In one of his last interviews before his passing in 2010, John Fugh, the first Asian American general in the U.S. armed forces, told me about the cultural dilemma he experienced: “There is a saying in Chinese, this kind of Confucius bias passed down, how ‘Good sons don’t become soldiers, just as good metal isn’t used to make nails.’” Chinese families usually place academic achievement above military service, yet, many Chinese Americans went against their cultural grain by enlisting in America’s armed forces.
Chinese Americans have served in the U.S. military since the Civil War. Hoping to preserve a side of American history that would otherwise be lost, I recorded Chinese Americans talking about their experiences serving in wars from World War II to Afghanistan. In addition to the first Asian American general, I also spoke with the first Asian American Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management Policy, the first Asian American full unrestricted Marine before desegregation became a matter of policy by Executive Order in 1948, the first Asian American National Commander of the American Legion, as well as some of the 20,000 Chinese Americans — a quarter of the Chinese American population at the time — drafted during World War II. Forty percent of all Chinese Americans in New York City between 18 and 36 enlisted or were drafted during World War II, the highest ratio among any grouping in the country — at a time when only 11.5% of the general population served.
The men and women who spoke with me, who ranged in age from 24 to 92, were willing to share their lives and what it was like for them before, during, and after the military. Refusing to oversimplify or overgeneralize the Chinese American experience, I find the closest we come to truth is from hearing a plurality of voices — especially the firsthand accounts of those who witnessed and participated in the making of history. Here are excerpts from two of those accounts.
Peter Woo was in the 407 Squadron of the Flying Tigers Air Service Group in World War II. But instead of doing KP (kitchen patrol) duty like other Chinese Americans in his unit, he worked for the Secret Service and translated classified documents for the U.S. After the war he became one of the U.S.’s largest shrimp exporters, with help from Italian racketeers who controlled the South Street Seaport in New York City. Later, he became involved in international politics. Woo, was 91 when I interviewed him.
Most of the American-born Chinese at the time didn’t care about who Chiang Kai-shek was, to tell you the truth…I don’t think he was too good. Chiang Kai-shek was more a dictator. He called himself democratic. You got to be that way in order to get the U.S., the stupid politicians, to think he is so and so.
You know, the National American Legion, at that time — this was sixty years ago — put up a resolution against Communists, to the UN. I was the one who sent the resolution in to the National American Convention. I was the guy behind the scenes to do it. At the time, all the Chinese here were against the Communists. When the War was just over, the American Legion was the most powerful organization in U.S.A. Two-thirds of the U.S. Congress and senators belonged to the American Legion. The U.S. sends the National Commander of the American Legion overseas to meet all the heads of the military and government. That’s the system.
After the war, Taiwan was very dependent on me. Chiang Kai-shek’s son wanted me to meet him. He sent their Overseas Commissioner, who’s supposed to be in charge of the whole world’s overseas Chinese, to make an appointment with me. At the beginning, I said no. But the guy kept crying to me to do him a favor. So I made the arrangement with him — 11 o’ clock in the morning. He sent a car to pick me up at the hotel. I go there, the commissioner by my side —
And they have the nerve — the two guards stand there and search me! I was so embarrassed, because I belonged to the American Legion National Distinguished Chairman committee. And I’m the National Democratic Committee of the Chinese Division Chairman. And I’m also a leader of Chinatown Democratic Club and a State Committee Chairman. In the U.S.A., when I went in to see Kennedy, or Johnson, they’d hold me [demonstrates a hug] like that — I could go in anytime. It got me mad that they searched me, even when the commissioner was with me.
Okay, that’s downstairs. We go one flight up, another guy searched me again. [Chiang Kai Shek’s son is] on the third floor. I’m there at 11 o’clock. I stay there from 11 o’clock until 12:30. When he finally gets in I raised hell with him. I said, “From here on, don’t even ask me to do anything. Don’t even ask me to meet you.” He says he doesn’t know what’s going on. I said, “Look, when I’m in United States, if I go in to see the President, I walk in and he holds me like that.” I said, “You make me so mad today, so embarrassed. I didn’t want to come — your Commissioner asked me to come. He was with me and, they have to search me before I see you. Who the hell are you?” Nobody even dares to do it that way. That’s a real story.
[Bobby] Kennedy was nice to the Chinese, especially nice to me, when he was senator later on. He won the U.S. senate from New York, and I was with him. I was the first one to draw in, at that time, a quarter million persons in Chinatown for the parade for him. That’s why he respects me so much. When he was in the Department of Justice—and whenever he sent any men to New York, he always told them to meet me… and ask if I needed anything, and so forth… And I never asked him for anything, that’s what the politicians like. You never asked them for a job, you never asked them to do a favor — only a small favor, but otherwise … like Abe Beame. When he got elected as mayor of New York, the next day, he called me down to his office.
He said, “Peter, what do you want?” I was kidding around with him, I said, “Abe, I like your job, but you already got it, and I don’t want to fight with you, you know?” He was laughing. Then I said, “If you give me a commissioner job, it won’t pay me enough.” I was the biggest shrimp seller, so we’re laughing at each other. And then later on I said, “If you ask me … I want to recommend a Chinese to be a commissioner.” So that’s how this woman… I don’t remember her name, I made her deputy commissioner. She didn’t even know that I was the one who recommended her. I’m that type. I don’t want to get credit or anything like that.
John Gerald Miki was born in Hawaii in 1937. He went to Indiana University on a swim scholarship and was an All-American. Inspired by his uncle who was in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, John served 30 years in the Air Force; seven in Europe and nine in Asia, including two combat tours in the Vietnam War. He was an H-53 squadron commander in Germany, a United States military Air Attaché to Switzerland and Singapore, and Chief of Project Stony Beach, in Thailand, from 1988 to 1990, charged with tracking reports of live POWs/MIAs in Southeast Asia. He was awarded the Air Force Legion of Merit, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, and seven Air Medals. He retired as a Colonel in 1990.
You could say that I was born to War. When my third-generation Chinese American mother and my Nisei Japanese father married in Hawaii in December 1937, Japan was engaged in the Rape of Nanking. They were warned the marriage would never work, but they were young and stubborn. Four years and three kids later, on 7 December 1941, my newly divorced mother was stuffing us under a bed as anti-aircraft shells from the Pearl Harbor attack rained on Honolulu. That night the FBI arrested my Japanese grandfather because he was a leader in the Japanese community and an interpreter in the Territory of Hawaii Court System. Other relatives were held in the Manzanar Internment Camp, in California, for the duration of the war.
Everything changed after Pearl Harbor. Martial Law where one could be shot in the street by military authorities was imposed. There were blackout curfews, barbed-wire, and tank and truck convoys everywhere. Soldiers and sailors with money and fatalistic “anything goes” attitudes filled Honolulu streets. We lived in Waikiki where pilots bound for Iwo Jima and Okinawa buzzed low over their buddies in the Moana and Royal Hawaiian hotels — that had been converted into Officers’ Quarters. The fighters screamed in at treetop level before pulling up sharply to practice dogfights high above Waikiki beach, silver aircraft twisting and glinting in the blue sky. It was then that I vowed to someday become a pilot.
One had to be one-thousand percent American in wartime Hawaii. Japanese and Chinese language schools were closed. We spoke English to avoid alerting suspicious FBI agents. Kids were ashamed to be non-Caucasian and wanted to be American as apple pie. I was never taught to speak Japanese, Chinese, or the Hawaiian languages that my family spoke before the war. It was a subtle form of cultural genocide.
My Japanese uncle, George Miki, fought in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team in France and Italy. He returned after the war and starred in the 1950 movie, Go For Broke, which depicted the heroics of his unit. He wanted to be a Hawaii Air National Guard pilot but was told he was too old. Uncle George helped raise us kids and was more of a dad than our real father. He died of cancer at age 39 in 1960. I wanted to become a pilot for him, too.
From 1956 to 1960 I attended Indiana University on a swim scholarship. I was an All-American, co-captained our team that placed third in the 1960 NCAA’s, and swam on the 400 yard medley relay that set a new American record. I also took AFROTC to qualify for pilot training. Just before graduation, the Air Force informed me that they were sending me to the Air Force Academy to train for the 1960 Swim Trials to qualify for the Rome Olympics. I reported to Colorado Springs on 9 June 1960 and trained myself since the athletic staff was on summer leave. Two months later I placed third in the 100 meter breaststroke at the Olympic Trials in Detroit. The first place finisher went to Rome, where he won a gold medal. The next day I was on my way to Marianna, in north, Florida for Primary Pilot Training.
By September 1970 I was flying Special Operations helicopters dropping Green Beret reconnaissance and sabotage teams on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in Laos. We flew out of Nakon Phanom Air Base, Thailand, in what was called a “Secret War,” since the 1961 Geneva Accords had proclaimed Laos neutral and no Soviet, North Vietnamese, or American military forces were to be in the country. Nevertheless, fighting raged on, with the Americans directed by the CIA from the U.S. embassy in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. The war was secret only to the American public; if you were killed in Laos, your family was told that you had died in Vietnam.
Our choppers airlifted Hmong tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao. We flew out of Long Cheng, a secret CIA base in north Laos shrouded in fog and clouds and surrounded by fantastic limestone karst mountain formations one sees in Chinese scroll paintings. It was a strange, surreal war. The United States persuaded the Hmong to fight on our side with money, arms, and veiled implication that if we won the war, that they would be granted some form of recognition by the Lao government.
The Hmong were fierce warriors who had defeated the communists in guerilla hit-and-run raids in the jungles and mountains of northern Laos. But after the CIA converted the Hmongs into a conventional garrison force defending fixed positions such as forts, roads, and weapon depots in the mid-1960s, the North Vietnamese artillery shredded the ranks of these proud mountain fighters. By 1970, our squadron’s pilots were surprised to be airlifting ten-year-old Hmongs into battle. When we inquired where the older Hmong were, the CIA handlers told us that their fathers, uncles, and brothers, an entire generation of brave warriors, were dead. So it goes in war.
Later when asked what I, as an Asian American, thought of killing other Asians, I answered that we were just trying to keep Communism from imposing its will on Asia. There were Asians on our side and Asians on the other side. If, in the end, Asians rejected Democracy and chose Communism, so be it.
I was fortunate to have served my country during the last half of the American Century. I recall in 1985 the wife of the South African attaché to Bern angrily lecturing me that we had no right to push for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after our genocide of American Indians and enslavement of Blacks. And in Singapore in 1987, the Chilean military attaché told me how dare America criticize President Pinochet for imprisoning and torturing Chileans when we had such a dismal human rights record.
I replied to both of them that yes, America had committed missteps, but we tried to do the right thing and could not stand by in silence when we saw wrong being done, even by our own government. Wasn’t I, an Asian American in an Air Force uniform representing America, proof that we were trying to be a positive force for what was right? We often take two steps forward and one agonizing step backward in our quest to do right, but America is moving forward, away from beatings in Selma, away from the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and away from the Saturday night lynchings of Chinamen in California’s gold fields.
I was blessed to be born in America, for where else could I have come so far? That doesn’t keep me from protesting against my country’s willingness to engage in a continuous state of war without considering the price that must be paid. Over 2,000 years ago, the warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu said a nation must carefully weigh the cost involved before entering a war. If Americans choose to fight, they must be prepared to pay with their blood and treasure and understand that there are limits to what power can achieve.
The boy who once delighted in watching aircraft dogfight in the skies off Waikiki Beach during WWII had taken a lifetime to learn that there is no glory or winner in war.