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Adding a Missing Piece to Mosaic of American History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Montgomery Hom was 7 years old in 1976 when his uncle, Leon Yee, first told him about his experiences as a tiusanbing--the Cantonese word for paratrooper. As a corporal in the U.S. Army’s 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, Yee had parachuted into Normandy at midnight on D-day.

“I remember I was pretty excited about it, the fact that he was a soldier,” says Hom, 31, who went to his elementary school library the next day to see if he could find a picture of his uncle in the books on World War II.

Hom found no pictures of his uncle. Nor did he find any pictures of any other Chinese Americans who served in the U.S. armed services during the war.

But his uncle’s reminiscences sparked the San Francisco native’s lifelong fascination with the history of World War II--an interest that has led him to spend seven years making a documentary that pays tribute to a group of veterans that has long been overlooked in the history books.

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“We Served With Pride: The Chinese American Experience in WWII” is a one-hour documentary that tells the stories of 29 Chinese American military veterans and civilians who served overseas and on the home front. The film, which will begin airing nationally on PBS stations on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, tells their stories through original news footage, personal photos, period re-creations and interviews.

“He did a tremendous job, considering that so much time has elapsed [since the war], and it’s a good thing he did it because, since the making of the film, several of the people have passed away,” says Delbert E. Wong, 80, who appears in the documentary.

Wong, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross as a navigator on a B-17 in Europe, added, “Considering that it’s a story that should be told and hasn’t been up to now, I think it’s very good that [Hom] undertook this task and was very tenacious in bringing together the people who participated in World War II.”

Margaret Gee of Berkeley, a former WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilot), also featured in the film, will be among the honored guests at the Orange County premiere sponsored by the Orange County Chinese Cultural Club on Saturday at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda. The documentary had its Los Angeles premiere in August, at the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

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Racism Did Not Deter Them From Serving

The veterans in the film represent the approximately 20,000 Chinese Americans who served in the military during World War II, when fewer than 95,000 Chinese were living in the United States. “When you look at the number of those who served, those are really high numbers,” said Hom, who lives in West Los Angeles.

Other Asian Americans who fought in the war included the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion, which together became the most decorated combat unit for its size and length of service; and the Filipino soldiers who fought but are still awaiting benefits promised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941.

And they served, Hom said, despite decades of discrimination and limited opportunities resulting from exclusionary laws that kept Chinese from obtaining citizenship, buying homes and land and, in some cases, living in some communities.

“I think part of [the reason they served] was because at that point they really loved their home because this was their home--they were no longer in China--and they had to do like all other good Americans, to step forward and answer the call of duty,” said Hom.

His documentary began as a small, unfunded local oral history project in 1993 after he had graduated with a degree in communications and media from San Francisco State. But after his first year of interviewing veterans in California, he realized, “I can’t tell this story just as a local oral history.” One veteran would say he had a brother in Texas who served during the war; another veteran would say he had an uncle in Mississippi.

In all, Hom interviewed nearly 100 military vets and civilians who worked in defense plants and for the Red Cross. Because he had been studying World War II since grade school, his military expertise enabled him to easily get the veterans to speak in detail about their wartime experiences.

“I sort of spoke their lingo,” he said. “Many had never even told their sons or daughters or wives completely what they did during the war, and it was a shame. Here I was talking to them for the first time and their family was watching the interview, and they had no clue of the information their dad or uncle was giving me.”

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The low-budget film was launched in part by small donations from the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of America and several other Chinese American community groups. Two private sources recently provided the funding to finalize and polish the documentary for its PBS airing, and, Hom said, he also received support from Warner Bros. and other production-services groups that deemed the project worthy.

“It’s been an incredible journey for me these past seven years, meeting all the families and all the veterans,” said Hom. “We’ve gotten really close. They kind of consider me a surrogate godson.”

The documentary points out how much World War II was a turning point for Chinese in America. “The armed services gave the Chinese an opportunity to advance, to step up into areas that weren’t available to them,” Hom said. “They were able to learn trades [in the military], and more important, by serving their country they were able to gain citizenship for the first time.” They also were able to tap the GI Bill and other veterans’ benefits after the war, he said.

"[Asian] people today, especially the younger generation, take things for granted because it’s so easy to do whatever they want today,” he said. “They can go to any school, get any job. It wasn’t like that, especially for minorities like the Chinese, back then. The opportunities were so limited.”

The President Publicly Acknowledges Their Role

“We Served With Pride” premiered at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, 1999, which President Clinton proclaimed as a day of recognition for Chinese Americans. The day before, Hom and the film’s co-director Patrick Shen of Orange received a surprise invitation from the White House. They, along with 17 veterans and their families, and several members of the Organization of Chinese Americans, met with the president in the Oval Office.

It was, Hom said, the first time an American president has publicly acknowledged Chinese Americans’ military service in World War II. “It was bittersweet because it was long overdue.”

Hom’s Uncle Leon saw portions of the documentary but died in March 1999 at 76 before the film was finished. Hom inherited his uncle’s wartime mementos--personal photos, decorations, a uniform and three letters.

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The letters were written by Leon Yee’s paratrooper buddies in Europe while he was in a stateside hospital recovering from a serious head wound, which he suffered three days after D-day. Hom tracked down one of the letter writers, his uncle’s old platoon sergeant. Carson B. Smith, now living in Georgia, wrote back to Hom.

“He said my uncle was a very reliable soldier, calm under fire, and all the guys could count on him,” said Hom. “I was just extremely proud to know he was a hell of a soldier.”

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“We Served With Pride” will be screened Saturday at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, Yorba Linda. $40 per person. For reservations, call (949) 462-0177.


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