New Exhibit Examines the Almost Untold History of Chinese Americans Who Served Their Country

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Memorial Day is a time to remember those men and women who served their country – and those who were almost forgotten.

Now, a new exhibit called “Chinatown to Battleground” is open at the San Francisco Civic Center’s Veterans Building, telling the almost unknown story of the thousands of Chinese Americans who served in America’s wars.

We have heard of the African-American wartime experience. Movies and books were written about Japanese Americans during World War II. But not Chinese.

Not in any war. “No one knew us. We were invisible,” said Montgomery Hom, who helped organize the exhibit. “Nobody knew what our veterans were doing. No one was aware of their exploits,” he said.

“It’s a proud part of our history,” Hom said. “Chinese-American history is American history.”

This is a problem for those who tell American history. “Most Americans don’t think of us as Americans,” said Janice Tong, director of the Veterans Gallery. She thinks the exhibition can help make a difference. “It’s good that people see that.”

Military service has been a part of Chinese-American life for more than 100 years, especially during World War I, when thousands of Chinese-Americans were drafted. World War I veterans founded the American Legion’s Cathay Post 384, one of the exhibit’s sponsors.

But later, military talks were on the back burner in San Francisco, including Chinatown. “I am part of the anti-war generation,” Tong said, “even though my grandfather was in World War I.”

But Hom, who grew up in Chinatown and North Beach, saw things differently. As a kid, he started hanging out at Uncle’s Cafe at Clay Street and Waverly Place in the heart of Chinatown. His uncle, Leon Yee, and his buddies, mostly old soldiers, met every day to talk. A lot of people would see this as old men and their stories, but Hom started to realize it was oral history. It turned out that Yee had been a paratrooper, had jumped into France four days after D-Day, and had been wounded attacking a German machine gun position.

Yee and his friends were mostly veterinarians, tough old men who didn’t want to talk about their war experience. But as he got older, Hom took them off.

World War II had a significant impact on the Chinese-American community. Hom’s later research showed that approximately 20,000 Chinese Americans served in the United States military during World War II. “We were less than 1% of the US armed forces in World War II,” Hom said. “But 1 in 5 Chinese Americans served. Unbelievable.”

The country took notice in 2018 when surviving Chinese-American World War II veterans were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, 73 years after the war ended.

Hom, 51, never served in the military himself, but the story drew him in. Yee, his uncle, introduced him to Army Col. William Strobridge, a professional military historian, who had uncovered government records on Chinese Americans who served.

“Chinatown to Battleground: Chinese Americans in Military Service” can be seen at the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco until June 12. The exhibition is free and open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. from Wednesday to Sunday.


Among those featured at “Chinatown to Battleground” is Edward Day Cohota, who was perhaps the only Chinese Civil War soldier. He later re-enlisted and served 30 more years in the US Army, mostly in the West. Cohota, born in China, was an orphan who hid as a child on the sailboat Cohota. He was named for the ship and for Sargent Day, the captain who adopted him. After his military service, he applied for American citizenship but was rejected under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Hom also pointed out that Chinese Americans served in the US Navy during the Spanish-American War and since. During World War I, Sgt. Lao Sing Lee, who was born in Saratoga, won the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de guerre for his heroism. Lieutenant Gilbert Jerome, whose mother was Chinese-American, was a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille and was shot down by German fire.

Chinese Americans who served in World War II are legion, including Randall Ching, an Army Ranger and hand-to-hand combat expert. Ching, who was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944 and earned a Bronze Star in action against a German patrol. Ching has fought all over Europe, been through the war and lives in Novato.

The exhibit shows news items, old uniforms, helmets, a bit of a claymore mine from Vietnam, weapons and pieces of military life.

One exhibit, titled “Boots on the Ground,” features World War I studded boot shoes, World War II airborne jump boots, Vietnam jungle boots, and desert boots. The latter have special significance for Hom. They were worn by his wife, a naval reserve officer, who served in Afghanistan. Hom had another connection: his godmother, Margaret (“Maggie”) Gee, was an Air Force transport pilot. After the war, she became a physicist.

But all history is local. Bennett Liang, who was wearing a US Army baseball cap, dropped by to see the show the other afternoon. He leaned over to look at a panel about the Vietnam War.

“Look,” he said, pointing. “There is Pfc. Alfred Louis. We went to Galileo together.

High school friends, separated by the war and the years, with in common the memory of service to their country.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in the Sunday edition of The Chronicle. Email: [email protected]

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