for Chinese American veterans.
Research published by the National Park Service shows that Asians and Pacific Islanders were among those who fought in the Civil War. That includes men from India, Japan, the Philippines, Guam and China.
Hom estimates that between 50 and 100 Chinese had enlisted, primarily in the Navy. He added that there were less than 1,000 Chinese living on the East Coast during the Civil War. The majority of Chinese fought for the Union, though a few joined the South.
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Some came by way of the Caribbean and Cuba, where they were indentured or contracted laborers. Others like Cohota, were picked up and adopted by American sea captains who worked aboard ships in Asian waters, Hom said.
After Filipinos declared the Philippines an independent and sovereign nation — a declaration the U.S. did not recognize — clashes erupted between independence-seeking nationalists and U.S. forces in the islands.
The U.S. established a civil government in the Philippines, and in 1901 Filipino soldiers who had fought for the U.S. against the nationalists were incorporated into the Army as the Philippine Scouts, an outfit whose heroism and bravery would be vital to winning World War II.
In 1944, Shima was drafted into the 442nd, a segregated Army unit comprised almost entirely of Americans of Japanese ancestry. (The late Col. Young Oak Kim, a Korean American and winner of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest award, joined as a second lieutenant.) The 442nd was the most decorated unit in military history for its size and length of service.
Unlike the Japanese Americans, the Chinese Americans were integrated into the U.S. military.
Hom, who directed the 2000 documentary “We Served with Pride: The Chinese American Experience in WWII,” said upwards of 20,000 Chinese Americans fought in World War II. Around 40 percent were not citizens.
Their service overlapped with the period during which the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect. (It was repealed in 1943.) Hom said joining the military allowed foreign-born Chinese to gain citizenship.
“One of the impetuses of why they did their service was they all wanted to be in this country, because it was a land of opportunity,” he explained.
Among the outfits were the Philippine Commonwealth Army; the Philippine Scouts, established in 1901 during the early days of American occupation; and recognized guerrilla units, which helped provide intelligence to Allied forces to repel the Japanese.
More than 260,000 Filipino and Filipino American soldiers served during World War II. Despite their service, these veterans, who were U.S nationals, were disqualified from receiving the same rights, benefits and privileges as others who served under the U.S. Armed Forces, the result of the Rescissions Act of 1946.
“If you fight for your country, the least you could do is recognize them,” said Army retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Mario Taguba, who lobbied for a Congressional Gold Medal for the Filipino and Filipino American World War II veterans.
Former President Barack Obama signed a law in 2009 creating a fund granting $15,000 to Filipino vets who are U.S. citizens and $9,000 to those who are not. Both are one-time payments.
Congress, for its part, also counts Asian American and Pacific Islander veterans among its ranks.
That includes Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who served two tours of combat duty in the Middle East, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who was shot down during Operation Iraqi Freedom and lost her legs.
Today, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians account for 5.6 percent of active duty military personnel, Department of Defense figures show. Nationwide, these three groups make up 6 percent of the population.
“That’s a good proportion,” Taguba said of the percentage in the military. “But what’s more important is that they continue to serve, as opposed to just being a data point.”