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26 August 2020

Two new medals honor World War II veterans: Chinese Americans and Merchant Marines

The history of Americans who served in World War II has been told many times by many different people. One ethnic group that has often been overlooked is that of the Asian Americans who fought for their country – even when that country did not grant them full citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized and otherwise discriminated against them and their families, was still in effect during World War II. In 1943 the Magnuson Act repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Long-overdue recognition has come gradually to Asian American WWII veterans. Japanese American Nisei soldiers collectively received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011. Filipino vets were awarded the medal in 2017. Bipartisan legislation to create a Congressional Gold Medal for Chinese American veterans was introduced in 2017 and signed into law in December 2018. This medal was to be awarded collectively this spring at an April ceremony at Emancipation Hall in Washington, D. C., with a regional ceremony to follow in Hawaii. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has delayed those plans.

The front of the 3-inch medal depicts six men and one woman in various uniforms highlighting the fact they served in every branch of service and in every theater. Whether or not they were citizens during the war, the medal proclaims that each was "Proud to serve as an American."

Design for the Chinese American Veterans of WWII Congressional Gold Medal*

There is also a new Congressional medal recognizing those who served in the Merchant Marine, previously unrecognized because they were not part of the military, although they served and supported the U. S. Navy during the war.

CGS member Justine Wong is the daughter of Leland Wong, who served in the Merchant Marine during WWII. “Growing up I heard my dad talk about his time as a Merchant Marine,” she remembers. “He did not talk much in detail but I do remember hearing about the booming of cannons and something about my dad standing up to an officer about turning a ship around because of a sick seaman.” She learned about the Congressional Gold Medal last year, but didn't consider making an application for her late father until encouraged to do so by a friend. Her mother had lots of documents that included slips of paper with names of ships and their departure and arrival dates. The application process turned up some happy surprises: although the family's copy of her father's record stated "no medals," Justine learned from the U. S. Maritime Administration Department that her father was due a Victory Medal and an Honorable Service Medal as well as several others. Her next research project is to try to confirm stories that Leland was at Iwo Jima as well as in China and the Phillippines during the war.

Leland Wong on Catalina Island during WWII

The Bay Area Chinese Genealogy Group is trying to raise awareness about the Chinese American Congressional medal so that surviving veterans or their family members may apply to be recognized. Those who served in the Merchant Marine during WWII are also encouraged to apply for that medal.

BACGG also is hosting several events commemorating the service of Chinese Americans. This year is the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. This coming Saturday, August 29, at 1:15 p.m., a webinar featuring a virtual panel discussion with filmmaker Montgomery Hom, Ret. Major General William Chen, and historian Connie Young Yu is open to all.

On September 26, an online Chinese Genealogy Workshop will help participants with tips on how to research their Chinese ancestry.  That same day, a one-hour virtual celebration will feature presentations from the State of California and from several U.S. military and Veterans organizations. A special short film by Montgomery Hom, co-produced with Chinese American Citizens Alliance, highlights Chinese Americans in military service from the Civil War to WWII. More events are planned for November. See the BACGG website at


Any WWII veteran may be honored with an online profile at the Friends of the WWII Memorial. Fill out the application here:

To apply for a Congressional Gold Medal, the veteran or next of kin should visit one of the following websites:

1.  Chinese American WWII Congressional Gold Medal Recipient

    Additional resources are listed at

2.  U. S. Merchant Marine WWII Congressional Gold Medal Recipient

    Additional resources are at

Leland Wong and fellow Merchant Marines on Catalina Island

*Chinese American Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Images © United States Mint 2019. Non-journalism use requires U.S. Mint permission notwithstanding any terms of use.

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