Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
When Honolulu native Capt. Francis Brown Wai landed on Red Beach in Leyte in the Philippines on Oct. 20, 1944, Gen. Douglas McArthur’s forces seeking to retake the island from the Japanese were disorganized and pinned down by machine-gun fire on an open beach. Many of the officers who had landed before him were either dead or wounded. Wai immediately took charge, issuing orders and exposing himself to enemy fire in order to locate the Japanese machine guns. Inspired by his heroism, the soldiers advanced and knocked out the enemy positions. Wai’s actions, however, cost him his life.
For his bravery, Wai was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In 2000, he was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for valor in action against the enemy.
Capt. Wai was one of about 20,000 Chinese American soldiers who fought in World War II, about 1,000 of them from Hawai‘i.
Unlike the Japanese American soldiers who served, the Chinese American men and women who served in World War II were not segregated. They served in all branches and theaters. Many volunteered despite being barred from U.S. citizenship at the time.
On Dec. 20, 2018, Congress finally recognized the service of Chinese American World War II veterans with a Congressional Gold Medal, an honor that Japanese American and Filipino American World War II soldiers had already received.
“I’m happy that the Chinese-Hawaiians are being honored for their service to their country,” said Lambert K. Wai, a World War II veteran and the younger brother of Francis Wai. “Many have done it with great sacrifice. Many were injured. My brother was killed.”
This spring, surviving Chinese American veterans and the family of those who died will receive the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony/banquet in Honolulu. A website, www.CAWW2hawaii.org, contains information on the banquet. Families can also register on the website to receive a replica medal for their loved ones or to donate to the effort.
Organizers are urging these veterans’ families to register for the medal and to share their families’ stories for the Hawai‘i website and the national caww2.org Chinese American World War II Veterans Recognition Project website.
“Many of the warriors, Chinese warriors, that served in World War II from Hawai‘i were also of Hawaiian ancestry,” noted retired Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, former Hawai‘i adjutant general and co-chairman of the Chinese American World War II Recognition Project – Hawai‘i. Like the AJA veterans, the Chinese veterans came home, raised families and helped to build today’s Hawai‘i. Among notable Chinese American veterans from Hawai‘i were U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka and Hiram Fong and state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Richardson.
The Chinese stepped forward to fight for the United States, Lee said. “They said, ‘This country is worth fighting for and I’m going to fight for America.’”
Craig Gima is communications director at AARP Hawai‘i. A Honolulu native, Gima spent nearly 19 years at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a variety of roles before joining AARP in 2016.