Asian American women played a vital role in the American war effort during World War II. Coming from diverse backgrounds – including Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino – they have held important positions ranging from pilots and translators to factory workers and guerrillas.
Yet they were working on behalf of a country that was far from welcoming. Since their arrival in the mid-19th century, people of Asian descent have been denied basic citizenship and the right to vote for at least a century. For Japanese American women hoping to contribute to the war effort, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor pushed up barriers even further, as entire Japanese communities faced intense discrimination and incarceration in isolated prison camps. “For many, the impulse to serve came because of this racial discrimination – the desire to prove the contrary and demonstrate their commitment to the United States,” says Mika Kennedy, curator of the Japanese-American historical exhibition Exiled to Motown.
Joining the war effort through organizations like the Women’s Army Corps, the Cadet Nurse Corps, and the Military Intelligence Unit has also opened up a new world of personal freedom and career growth for women of Asian descent. “It was a huge cultural shift for many, coming from families who, before the war, did not expect their daughters to be so far from home,” says Kennedy.
Here are some of the pioneering women who contributed to the American war effort:
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Hazel Lee and Maggie Gee: Fly High as WASPs
While female pilots were not permitted to serve in the United States armed forces until 1974, female civilian pilots played a crucial role during World War II. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, a division of the federal civil service, has trained women to perform non-combat missions: testing military aircraft, transporting planes between bases, training male bomber pilots, and transport of live shooting targets. ammunition. Among the approximately 1,100 women trained as WASPs were Chinese Americans Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944) and Maggie Gee (1923-2013).
Although Lee and Gee never met, the two had a similar education. Both came of age at a time of significant anti-Chinese discrimination. Each fell in love with flying from a young age: Gee once said that as a child she regularly scanned the skies for Amelia Earhardt, who often left Oakland Airport. The only time Gee spotted her, she says, she waved – and received a wave. Hazel Lee vowed to obtain her pilot’s license shortly after her first time on an airplane in 1932. She became the first female Asian American pilot later that year and joined the WASP in 1943. Gee signed up later that same year.
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Both said their Asian heritage could make things difficult. During the training, Gee later told a biographer, “I felt like a show at the country’s fair, a two-headed cow, the amazing Sino-American WASP. But only for a minute. I got on my plane and was a pilot again. And Lee, who once made an emergency landing in a Texas field, had to convince a rancher with a pitchfork that she wasn’t an enemy Japanese fighter. Tragically, Lee died from injuries sustained after her plane collided with another on Thanksgiving Day in 1944. She was 32 years old and the last WASP to perish in the line of duty. After the war, Gee received a degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley, before working for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on weapons systems.
WASP pilots were not officially designated by the US government as veterans until 1977; they collectively received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. Gee was in attendance.
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Japanese-American translators in military intelligence
When military recruiters needed Japanese speakers to translate enemy documents, they often hired Japanese American women in the military intelligence unit, seeking to capitalize on their familiarity with the Japanese language.
But adjusting to the job was not easy. “In some cases, they were well suited for the job – but many women actually didn’t know any Japanese or knew very little; they were selected to be translators solely on the basis of their race, ”says Kennedy. “As you can imagine, there’s a pretty big leap between conversational Japanese at home and military Japanese, especially when it comes to writing.”
Despite these challenges, Kennedy says, 48 Japanese-American women would enroll in the Military Intelligence Service’s language school at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, later becoming translators and office workers.
READ MORE: These American Japanese Linguists Became America’s Secret Weapon During WWII
Susan Ahn Cuddy: Naval Artillery Officer
Daughter of the first married Korean couple to immigrate to the United States, Susan Ahn Cuddy grew up hearing about her father An Chang-ho’s struggle to free Korea from Japanese imperialism. At the start of World War II, Cuddy was determined to help the United States in any way she could, becoming the first Asian American woman to enlist in the United States Navy in 1942 as a member of WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Volunteer Service). She quickly became the Navy’s first female artillery officer. Cuddy also worked as an air combat tactics instructor, training naval personnel prior to deployment and in the Navy Decryption Office.
As a young Asian American woman coaching men, she has often faced both sexism and suspicion due to her race. But she was quickly recognized for her skills as an instructor. “It was funny because she was little,” her son Philip Ahn Cuddy told HISTORY.com. “So she would really have to twist herself around to shoot the firing mechanisms to load the machine gun.”
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Nieves Fernandez and the Philippine Guerrillas
As a possession of the United States throughout World War II, the Philippines was an integral part of the American war effort in the Pacific theater. In addition to serving as soldiers alongside American forces during the war, hundreds of Filipinos became guerrillas during the three years of Japanese occupation. It is estimated that one in 10 guerrillas were Filipino women.
One of the region’s most prominent guerrilla fighters was schoolteacher Nieves Fernandez (1906-1997). In a 1944 press article, Fernandez said she commanded a force of 110 Filipino guerrillas who killed 200 Japanese soldiers – as she herself became known as a barefoot, black-clad deadly assassin who would quietly ambush the enemy in the jungle. Although Fernandez and his force had access to guns, she told the newspaper that they had also become experts in making their own weapons and grenades from gas lines. Fernandez’s notoriety among the Japanese soldiers was so great that there would have been a bounty of 10,000 Philippine pesos on his head.
READ MORE: Filipino Americans fought for the United States in WWII, then had to fight for veteran benefits
Chinese American workers
World War II created a seismic shift in the American workforce, especially when it came to gaining opportunities. Participation in the Home Front’s war industries enabled many Chinese Americans to earn substantial wages for the first time, as defense companies that had previously banned Asian workers had to actively recruit them after much of their white labor has been drafted into military service.
Chinese-American women seized the chance to work outside of isolated Chinatown communities and family businesses such as laundries, restaurants, and grocery stores. As shipbuilders, welders and other laborers, these workers played a vital role in shipyards, aircraft factories and other sectors of the defense industry, particularly on the West Coast.
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