Asian Americans in the U.S. Military
with an emphasis on the U.S. Navy
Adapted from 4 January 2013 essay by Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command, with April 2017 update.
“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise many ethnicities and languages, and their myriad achievements embody the American experience. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have started businesses, including some of our Nation’s most successful and dynamic enterprises. AAPI men and women are leaders in every aspect of American life—in government and industry, science and medicine, the arts and our Armed Forces, education and sports.”
President Barack Obama
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, 2012
Congress approved a joint Congressional Resolution (Public Law 95-419, 95th Congress) on 5 October 1978 authorizing and requesting the President to proclaim the 7 day period beginning on 4 May 1979 as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.” The week coincides with two dates: 7 May 1869, the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States, and 10 May 1869, the “Golden Spike Day,” the day that the transcontinental railroad was completed. Congress extended the week to a month with their joint Congressional Resolution (Public Law 102-42, 102nd Congress) on 14 May 1991. Public Law 102-450 permanently designated May of each year as Asian/Pacific Heritage Month and authorized and requested that the President issue annually a proclamation asking Americans to observe the month.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of various nationalities and ancestry—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Southeast Asian, Asian Indian, and Polynesian—have a rich legacy of service and sacrifice in the United States Navy dating back to the 19th century. The U.S. Navy had maintained a presence in East Asia since the 1830s to safeguard American interests during the Chinese civil unrest. Ships whose crews counted men of Asian descent on the Asiatic Station protected U.S. commerce, missionaries, and diplomats in the region. During the American Civil War, Chinese men served on dozens of Union vessels. The U.S. gunboat Ashuelot, part of the Asiatic Fleet, operated along the cost of China, up the Yangtze River, and among the Japanese treaty ports and carried a crew in 1883 that was four-fifths Asian-born from Thailand, Japan, or China.
In 1898, the battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. The blast, which killed 266 men, including those of Japanese and Chinese extraction, provided the catalyst for a war with Spain that spread to its colonies in the Far East where the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, commanded by Commodore George Dewey, defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay. As a result of the war, the United States gained the Philippines as a territory as well as other island possessions in the Pacific and the Caribbean. These events enabled large numbers of Filipinos and other Pacific islanders to join the U.S. Navy.
Asian Americans continued to turn up on the rolls of U.S. warships. Navy Fireman First Class Telesforo de la Cruze Trinidad, a Filipino, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for rescuing two men after a boiler exploded on board San Diego on 21 January 1915.The destroyer USS Rizal, newly commissioned in 1919, was donated to the U.S. Navy by the Philippine legislature and named in honor of the martyred Philippine patriot Dr. Jose Rizal (1861–1996). Her crew was predominantly Filipino American.
During World War II, Chinese and Japanese American men and women enlisted for military service in great numbers. More than 20,000 Chinese Americans, or one out of every five in the United States, served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Although barred from the naval service and interned by the U.S. government following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans fought in some of the Army’s most decorated units. Filipino Americans and Korean Americans also participated in the nation’s war effort. Asian Americans served as nurses and as linguists in the Navy’s female reserve program. Chinese American Hazel Ying Lee was one of the 38 Women Air Force Service Pilots who died in the line of duty. Maggie Gee gave pilots their qualifying flights and flew planes for artillery training exercises. The three Ahn siblings, Ralph, Philip and Susan, from one of California’s first Korean immigrant families, enlisted in the U.S. military in 1942. Lieutenant Susan Ahn Cuddy was the first Korean American woman in the U.S. military and the first female Navy gunnery officer.
Among the many Asian Pacific Americans who distinguished themselves during World War II was Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaiian native, who was planning to become a medical doctor when the War Department reversed its decision to exclude Japanese American volunteers. Inouye was assigned to Company E, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, fighting in France’s Rhone valley when he received a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. Injured and under enemy fire, he destroyed three German bunkers that allowed his unit to seize the ridge guarding a critical road near San Terenzo, Italy. His right arm had to be amputated. After a reevaluation of the military accomplishments of Asian Americans in World War II, President Bill Clinton presented Senator Inouye with the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Italy. After extensive recuperation, he studied law. In 1954, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Hawaii, further distinguishing himself as the first Asian American member of Congress. Eight years later he continued representing his state as a Senator and held that position until his death in 2012.
Commander Gordon Chung-Hoon, of Chinese-Hawaiian parentage and a 1934 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, commanded the destroyer USS Sigsbee (DD-502) in the Pacific Theater, which earned him the Silver Star, the third highest combat award. On 14 April 1945, when kamikazes attacked Sigsbee and five other destroyers off Okinawa, one plane crashed Sigsbee’s stern. Chung-Hoon received the Navy Cross, the Navy’s highest medal and the nation’s second highest combat decoration for his actions. He retired in 1959 as a two-star admiral and the nation’s first Asian Pacific American flag officer. The Navy honored him in 2009 by naming a guided missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG-93).
Asian Pacific Americans continued their honorable service throughout the Cold War. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 mandating that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” The watershed 1965 Immigration Act lifted the heavy restrictions on Asian immigration that prevailed throughout most of the 20th century.
Commander Gordon Ross Nakagawa flew 185 combat missions in the A-6 intruder during four combat deployments to Vietnam. He was the Executive Officer of Attack Squadron 196 flying from USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) when his AGA intruder was shot down during a single plan low level night strike against Haiphong. He was a Prisoner of War at the infamous Hanoi Hilton from 21 December 1972 to 29 March 1973. Nakagawa continued his service until his retirement in the rank of captain. He remained active in his community until his death on 24 August 2011. His son, Navy Captain Steven Nakagawa, also flew the A-6. On 1 June 2012, he took command of the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division.
Jim Huen’s father enlisted in the Navy in 1932 and retired as a Chief Petty Officer. After Congress passed an act allowing veterans with honorable discharges to get their American citizenship, his father became a U.S. citizen. Jim Huen, like his father, experienced racism in the Navy. While completing supply officer school in Athens, Georgia in 1965, he encountered prejudice from locals and off base. He completed a seven month Western Pacific deployment aboard USS Delta (AR-9) as the dispersing and food service officer. One of the crewmembers on the ship wore his cover with the words “Go Home Chink” printed on it. The ship had 520 crew members. Huen was one of five supply corps offices and the only Chinese American on his ship. The commanding officer and executive officer were Naval Academy graduates and half the officers were former enlisted. There were at least twelve African Americans on the ship.
Carolyn Hisako Tanaka, a California native, witnessed the government evicting her family from their home and relocating them in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This memory did not deter her family from joining the military. Her older brother was a Korean War veteran and her two youngest brothers enlisted in the Army. She was an emergency room nurse when she decided to join them. She served as the Head Nurse at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Bin in 1967. She received the Bronze Star for meritorious service.
Robert K. U. Kihune, a 1959 Naval Academy graduate, had an outstanding 35-year career. He commanded two carrier battle groups, participated in the Navy’s response to the Lebanon crisis, the capture of terrorists in the Achille Lauro hijacking, and the antiterrorism air strikes against Libya. His promotion to Vice Admiral in 1988 made him the first Asian American to reach that rank. As the Commander of the Pacific Fleet Naval Surface Forces, he provided half of the naval forces in support of the First Gulf War. Captain Tem E. Bugarin, the son of a retired senior chief radioman, was the first Filipino to command a surface combatant ship, USS Saginaw (LST-1188) in August 1989. Rear Admiral Eleanor Concepcion Mariano continued her family’s legacy of naval service, which dates back to 1920. Her father, a Filipino master chief petty officer, served 29 years in the Navy’s steward’s branch. Rear Admiral Mariano was the attending physician to the President at the White House for President Clinton and President George W. Bush. President Clinton promoted her to flag rank in 2000, making her the first Filipino American to reach flag rank.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Sailors continue to excel in the 21st century. Captain David Yoshihara commanded Destroyer Squadron 9 in 2003. His father, retired Navy Captain Takeshi Yoshihara, was the first Japanese American to attend the Naval Academy. Lieutenant junior grade Jeanette Gracie Shin, the first Buddhist chaplain in the Armed Forces, signed her oath of office in the Pentagon in July 2004. Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. was assigned as the assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2011. His former commands include the Sixth Fleet. In May 2015 he assumed command of the U.S. Pacific Command. Vice Admiral Raquel C. Bono, Medical Corps, of Asian American and Hispanic Heritage, served as the command surgeon, U.S. Pacific Command, from November 2011 to June 2013 and was then selected as Director, Defense Health Agency.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Sailors also participated in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mass Communication Specialist First Class Kenneth Takada, a Japanese-American, completed four deployments in the Fifth Fleet Area of Responsibility and earned five Navy Achievement Medals, the Iraqi Campaign Medal, and the Combat Action Ribbon. He was the combat photographer for a special operations unit for one of his tours. Rear Admiral Jonathan A. Yuen was the Commander, Joint Theater Support, Contracting Command, United States Central Command, Kabul Afghanistan. Lieutenant Manuel Querido, the chaplain with the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, conducted counterinsurgency operations with the Afghan national security forces in 2009. In the same year, Captain Enrique Sadsad, a Philippine-born American citizen, became the commanding officer of Naval Support Activity Bahrain, which supports naval forces in the Middle East. Marcos Sibal served as fleet master chief for Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet. He retired from his final active duty assignment as Navy Region Hawaii Command Master Chief in 2013.
Navy Captain and astronaut Sunita L. Williams epitomizes the wide range of opportunities for all minorities in the Navy. Of Asian Indian parentage, Williams graduated from the Naval Academy in 1987 and became a Navy helicopter pilot and test pilot. Selected as an astronaut, she traveled on the space shuttle in late 2006 to serve as flight engineer and science officer on the International Space Station. Her four spacewalks as an Expedition-14 crew member established a record for women at the time. She also set a record for women by spending more than six months in Earth Orbit.
“Let us not forget that it was [Japanese American veterans] that gave us the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with other Americans.”
—Rear Admiral Robert K. U. Kihune, undated
“The Navy meant the opportunity to succeed. . . [and] all the good things American has to offer.”
—Rear Admiral Eleanor Concepcion Mariano, MD, c. 2000
“I hope. . . that people see that anybody from any background, really, can do this job.”
—Astronaut Sunita L. Williams, 2004
“Our Nation is diverse; our Navy must be no less so.”
—Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., 2009
“When we recognize and capitalize on the strength that diversity brings to the Navy, we are better able to develop new ideas and reach out to partners in the world.”
—Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., undated