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For Duty, Country, Posterity: Chinese American Veterans Share Their Stories

Writer Victoria Moy (left), converses with World War II veteran Dr. Wing Mar (right). His accounts of his military service are documented in Moy's new book on Chinese American veterans. | Photo: Elson Trinidad
Writer Victoria Moy (left), converses with World War II veteran Dr. Wing Mar (right). His accounts of his military service are documented in Moy's new book on Chinese American veterans. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

As Americans celebrate Veterans Day this week, flags will be raised, hands will form salutes, parades will stroll through streets, patriotic music will be played, and old soldiers will share war stories.

But some war stories aren't as told as much as others.

Within the Asian American community, stories have been told about the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the unit of Japanese American soldiers who fought valiantly in Europe during World War II, as their families back home were sent away to remote internment camps. Or the Filipino American veterans who fought alongside U.S. forces in their motherland during the same war, only to fight for decades after their service for the recognition and benefits that the U.S. government originally promised to them.

But not as many stories have been told about the equally valuable contributions made by veterans from America's largest Asian ethnic group. Chinese American soldiers have been serving in the U.S. military since the Civil War, when around 50 of them joined the ranks in battle, in both Union and Confederacy uniform. During World War II, some 20,000 Chinese Americans -- a quarter of the entire demographic population -- served America in battle.

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What began for New York-born, Los Angeles-based writer Victoria Moy as a search for her own family history (her grandfather served as a mechanic for the Flying Tigers fighter squadron that defended China from Japanese forces during World War II) soon grew into a seven-year journey interviewing and transcribing stories from nearly 70 Chinese American veterans across the country, encompassing different ranks, military branches, and tours of duty from the past 75 years.

The result is the recently-published book, "Fighting for the Dream: Voices of Chinese American Veterans from World War II to Afghanistan," an anthology of the oral histories of 40 Chinese American veterans from age 24 to 94, having served in World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars, as well as the modern-day military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It was really fascinating hearing from veterans of different generations touching on similar themes -- talking about what it means to be an ABC [American-Born Chinese], or an immigrant, and the idea of "Americanness" in their particular era and location, straddling two cultures," said Moy.

A handful of the veterans featured in the book reside in Southern California, including World War II Army veteran Dr. Wing Mar, Iraq War Marine Corps veteran Michael Chan, and Afghanistan War Army veteran See-wan Szeto.

Born in China, raised in Stockton, California, and currently a longtime resident of Torrance, Dr. Mar, 90, enlisted a year after the Pearl Harbor attack and served as a clerk typist doing intelligence work, deployed to Leyte, Philippines and the Army-led Operation Iceberg, which invaded Okinawa.

But like Moy's grandfather, Dr. Mar did not talk too much about the war. He would tell his children about the live monkey from the Philippines used as the ship's mascot that he was given to care for, which accompanied him to the battle zone in Okinawa and eventually became a good-luck companion (he later had the monkey returned to its homeland after the war), but it wasn't until he started writing his personal memoirs for his children two years ago that he externalized his experiences during the war.

"As you're writing, more things just seem to come back to you," said the soft-spoken nonagenarian, who submitted his already-written accounts of the war for Moy's book.

While most Chinese Americans in World War II served in Europe, which Dr. Mar presumed so as to not be mistaken for Japanese forces, he fell through the cracks and served in the Pacific during the latter months of the war.

Unlike Japanese Americans and even African Americans, Dr. Mar and other Chinese American soldiers were able to serve in racially-integrated companies. He even recalled sharing a foxhole with a Navajo Code Talker during the Battle of Okinawa. But he recalled only seeing one fellow Chinese American during his tour of duty.

Aside from an incident when he was referred to by an ethnic slur by another soldier, Dr. Mar did not really experience any blatant racism during his service.

"My captains and sergeants were all good to me," he said. "They were older men, very paternalistic toward me. They protected me a lot."

For 29 year-old Iraq War veteran Michael Chan, who served two tours of duty in Fallujah during 2006 and 2007, his experience in terms of racial and ethnic dynamics, was not too much different.

"In my unit of 150, there were only two other Asians," said Chan, who lives in L.A.'s Miracle Mile district.

He also experienced one sole incident of a white corporal being undeservedly difficult with him.

"I felt it was racist, my peers knew he was messing with me," Chan said. "We were all lower rank, but anywhere you go, there's always favoritism, you're not part of cool club, you're being targeted."

But in service, the only targeting he was most concerned with was by insurgents. Like a scene from the Oscar-winning movie "The Hurt Locker" (which he pointed out wasn't a very accurate portrayal of real-life military combat, despite being a well-made film), Chan served as security for Marine units that performed Explosive Ordinance Disposal, where the threat of gunfire and explosives was real.

PFC Michael Chan (right), in this 2006 picture, served two tours of duty for the U.S. Marine Corps in Fallujah, Iraq. | Photo Courtesy: Michael Chan
PFC Michael Chan (right), in this 2006 picture, served two tours of duty for the U.S. Marine Corps in Fallujah, Iraq. | Photo Courtesy: Michael Chan

For Irvine resident See-wan Szeto, who was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2002 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom II, being Chinese American or an Asian American was not a factor at all. For her, it was more about gender.

"In my division there were not a lot of females," she said. "I ran a maintenance shop, and every single soldier was male. There were times when people would try to push my buttons, and see if I would give in, but wouldn't ... in the military, you're more judged by your mental or physical toughness than your color or gender."

Though Szeto, too, echoed the observation that Asian faces in military uniform are rare.

"Asians don't want their kids in military," she said. "It's not very common, I don't think I knew more than five people [of Asian descent] there."

Ironically, Szeto is part of a military family. Not only is her older brother, Chi-hung, a fellow veteran (having served in Iraq as part of the U.S. Army), but their mother Astrid Luk Szeto is a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

"After my brother graduated from West Point, his Army buddies, who were far from their own families, were considered a part of our family, and vice-versa," Szeto said. "We were all brought up to value community service, giving back."

Still, she admitted that it is unusual for an Asian family to have more than one member of the family in the military.

For Chan, who grew up in New York City's Chinatown district, his experience also defied typical expectations of Asian Americans. Having been exposed to a troubled life on the streets, a broken family unit, and a lack of interest in school and formal education, he seemed fit the antithesis of the "model minority" stereotype.

But things changed following the events of September 11, 2001, when he saw a part of his hometown become destroyed and felt compelled to "do something about it." He quietly enlisted into the Marines and slipped away to boot camp, without telling his family.

For these veterans, exposure to the front lines influenced their world view. In the book, Chan ultimately felt that invading Iraq was "a waste of money" and was dismayed that the weapons of mass destruction that the troops came there for were nowhere to be found. For Dr. Mar, having worked in military intelligence, he already knew the Japanese forces were surrendering and felt that the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary. Years later, he and his wife actively opposed the Vietnam War.

For "Fighting for the Dream," the author also wanted to document what the veterans did after their service. Many of them felt their military experience gave them a new direction in life. Chan, who originally eschewed higher education, decided to study filmmaking after finding his calling making amateur videos to pass the time entertaining his fellow troops during his second tour in Iraq. He graduated from USC School of Cinema in 2012 and is currently pursuing his MFA in Film Directing at the American Film Institute in Hollywood. He also made a semi-autobiographical short film, entitled "Choice," about a troubled youth who decides to join the military.

Szeto, who once told her job recruiter, "I'll do anything but sales" after her service ended in 2005, now leads a career as a sales representative for Johnson & Johnson. She has also been active in recruiting fellow veterans to work for the company, assisting them with their resumes, and educating job recruiters on hiring people from the military.

Captain See-wan Szeto (center) at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina in 2004. | Photo Courtesy: See-wan Szeto
Captain See-wan Szeto (center) at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina in 2004. | Photo Courtesy: See-wan Szeto

Dr. Mar, who returned from the war in a hospital ship studying an anatomy book as he nursed a non-combat-related injury, used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend U.C. Berkeley and medical school at Loyola University in Chicago. After settling in Southern California to raise a family, he led an equally-storied 45-year career as an emergency room and family practice physician in various hospitals and clinics in the South Bay. In the 1970s, believing that preserving Chinese American history was important to him, Dr. Mar became one of the founders of the Chinese American Historical Society of Southern California. In recent years, he was an outspoken critic of the spying accusations levied against Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee.

While Dr. Mar does not involve himself in Veterans Day activities, Chan has participated in them in the past through joining the local American Legion post in his native New York City Chinatown.

"I kind of miss the military," he said. "It's an excuse to put a uniform on and do silent drills."

Szeto sees Veterans Day and other memorial events as a chance to do community service volunteering with her brother, having in the past served homeless veterans at a center in Los Angeles.

The veterans themselves seemed appreciative, both on the honor of having their stories included in Moy's book, and for the book itself.

"I myself didn't know the extent of what past Chinese Americans did. Capturing history is important, you learn so many things your history growing up, but I never knew about the stories of Asian or Chinese American vets. I'm grateful for what they've done," said Szeto.

"It's a cool form of documenting history ... it's definitely great that we're documenting this now," said Chan. "It gives a sense of what our dual identity -- American and Chinese American -- is through serving this nation."

For Dr. Mar, he wanted the book to generate a sense of appreciation.

"Chinese Americans are just like other Americans," he said. "We're patriotic, we volunteer for service ... we just want to be appreciated by our neighbors, without the stigma of being 'unpatriotic spies,' like what Dr. Wen Ho Lee encountered."

The author herself weighed in on the importance of documenting history in her book.

"It helps to learn about previous generations, some of the struggles we face have been faced before, getting stories from multiple generations of Chinese Americans showed me how far we've come, and how much farther we have to go," Moy said.

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