Back in 1943, Joe Young, a Chinese American living in New York, was a photography buff when he saw an advertisement looking for young men to join a new unit in the air force. Young, who was 18 years-old at the time, volunteered to join the air force as a chance to work in aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance to further his photography career.
Young joined the 14th Air Force and 87th Signal Company, the only all Chinese American units that served in the U.S. Army in World War II. They were also known as the “Flying Tigers,” referencing the era of P40 airplanes with the snarling jaws of a shark.
From September 14 through 17, the veterans came to Seattle to celebrate their 67th anniversary reunion. The group is the largest Chinese American veterans group in the U.S. to hold a regular reunion and the only part of the 14th Air Force that still has reunions to reminise honor their time in the military.
“I remember many things,” said Young. “I met a lot of wonderful people in the army that are still friends of mine today. I miss them.”
The 14th Air Force was commanded by General Claire Chennault and was formed during WWII when Chinese communist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, an ally to the U.S, needed help from the U.S. to supply the Chinese army. The Chinese leader turned down the offer of having a Caucasian ground crew to help train his men, since they could not speak Chinese. The war department then had the idea of utilizing Chinese Americans.
It was advertised in Chinatowns across the country that the air force was looking for young, Chinese American men with technical skills or administrative skills to create a ground crew. There came to be about 2,500 men in the 14th ASG and between 200-300 men in the 987th Signal Company that flew out to the China-Burma-India region.
About half of them were able to speak Chinese well, while others hardly knew the language. Most of the GIs had Chinese surnames and went through basic training in different parts of the country.
Many of the young men had volunteered. Some wanted to show their patriotic duty while others wanted adventure. Young, who was born in Canton, wanted to return to help his homeland. Many others didn’t know anything about China and their roots.
“To make it really clear in their minds,” said veteran Harry Lim, “they were all truly American GIs from the inner core to the outer skin. They didn’t go there to be Chinese GIs. They didn’t go there to be part of the Chinese. They went there as part of the US Army and that is it. The US was their country.” Lim’s daughter, Christine, served as reunion’s co-chair.
After returning home from the war, 30 percent of Chinese Americans utilized the GI bill offered by the U.S. government and went to trade school or college.
“They’re not going to work in a restaurant after what they did overseas,” said Harry Lim. “They fought and bled for this country and they fought for democracy and freedom in other countries. Now that they’re back in America, they want freedom and democracy, too.”
Their fight for equality can be seen as the Chinese American veterans’ primary legacy. Chinatowns across the country changed after they returned from war. Many were re-energized from money that the veterans earned. Some Chinatowns, like the one in Fresno, California, died out when the veterans had better access to education and jobs.
As Young looks back on his time serving in China, he remembers the Chinese civilians looking up at the American GIs as “something special.”
“When they saw the American GI patch, they saw as special that we came to help China fight. Chinese civilians back in Qingming … I will always remember for the rest of my life,” he said.