Beaverton veteran receives congressional honor
When the Army National Guard general came up to Fred Cheong Lee and shook his hand, moments after Lee had walked in the door for his 95th birthday party at The Stockpot Broiler in Beaverton, Lee confessed that despite more than three years spent serving in the U.S. Army, he had never met a general before.
But although he may have never met him, one of the most famous American generals of World War II depended on Lee's skills as a cartographer as his unit battled its way through France and Germany, pushing the Nazis back to Berlin.
Lee served as the only cartographer in his company of 120 men, which was attached to Gen. George S. Patton's unit as the Third Army drove from Paris into Germany in 1944 and early 1945. He made his mark early on, working long days for months on end to create a detailed map of Paris ahead of the Allied liberation of the city. During the grueling campaign that followed, he worked off aerial photography, Allied intelligence and his own mapmaking expertise, drawing up a new map every night with marked positions.
Although he saluted his staff car every day, Lee said he never came face-to-face with Patton — and he liked it that way.
"I didn't want to meet him," Lee said. "I'd heard how tough he was."
Lee was a student at Oregon State College when the Japanese Imperial Navy launched its surprise attack on Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, dragging the United States into World War II. He had turned 17 less than a month earlier, but he was eager to do his part.
On Nov. 10, 1942, his 18th birthday, Lee signed up to join the Army.
Lee served his country at a time when discrimination and prejudice against Asian Americans was widespread. He had to obtain a certification from the Chinese consulate in Portland and carry it at all times to prove he wasn't Japanese. While Chinese Americans weren't rounded up into internment camps during the war, as Japanese Americans were, the laws of the time still treated them unequally, as the Chinese Exclusion Act sharply curtailed immigration from China and barred Chinese immigrants from citizenship.
But now, with the support of people like Helen Ying and the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, veterans like Lee are finally getting the recognition and honor that was long denied to them.
"Our work is to ensure that the achievements and contributions of the Greatest Generation would never be forgotten," Ying said, noting that by demonstrating "their skills, competency, loyalty and patriotism … they continued a legacy of progress of Chinese Americans in the U.S. and enabled ensuing generations to live the American Dream."
Brig. Gen. William "B.J." Prendergast was a surprise guest at Lee's 95th birthday celebration on Sunday, Nov. 10. Prendergast presented Lee with a framed certificate acknowledging him as the recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal.
Late last year, Congress passed the Chinese American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act, bipartisan legislation that the Chinese American Citizens Alliance had long advocated to provide a measure of respect and recognition to the roughly 20,000 Chinese Americans who signed up to fight for the United States in World War II.
"Like CGM awardees Tuskegee Airman and the Native American Code Talkers, Chinese Americans faced institutionalized discrimination," the Chinese American Citizens Alliance's website explains. "When Congress declared Chinese Americans unfit to be citizens, their acts of military heroism, bravery, and sacrifice were minimized and went unrecognized."
Prendergast said Sunday that "Chinese Americans served the United States in every conflict since the Civil War and distinguished themselves in World War II, serving in every theater of war and every branch of service, earning citations for their heroism and honorable service, to include the Medal of Honor."
It was in part the service of Chinese American World War II veterans like Lee that finally pushed Congress to end restrictions on Chinese immigration in 1965, two decades after the war's end, Prendergast noted.
Lee arrived home in 1946 and was honorably discharged with the rank of technician fifth grade. The week he got back, he proposed to his college sweetheart. Less than three months after that, Fred and Gladys Lee were married.
Fred Lee obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees and later worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He had always had an interest in engineering, and he actually volunteered, during his Army days, to locate and defuse unexploded bombs in China — although he wasn't selected for that dangerous mission. He has never gone back to Europe.
"I've seen enough of it," Lee said with a small smile.
For his daughter Connie Lee Tuchman, who planned Sunday's celebration, Fred Lee is a figure of inspiration.
"I think of Dad, and I think of him as someone who served," Tuchman said. "He volunteers for all kinds of things. He volunteered for our church. He volunteered, he taught Sunday school. He volunteered for the rescue mission. He volunteered for the bomb squad. He volunteered for the U.S. military."
She concluded, quoting the Gospel of Mark: "He's my volunteer, and he is the one that I will always think of because, 'For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.' And that's how I think of my dad, as someone who is willing to give his life for us."
Lee and other Chinese American recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal will be honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., sometime next year, Ying said.
The families of Chinese American World War II veterans, living or dead, are encouraged to register online at the website of the Chinese American World War II Veterans Recognition Project.
By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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