Chinese American veterans get their due
"I'm no hero," World War II veteran James J. Hong said on five different occasions during a recent half-hour interview.
However, the facts of Hong's service belie his persistent modesty. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force during 1944 as a member of the 94th Bomb Group, Squadron 410.
A resident of Milwaukie for more than 50 years, Hong tries to keep a low profile, and when asked about his military service, downplays his bravery in the war against fascism. But he also acknowledged that he could have gotten a deferment when he was drafted while working at Oregon-based Columbia Aircraft.
"I just wanted to do my job and get it over with," he said.
Hong, 96, said he volunteered for the Army Air Force, rather than the infantry, because he didn't want to have to march through mud or sleep on the ground. He knew, however, how dangerous airborne warfare was, with many of his friends shot out of the air, never to return. And before his service to the Allied Forces was complete, he would end up on a forced march through muddy fields and sleeping in the dirt after all.
Hong served as the tail gunner among a 10-man team bombing Germany from a B-17 Flying Fortress, the same model of legendary plane that was famously parked outside of the Bomber Restaurant in Oak Grove.
On April 18, 1944, while headed to Berlin on their seventh mission, their plane was attacked by 50 Nazi fighters that knocked out engines on their left-hand side. With the plane's communications system down, it kept veering to the right and flew over some anti-aircraft weapons near Leipzig that delivered its final blow.
"Those of us in the back would have never gotten out, if it hadn't been for one of the guys saying he was hungry for a corned-beef sandwich," Hong said. "Heading up toward the cockpit, he noticed everyone else was gone, so we were able to bail out with parachutes with only 1,500 feet before the plane hit the ground."
Hong uses the incident as more evidence of his supposed lack of heroism, since he and the other crew members were trying to save their own lives by abandoning the B-17.
However, the crew members saved themselves in part because they hoped to serve the U.S. again in future military actions, including the Normandy Invasion.
Hong said he would have loved to participate in the invasion of German-occupied France that became a turning point in the war.
"Unfortunately, I only had seven bombing trips out of Edmunds, England, but at least I'm alive," he said.
Hong's co-pilot and navigator presumably were killed by anti-aircraft weapons as they parachuted down, but the other eight members of the team escaped the crashing B-17 and were taken prisoner in a notoriously harsh camp near Krems, Austria.
Locked in a railroad car on his way to the prison, Hong said he felt most in danger of dying throughout the war, due to an American air raid that was targeting parts of the Nazi rail system.
Hong would end up spending about a year in the prison where the inmates frequently were forced to double up in bunks to keep warm due to insufficient blankets. He said he didn't think about the thin barley soup prisoners had to subsist on as much as his regret that he couldn't participate in the Allied invasion of Germany.
"They eventually marched us out of the prison because the Russians were coming," he said.
Hong was among the approximately 4,000 prisoners who were forced on an 18-day march across more than 100 miles of present-day Austria, sleeping in fields along the way, watched by vicious dogs under the command of gun-wielding Nazi soldiers.
The prisoners ended up in a forest outside of Adolf Hitler's birthplace Braunau, where they were liberated by the advance guard of the Third Army led by U.S. Gen. George S. Patton.
"We were more hungry after we were liberated than when we were in prison, because the supply line couldn't keep up with the advancing Third Army," he said.
After a couple of days of additional suffering, Hong said he finally felt truly liberated when the Allied supply trucks arrived with fresh food for the prisoners in May 1945.
The Chinese American Citizen Alliance recently was successful in lobbying Congress to approve Congressional Gold Medals for Chinese Americans who served in WWII, in recognition of how they, like previously medal awardees Tuskegee Airman and the Native American Code Talkers, faced institutionalized discrimination.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, which was in effect during WWII, prevented non-U.S.-born Chinese Americans from obtaining citizenship. However, an estimated 20,000 Chinese Americans served in WWII, 40% without citizenship, which was about 1-in-5 people with Chinese ancestry at the time living in the U.S.
As a Chinese American, Hong said he experienced no discrimination while serving the U.S. during WWII.
"They treated me just like I was part of the group of buddies or brothers," he said.
The Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act was signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 20, 2018. It will be the sixth gold medal that Hong adds to his collection, and he reacts to it with his typical modesty.
"To me, just being alive is enough, because others weren't so lucky," Hong said.
WHAT: The Chinese American Citizens Alliance's Portland chapter (cacaportland.com) is on a quest to help register Chinese-American WWII veterans in Oregon so they can receive a Congressional Gold Medal
GET INVOLVED: The official website with more information about the project to recognize Chinese-American WWII veterans is CAWW2.org.
INSIDE: Our annual look at local veterans appears as a special section inside this issue. The stories also can be found online at Bit.ly/PamplinVeterans.
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