The Cathay Post #186 of the American Legion, a Seattle-based veterans organization founded by Chinese American World War II veterans, will hold its annual Memorial Day commemoration in Hing Hay Park on Monday, May 25 at 4:00 p.m.
This year’s commemoration will be bittersweet. The Post is nearing its 70th anniversary, but the membership roster—once filled with hundreds of names—has dwindled to double-digits.
“We’re down to 60-something members,” said Post Commander Jack Pang, who turns 93 this August. “Many of them are home-bound and unable to get out. We’re all dying off. It’s gone down pretty fast. In a year or two, the thing that will be the most important is preserving our legacy.”
The Post was first established in 1945 by Seattle native David “Gobby” Woo, an aerial gunner pilot shot down over Germany during World War II. He survived 27 months of confinement in German prison camps, including Stalag 17B, the Austrian camp immortalized in a film starring William Holden. When Woo returned to Seattle after the War, he established the Post to honor Chinese Americans from Seattle who had died during the conflict and to help other returning Chinese American veterans with petitioning for wives to come over from China.
The contribution of Chinese American soldiers helped pave the way for repeal of the discriminatory 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act after the end of the War and for veterans to successful petition for entry of wives to this country for the first time.
Woo passed died in 1992. The last of the 14 original charter members, James Mar, long-time owner of the Yick Fung & Co., died in 2012 at the age of 98. The Yick Fung store has been preserved as a permanent historical exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum.
Every year, the Post holds a memorial service to honor the 10 Chinese Americans from Seattle who gave their lives during World War II. This year—as in years past—the program will include the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, a tribute performance by the Seattle Chinese American Girls Drill Team, a 21-gun salute, prayers and the laying of wreaths at the base of the polished granite memorial stone in Hing Hay Park in the International District. Younger members of the Army ROTC at Seattle University will handle the firing squad. Said 88-year-old Cathay Post member Lip Mar: “We can’t handle the rifles anymore. They’re too heavy.”
In the past year, the Cathay Post has launched a partnership with the International Examiner and OCA-Greater Seattle (formerly Organization of Chinese Americans) to videotape interviews with surviving Chinese American veterans, especially those from World War II and the Korean War. Early photographs, letters and other documents will be digitized. A one-hour video documentary is being created under the leadership of Tuyen Kim Tuyen, a media producer and videographer at Highline College.
“We’re hoping this video project helps us preserve our legacy,” Pang said. It’s very sad. We haven’t really thought enough sharing our legacy until just recently. Most people aren’t even aware that Chinese in Seattle went to war and sacrificed their lives for this country. People don’t understand that we laid the groundwork for other people coming over here. I’m proud to be a veteran. I fought for this country. But compared to the Nisei vets, we’re practically unknown. People think we didn’t do a damn thing. They don’t even know about our annual scholarship program—the support we’ve been providing for high school students.”
At the monthly meeting of the Cathay Post this past weekend, Post member Tom Lehning, a Korean War veteran noted that there have been active discussions about disbanding the Post in the next five years. Pang added that if the organization dwindles to fewer than 15 members, the American Legion might automatically “deactivate” the Post.
Recently, Pang has attended community planning meetings, hosted by the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, to discuss plans for expansion and renovation of Hing Hay Park. The building adjacent to the Park, formerly occupied by the International District branch of the U.S. Postal Service, will be torn down to make way for the upgrade, funded by a successful parks levy.
Pang suggested that Hing Hay Park be renamed the “Hing Hay Veterans Memorial Park” and that minor enhancements, including installation of railings near the steps to the memorial, be added to highlight the presence of the memorial. Eventually, he added, it would be nice to add a small pagoda-style room over the memorial.
“It shouldn’t really cost that much,” Pang said. “It’s a small gesture given what the veterans gave for this country. It’ll help draw tourists down to Chinatown, and with the names of the veterans on the memorial, people will begin to appreciate what this slab of granite actually means.”