During an 18-month stretch of World War II, three brothers of a Chinese American family from Los Angeles all joined the United States Military.
Herbert Tom went into the U.S. Army in January 1943, serving in the Army Air Corps’ 9th Air Force in Europe until after the war’s end.
The eldest brother, George W. Tom, joined the Army five months after Herbert. George served with the 14th Air Force – the famed “Flying Tigers” in the China-Burma-India campaign.
Their younger brother, Baldwin Tom, enlisted in the Navy while he was still in high school in May 1944, receiving Asia Pacific and Philippine Liberation medals during his two-year hitch.
The Tom brothers exemplified the Chinese Americans’ undeniable devotion to a nation that had otherwise treated them horribly and violently, from the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 until its repeal in 1943.
“They really did embody service,” said Pamela Tom, Herbert Tom’s daughter.
Now, 20,000 Chinese American World War II veterans are eligible to receive Congressional Gold Medals for their service to their country, though the recognition comes far too late for most. President Trump signed the medal into law in December 2018. Surviving veterans must register to receive the medals. Family members of those who are deceased can do the same for posthumous recognition.
According to the 1940 U.S. Census, about 78,000 people of Chinese ancestry lived in the U.S. mainland’s population. About 29,000 more lived in Hawaii, which did not become a state until April 1959.
Yet, when Japan surrendered to end World War II in April 1945, all branches of the U.S. military combined included more than 13,000 Chinese Americans in active duty, part of the estimated 20,000 who served during the course of the war.
Possibly 8,000 of those 20,000 veterans were Californians, said Ed Gor, of the nonprofit Chinese American World War II Veterans Recognition Project.
Receiving their due honors is a decades-old dream for Chinese Americans, he said. The campaign began to gather steam in 1998 with the publication of a book titled “Duty and Honor: A Tribute to Chinese American World War II Veterans of Southern California.”
The labor of love by Marjorie Lee, Suellen Cheng, and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, featured over 400 Chinese American veterans and details of their service. All three Tom brothers are in the book.
“Marjorie did an amazing job of finding people,” Gor said. Lee, a UCLA researcher, found them by venturing into Chinatown in Los Angeles every Saturday night, looking to make connections and get photos and documentation for the book. She had to win their trust. “Maybe a month later, they’d bring what I needed,” she said. “I got it done on a wing and a prayer.”
Despite the amazing amount of legwork, she knew she documented only a small percentage of the Chinese American veterans.
The Congressional Gold Medal effort is a projected headed by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, based in SF (Chinatown), founded in 1895.
The CAWW2 Recognition Project has emerged as a point of registration for the veterans and their families. About 3,000 veterans have received approval thus far, Gor said.
The organization hoped a brief ceremony honoring five of the Chinese American World War II veterans, held in January 2019 at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. would generate awareness among the Chinese Americans.
Then, the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak forced postponement of a much larger event, scheduled for April 27-30 of this year in Arlington, Virginia. Organizers expected to draw as many as 800 living veterans or family representatives. The postponement will not deter the organization’s quest to reach the living veterans or their families, Gor said. Chinese Americans veterans, like the brothers Tom, will finally get the recognition they deserve.
To register, visit CAWW2.org. Regional events to present the award will be scheduled or rescheduled once the coronavirus restrictions ease.