Elsie Seetoo finally got her due. On January 29, 2019, on the ceremonial podium at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Washington D.C., the 100-year-old former U.S. Army nurse was named as a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal. The honor signifies the highest award given to an American civilian by Congress. In 1944, the female, Chinese American first lieutenant trained medical orderlies for active duty during World War II. In a television interview, the Stockton, California native proclaimed, “I’ll wear it when I go out, or maybe just to impress the other folks that live in the retirement community.”
On that same day, four male Chinese American veterans stepped forward to claim well-deserved recognition alongside Elsie. The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to eligible Chinese Americans who served in the military during World War II from December 7, 1941 to December 31, 1946. Although less than a thousand servicemen and servicewomen are still alive, the medal extols Chinese Americans for their heroism and bravery that has been largely minimized and ignored.
The Chinese American Citizens Alliance (C.A.C.A.), based in Chinatown, launched a two-year campaign to grant the dedicated vets the Congressional Gold Medal. Both the House of Representatives and Senate unanimously supported the proposal, and on December 12, 2018, President Trump signed the Chinese American WWII Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act into law. Following the Congressional Medal tradition, the first medal is cast and displayed at the Smithsonian. Veterans or their families subsequently apply for copies of the medal paid for by the C.A.C.A.
WWII was not the first time Chinese Americans served in the American armed forces. During the Civil War, they fought for the Confederacy and Union armies. In WWI, Chinese Americans fought on the side of the Allies along with Vietnamese, Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos who also represented the United States.
However, WWII was the harbinger of a turning point for Chinese Americans still living under the shadows of the Chinese Exclusion Act. On December 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything. Now the Japanese were the enemy, and the Chinese were regarded as friends. An estimated 13,311 Chinese males in the U.S., or 22 percent, were drafted, according to history professor Benson Tong in his book The Chinese Americans. Other sources say the combined number of draftees and volunteers adds up to 20,000. About 40 percent were not citizens, but the law granted them automatic eligibility for naturalization.
But other than free citizenship, why did others sign up for battle? Many were driven by patriotism for the United States and nationalism for the homeland of China. Feelings of bitterness were also lingering from Japan’s recent invasion of China, perhaps giving them more reason to fight and revenge their countrymen. Others wanted the chance to represent their race and prove that they were capable of loyalty and assimilation. And then there were those who saw the military as a means of travel and personal empowerment since local prejudice cut off job opportunities and advancement.
The majority of Chinese Americans were involved in the Army and Army Airforce, but they also served in other branches of the military including the U.S. Coast Guard and Merchant Marines. These men and women were involved in every aspect of wartime service and some were even promoted to the upper ranks of colonel, admiral, and captain.
“They had their worldview expanded and self-confidence boosted as a result of their wartime service,” writes author Benson Tong. Significant players of the era included the Flying Tigers, a Chinese-American group of pilots whose mission was to defend China under U.S. directives. Tactical victories during their tenure brought tremendous pride to Chinese around the country, especially in Chinatown.
Significant changes to the Chinese community occurred during this time, and the biggest and most welcome change for Chinese American men was Chinese women. During the war years, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 to appease China. And the War Brides Act of 1945 followed by the 1946 Chinese Alien Wives of American Citizens Act (with a 1947 amendment) opened the female immigration floodgates. These new laws now allowed Chinese wives and dependents of war vets to freely immigrate to the United States. Whereas in 1900, the ratio was one Chinese woman for every 186 men, by 1960, the sex ratio was close to 1:1.