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Adding a Missing Piece to Mosaic of American History

Spurred by tales of his uncle's WWII exploits, filmmaker chronicles the long-overlooked contribution of Chinese Americans to U.S. victory.

October 23, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | 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.

"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.

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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