Military history of Asian Americans

Military history of Asian Americans

Asian Americans have fought on behalf of the United States since the War of 1812 until today. Due to the small population of Asian Americans in the 19th Century their contributions were not heavily recorded. In the 20th Century as the population of Asian Americans have increased contributions and documentation of their contributions have increased in kind.



19th Century

There is anecdotal accounts of Filipino American sailors serving as early as the revolutionary war;[1] however the first recorded history of Asian Americans fighting on behalf of the United States was recorded as far back as 1815 when General Andrew Jackson recorded "Manilamen" had fought alongside his in defense of New Orleans, under the command of Jean Baptiste Lafitte.[2] After this Asian Americans were not recorded in the annals of U.S. Military History until the American Civil War when in 1861 a Chinese American by the name of John Tomney joined the New York Infantry,[3] eventually dying of wounds received at the Battle of Gettysburg.[4]

Joseph Pierce (his chosen name) was brought to the United States from China by his adoptive father, Connecticut ship Captain Amos Peck. Pierce enlisted on July 26, 1862 and was mustered into the Fourteenth Regiment, Company F of the Connecticut Volunteer Infantry that became part of the Second Brigade of the Third Division, Second Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac.[5] From 1862 to 1865, Pierce unknowingly participated in what turned out to be many of the pivotal military events of the war, fighting in the major campaigns from Antietam[6] to Gettysburg to Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House.[7] He survived some of the bloodiest battles fought during the Civil War and is the highest known ranking (Corporal)[8] Chinese to serve in the Union Army. Pierce's picture hangs in the Gettysburg Museum.[9] Pierce was honored along with other Asian-Pacific Islander soldiers of the Civil War through a House resolution in 2008.[10]

He was to be followed by William Ah Hang in 1863, a Chinese American who became of one the first Asian Americans to enlist in the U.S. Navy.[3] In total more than 50 Chinese Americans fought, on both sides, of the Civil War.[2] Of those who have served only a handful received recognition of their service in the form of pension, benefits, or citizenship. A noted exception is Ching Lee who took the alias Thomas Sylvanus and served in 81st Pennsylvania Regiment.[11]

There are accounts of Filipino Americans serving in Louisiana for the Confederacy during the Civil War,[1] some of whom would serve in the Louisiana Zouaves.[12] That is not to say, all Filipino Americans who served were Confederates; there has been documentation of one, Felix Cornelius Balderry, serving in the Union's Michigan 11th Infantry.[13][14]

Another lull of recordings of Asian American service followed the end of the civil war until the Spanish American War. Aboard the USS Maine when she sank in Havana harbor, of the casualties seven were Japanese Americans and one was Chinese Americans.[15][16] Later in the war it was recorded that Japanese Americans served aboard US Warships in the Battle of Manila Bay;[4] the Philippine-American War, previously known as the Philippine Insurrection, followed.

20th Century

Philippine-American War

In 1901 the Philippine Constabulary[17] and Philippine Scouts[18] were initially founded to assist the United States against the forces of the First Philippine Republic and the insurgency that followed after its collapse. That same year President McKinley signed an executive order to allow 500 Filipinos to enlist in the U.S. Navy.[19] From these routes of enlistment came the first Asian Americans to be awarded with the United States' Medal of Honor. Private Nisperos, a Philippine Scout, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1911 when he protected his party from Moros.[20] In 1915, Fireman Second Class Trinidad, along with Ensign Cary, was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving fellow crewmembers when the boiler of the U.S.S. San Diego exploded.[21] As of 2011, Trinidad has been the only Asian American to be awarded with the naval version of the Medal of Honor.[22][23]

Early Asian American Military Academy graduates

During this period, the first Asian Americans enrolled and graduated from the Military Academies of the United States. Although Asians had been attending Annapolis since the late 1860s they were foreign nationals, and would go on to serve their own nations' military, notably Matsumura Junzo, class of 1873, the first Asian graduate of Annapolis who would serve as a Captain in Imperial Japanese Navy.[24][25][26] Nearly forty years would pass before the first Asian Americans would follow these foreign nationals. Vicente Lim, a U.S. National at the time, graduated from West Point in the class of 1914 and would receive a commission initially in the Philippine Scouts.[27][28] He would be the first of a handful of Filipinos to enroll at West Point, as one Filipino was to be appointed in each class,[28] with no more than four enrolled at one time.[29] Beginning in 1916, Filipinos Americans were permitted to enroll in Annapolis; the first batch would enroll in 1919.[24] These graduates would lose their status as U.S. Nationals in 1935 and many would go on to serve the young Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Mexican Expedition

MG Pershing during the Mexican Expedition

While the rest of the world was as in the depths of the Great War, the U.S. was looking to its south; Mexico was in the depths of its Civil War, and violence began to spill North over the border. This culminated with a U.S. response, officially known as the Mexican Expedition, which was led by Major General Pershing. Upon completion of the Expedition, against the Chinese Exclusion Act, MG Pershing was allowed to bring into the United States 527 Chinese Mexicans who assisted U.S. Forces in Mexico, and were threatened with hanging by Pancho Villa; they would go on to settle mostly in San Antonio and would become known as "Pershing's Chinese".[30]

World War I

In April 1917, the United States joined the First World War on the side of the Allies. The Philippine Islands would stand up its own national guard units to join the effort, but would not see combat. A draft was started, and alongside Hispanic and Native Americans, Asian Americans were drafted as "non-whites" filling out the "white quota" into the National Army; they too would not see combat.[31] That is not to say that no Asian Americans saw combat; Marine Private Claudio, who had studied at the University of Nevada, Reno, became the first, and only, Filipino American to die in World War I during the Battle of Château-Thierry;[32][33][34] and Sergeant Major Tokutaro Nishimura Slocum fought in the 328th Infantry Regiment, 82d Infantry Division.[35] In the Navy at its peak more than fifty-seven hundred Filipinos would enlist during World War I.[36] Many others would serve and would be allowed to become naturalized citizens,[37][38][39] but not without some difficulty,[35] or overcoming legal obstacles.[40][41]

Interwar period

Filipino Cadets being trained by a Marine on use of a M1917 Browning machine gun

The interwar period was not without incident. The U.S. was involved in the Russian Civil War, multiple events in the Caribbean that have become known as Banana Wars, the Yangtze Patrol was directly and indirectly effected by the Second Sino-Japanese War, and other events; however, there is no record of notable Asian American service members in the interwar period outside of the service academies. That is not to say that Asian Americans did not serve in the military. Between 1918 to 1933, at least 3,900 Filipinos Americans served in the U.S. Navy at any given time as mess stewards, having largely replaced African Americans in that rating.[42]

In 1934, Gordon Pai'ea Chung-Hoon became the first Asian American, U.S. Citizen, graduate of the Naval Academy,[24] this was followed in 1940 by Wing Fook Jung at West Point.[43] In 1940, Japanese Americans were the largest ethnicity of Asian Americans, followed by (in order of population) Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Hindu Americans, and Korean Americans.[44] For Europe this period ended in 1939, however for the United States it did not become an active and official, participant in combat until the attack on Pearl Harbor; from that point on Asian Americans were on the front lines for the U.S. Civilians of Oahu, including Japanese Americans, assisted with aid efforts following the attack;[45] on the other side of the Pacific Filipinos who were mobilized under U.S. command, since July 1941, prepared for an attack that would come nine hours later.[46]

World War II

Japanese Americans
Two columns of Japanese American soldiers in route step in France.
442nd Regimental Combat Team marching in Chambois Sector, France, in late 1944

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans in the Hawaii National Guard were called to duty to guard the beaches, clear rubble, donate blood and aid the wounded but three days later their weapons were taken away because of their ancestry. The next day however their weapons were given back to them but an uneasy tension lasted until June 5, 1942.[47] As this uneasy tension was going on Japanese Americans who were originally a part of the ROTC program at the University of Hawaii and had enlisted Hawaii National Guard were discharged on January 19, 1942 also because of their ancestry but would soon come together to form the Varsity Victory Volunteers. It wouldn't be until June 5, 1942 when 1,400 Nisei of the Hawaii National Guard would ship out from Hawaii and eventually form the 100th Infantry Battalion on June 12, 1942 when they docked in Oakland.[48] It wouldn't be for another eight months until there would be a call for an all Nisei Regiment, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a year until the 442nd would begin training, and fourteen months until the 100th would ship out to Europe. While the 442nd was training in the United States, the 100th in the meantime would sustain heavy losses eventually earning the title the "Purple Heart Battalion." On June 26, 1944, two weeks after the 442nd arrive in Europe, the two Nisei units combine together to form one single unit but those that were a part of the 100th wanted to keep their 100th Infantry Battalion title. The other members of the 442nd RCT were Japanese Americans from the continental United States and mostly White officers.[49] Keeping with the policy at the time, the unit was a segregated one.[50] The combat chronicle of the regiment became a highly storied one, leading it to be one of the most decorated units in the European Theater,[51] including the liberation of the Dachau.[52] Additionally the Military Intelligence Service made a huge contribution to the war effort as it consisted of Japanese Americans who served in the Pacific Front and helped with the rebuilding of occupied Japan and the decoding of Japanese intelligence.[53] The second of two Asian Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II was PFC Sadao Munemori, who was posthumously awarded for actions in Italy.

In 2000, after a review of other medals awarded to the 442nd, 21 were elevated to Medals of Honor.[54] One of those 21 was former Captain, Hawaiʻi Senator Daniel K. Inouye.[45] On October 5, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, as well as the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war.[55]

Chinese Americans
Chinese American soldier training at Fort Knox

It has been estimated that 12[56] to 20 thousand,[57] possibly up to 22 percent of all Chinese Americans men, served during World War II.[58] Of those serving about 40 percent were born overseas,[2] and unlike Japanese and Filipino Americans, 75 percent served in non-segregated units.[2] A quarter of those would serve in the U.S. Army Air Force with some finding their way to the Chinese Burma India theater with the 14th Air Service Group[59] and the Chinese-American Composite Wing.[60] Another 70 percent would go on to serve in the US Army in various units, including the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 32nd and 77th Infantry Divisions.[58] The U.S. Navy had been actively recruiting Chinese Americans as Stewards even prior to the war,[60] and this continued to be the case until May 1942, when rating restrictions would be loosened and they could serve in other ratings.[60]

Captain Francis Wai of the 34th Infantry is one of the notable Chinese Americans who served during World War II; posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for actions on the island of Leyte, this awarding was elevated to a Medal of Honor in the 2000 review.[59] Wilbur Carl Sze became the first Chinese American officer commissioned in the Marine Corps.[61][62]

Filipino Americans
Propaganda poster

From the beginning, the Philippines found itself on the front lines of the new war. Under the command of General MacArthur the Philippines prepared to defend all of the islands,[63] but following the Japanese landings on Luzon, war plan orange was reinstated leading to a hasty withdrawal to the Bataan Peninsula.[64] There the Allied forces on Luzon held, with MacArthur being evacuated out of the Philippines in March 1942. In April 1942, Major General King surrendered his force that could no longer keep up a sustainable defense. Of the 75,000 that surrendered, 67,000 were Filipinos, and a thousand were Chinese Filipinos. All were then subjected to the Bataan Death March where 5,000-10,000 Filipinos died.[65] A smaller force held out on Fort Mills, however after an assault, Lieutenant General Wainwright surrendered USAFFE in May 1942.[66] Back in the U.S. Filipinos were initially blocked from enlisting, until the laws were revised a day before Japan had begun its invasion back in the Philippines.[67] Some would serve in non-segregated units,[68] yet a segregated infantry battalion was established, which at its peak would grow into two regiments known as the 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments.[69] These units would serve with distinction similar to that of the 442d Infantry Regiment, but would not be as well documented or widely known.[15][70] It is claimed that assigned personnel of these two regiments were recipients of over fifty thousand decorations by the end of the war.[71] Back in the Philippines, some individual servicemembers and units refused to heed orders to surrender and began the guerilla resistance to the Japanese occupation, who would later be joined by parolled Filipino soldiers of USAFFE, other civilian Filipinos, and inserted forces into the islands.[72][73] The Battle of Leyte brought a return of significant allied forces back to the Philippines, including the Filipino Infantry units which had been reduced in size from its peak.[74][75] Later that year the Philippine Division was reconstituted,[76] and in 1945 those members who elected to remain in the Philippines at the end of the War were transferred to the PCAUS.[69] In all approximately 142,000 Filipinos.[77][78][79][80] When recognized recognized guerrillas are taken into account,[81][82] the number of Filipinos who served increase to over 250,000,[83][84] and possibly up to over 400,000.[85] This number though is smaller than that recognized for serving in World War II by the Philippines.[86]

Sergeant Jose Calugas became the third Asian American ever, and first Asian American during World War II, to be awarded the Medal of Honor;[87] he wouldn't receive the medal until after the occupation had ended.[88] Later in the 2000 review of Asian American service member medals, First Lieutenant Davila's Distinguished Service Cross was elevated to a Medal of Honor.[89] While in New Guinea, Lieutenant Colonel Leon Punsalang became the first Asian American to command white troops while in combat.[69][90]

Korean Americans

Koreans had been able to immigrate to the United States since a treaty was signed in 1882,[4] however that ended in 1910.[91] When the war began Korean Americans met difficulty as they were considered enemy aliens,[91] which would be repealed in 1943.[38][92][93] About 100 would enlist in the U.S. Army,[94] some of whom would serve as translators.[95] One notable Korean American service-member in World War II was Young-Oak Kim who was an officer in the 442nd Infantry Regiment.[96] He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at the Battle of Anzio,[97] the only Korean American during the war to be awarded that medal,[98] as well as the Silver Star and Purple Heart for actions earlier in the campaign.[97]

Cold War

Post World War II
President Truman salutes the colors of the combined 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, during the presentation of the seventh Presidential Unit Citation.

After the surrender of Japan, World War II came to an official end, and the United States began to demobilize. Millions of service-members were transported home, including the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In 1946, they would be reviewed by President Truman awarded their seventh Distinguished Unit Citation and inactivated, only to be reorganized in the United States Army Reserve a year later.[99] With the consent of the Philippine government, fifty thousand Philippine Scouts were authorized by Congress, retained, and recruited.[100] The Philippine Division would go on to provide occupation duty on Okinawa until 1947,[101] when President Truman ordered the disbandment of the Philippine Scouts seeing it as a form of mercenary organization.[100] In 1948, President Truman ordered the desegration of the United States Military.

Korean War
Hiroshi H. Miyamura shaking hands with President Eisenhower after being presented with the Medal of Honor.
Staff Sergeant Miyamura with President Eisenhower, after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1953.

With the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces individual all Asian American segregated units became a thing of the past, with most of the units being disbanded by 1951. Yet, many stayed on and continued to serve in integrated units; approximate numbers of Asian Americans who served during the Korean War have not been determined.[102] Some units however had a predominance of Asian Americans within their unit including the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment as well as the 5th Regimental Combat Team.[102][103]

One Asian American received the Medal of Honor for actions during the Korean War. Japanese American Corporal Miyamura of the 7th Infantry Regiment;[104] the awarding of this medal was initially top secret, as at the time he was being held by North Koreans as a prisoner of war.[105] Young-Oak Kim, having reenlisted then being promoted to Major, became the first ethnic minority to command a regular combat battalion, the 1st of the 31st infantry.[106]

Vietnam War
Asian American male wearing Army Dress Green Uniform and glasses posing for a photo.
Corporal Kawamura posthumously received the Medal of Honor for actions at Camp Radcliff.

During the Vietnam Conflict eighty five thousand Asian Americans served out of the eight million plus total service members who would be deployed to South Vietnam,[107] in fully integrated units,[15] three of whom were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Sergeant First Class Yano, was one of those three who were awarded the Medal of Honor, and As of March 2011 has been the last Asian American recipient of that medal. Many other then-future Asian Americans would serve the military out of its normal ranks, such as Hmong and Laotian Americans who fought alongside American service members in the Laotian Civil War, Vietnamese Americans who fought as members of the South Vietnam's armed forces, and Montagnard (also known as Degar) who assisted American forces.[108] Proportionally, Asian Americans suffered less casualties compared to other ethnic groups in Vietnam,[109] with a total of 139 Asian American servicemen dying during the conflict.[110] Filipino American sailors would be restricted to the rating of Steward until the 1970s, yet many would serve regardless of the restriction.[111]

By 1989, Asian Americans were approximately 2.3 percent of the total armed services, slightly greater than their proportion of total population at that time (1.6 percent).[112]

Gulf War

During the Gulf War many Asian Americans served, with some being promoted to senior officer positions,[113] including the MG Fugh who was promoted to the position of Army Judge Advocate General during the conflict.[114][115] One Asian American serviceman died during the conflict.[110]

21st Century

Nine servicemembers representing the four active duty services, reserve components and the Coast Guard were presented the Federal Asian Pacific American Council's Military Meritorious Service Award during the Defense Department's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month luncheon and military awards ceremony in Arlington, Va., June 2.
Asian American service members at a Defense Department's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month luncheon in Arlington, VA.

Asian Americans had historically been less likely to join the Military, but recent trends show that Asian Americans, particular in California, are enlisting at rates greater than their proportion of population; they are more likely to take up non-combat jobs.[116] In 2009, the Army had Asian Americans serving as 4.4 percent of its commissioned officers, and 3.5 percent of its enlisted personnel.[117]

War on Terrorism

As of 28 February 2011 (2011 -02-28), out of the 1,477 deaths that have occurred in Operation Enduring Freedom, 25 have been Asian Americans; except for 4 of these deaths, the service-members were Soldiers.[118] An additional 178 Asian American service-members have been wounded.[119]

: Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan (May 13, 2009) Navy Petty Officers 1st Class John Cid, from Quezon City, Philippines, and Thomas Damron, from Port Hueneme, California, frame walls of the Regimental Combat Team 3 Combat Operations Center at Camp Leatherneck.
Two Seabees framing walls at Camp Leatherneck.

Asian American Marines were part of the first conventional units to enter into Afghanistan in late 2001.[120] During Operation Red Wings in 2005, Petty Officer 2nd Class James Suh, a Navy SEAL, was KIA when the MH-47 he was on crashed after being hit by an RPG.[121]

Other Theaters

Iraq War

Sgt. Neal Naputo, a native of Zambales, Philippines, prepares to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle at Camp Taji, northwest of Iraq, Nov. 15.
SGT Naputo with a RQ-7 at Camp Taji.

Hundreds of Asian Americans have deployed to Iraq out of the fifty nine thousand (59,000) plus that are serving in active duty as of May 2009,[122][123] with one study stating that 2.6 percent have been Asian American.[124] The 100th Infantry Battalion (USAR) were activated for their first deployment in 2004 to serve in Iraq,[125][126] their first activation since the Vietnam Conflict.[127][128] At the end of that deployment the unit was authorized to wear the 442nd's shoulder sleeve insignia as a combat patch, the first time this had occurred since World War II.[129][130] It was activated and deployed a second time from 2008 to 2009.[131][132] With the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom having ended, and Operation New Dawn taking its place, eighty two (82) Asian American service members died during the conflict.[133]


 Portrait of a Chinese Hawaiian American in United States Army uniform circa 1942.
BG Lyman, first Asian American general officer.

The first Asian American general was Brigadier General Albert Lyman,[134] who was part Chinese and Hawaiian American. He was followed by Rear Admiral Gordon Chung-Hoon, the first Asian American flag officer.[135] As of June 2010, there have been 43 Japanese American, 26 Chinese Americans, 10 Filipino American, and four Korean American general and flag officers in the Uniformed services of the United States.[136] The highest ranked of these is Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki, who was a four-star General, and Army Chief of Staff.[137]

In recent years, Asian Americans have been significantly overrepresented at the military academies compared to their share of the national population. Although Asian/Pacific Islander Americans are 3.49% of the national population aged 18–24,[138] they are about 9-10% of the classes of 2014 at West Point,[139] the Naval Academy,[140] and the Air Force Academy.[141]

Military history of Asian Americans in popular culture

The following television shows, movies, and songs have depicted events which relate to this article:

See also


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