Chinese American WWII vets who served despite being denied U.S. citizenship honored by Congress


Chinese Americans who fought in World War II were honored on Saturday with a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. Six veterans gathered at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans to accept the honor on behalf of the thousands of their peers that served in the war. It’s the highest recognition Congress can give to a U.S. civilian.

Around 20,000 Chinese Americans served during WWII, though upon their return to the U.S. they faced rampant discrimination and laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act, which made it impossible for most Chinese immigrants to become citizens. Since the act wasn’t repealed until 1943, it meant many Chinese members of the U.S. armed forces weren’t citizens at the time of their service in WWII.

The Congressional Gold Medals received by Chinese American World War II Veterans, on March 9, 2024 in New Orleans.
The Congressional Gold Medals received by Chinese American World War II Veterans.Frank L Aymami III / Courtesy of The National WWII Museum

In 2018, after a push by Chinese veterans groups, Congress passed a bill collectively honoring them with a Gold Medal, the highest recognition Congress can give to a U.S. civilian. The ceremony was supposed to be held in Washington but was delayed by the pandemic. Similar recognition has been given to Japanese and Filipino American WWII veterans in previous years.

Six of these Chinese American veterans, many now in their 90s, were honored Saturday as they were called one-by-one to accept their medals. The representatives present to accept the medals were a mix of U.S.-born Chinese servicemembers and immigrants from China who were later drafted.

“I’m very honored and humbled to be selected to do this,” said Arthur T.S. Shak, an Army veteran from Hawaii. “We are so grateful. … Mahalo to the National WWII Museum president.” 

Arthur T.S. Shak, U.S. Army Air Corps, holds his certificate honoring the Congressional Gold Medals received by Chinese American World War II Veterans, on March 9, 2024 in New Orleans.
Arthur T.S. Shak, U.S. Army Air Corps, holds his certificate honoring the Congressional Gold Medals received by Chinese American World War II Veterans.Frank L Aymami III / Courtesy of The National WWII Museum

The other five honorees were William Shih Yin Ching, Wai Hoo Tong, Donald T.S. Lee, Harry G. Jung and Wing Fook Joseph Li.

Robert M. Lee, another Chinese American WWII vet, told NBC News in 2020 that joining the army was his only choice. As a recent immigrant to the U.S. from China, he was unable to enroll in school or find work, so he enlisted at just 14 years old.

At the time, Lee said he’s happy about the efforts to recognize his fellow Chinese American WWII veterans. But he wishes it had come sooner.

“I was elated on my behalf, of course, but very disappointed that it was so late that many people would not live long enough to receive it,” he said in 2020.

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