Asian-Pacific-American Servicewomen in Defense of a Nation

Written by: Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Curator
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.
history@womensmemorial.org

Although thousands of Asian-Pacific-American women have served and are serving in the US Armed Forces in times of war and peace, only a small number of these women have told their stories by registering with the Women In Military Service For America Memorial. In celebration of Asian-Pacific Heritage Month 1999, we are recognizing several of these women by sharing their military experiences.

Asian-Pacific-American women first entered military service during World War II. The Women's Army Corps (WAC) recruited 50 Japanese-American and Chinese-American women and sent them to the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, for training as military translators. Of these women, 21 were assigned, to the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. There they worked with captured Japanese documents, extracting information pertaining to military plans, as well as political and economic information that impacted Japan's ability to conduct the war.

Other WAC translators were assigned jobs helping the US Army interface with our Chinese allies. For example, Corporal Helen M. Lee of Willows, California, joined the WAC in August 1943 and was assigned as a Chinese translator of GI training films at Lowry Army Air Field in California.

Not all Asian-Pacific-American WACs worked as translators. In 1943, the Women's Army Corps recruited a unit of Chinese-American women to serve with the Army Air Forces as "Air WACs." The Army lowered the height and weight requirements for the women of this particular unit, referred to as the Madame Chiang Kai-Shek Air WAC unit. The first two women to enlist in the unit were Hazel (Toy) Nakashima and Jit Wong, both of California. Air WACs served in a large variety of jobs, including aerial photo interpretation, air traffic control, and weather forecasting.

Sergeant Julia (Larm) Ashford joined the WAC in 1944 and served in the Pacific Theater of Operations. After the war, Sergeant Ashford was sent to Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. She remained in the Army until 1948, when she enlisted in the newly formed Air Force where she served until 1953.

A unique group of civilian women, Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) worked directly with the Army Air Forces on the home front during World War II ferrying planes from factories to air bases, testing planes for mechanical problems, and towing targets for aerial gunnery students to practice shooting. WASPs performed these dangerous assignments willingly during the years when male pilots were needed at the front. Thirty-eight WASP died in the line of duty, one being a Chinese-American, Hazel (Ying) Lee.

Lee flew pursuit (fighter) aircraft from the production factories to air bases across the continental United States. She "named" the planes she flew by inscribing Chinese characters in lipstick on the tails. Her husband was an officer in the Chinese Air Force. Lee died in a two-plane crash when her plane and that of a colleague received identical instructions from an air traffic controller on their approach to Great Falls AFB, Montana.

Maggie Gee, a 1941 graduate of Berkeley High School, started the war as a mechanical draftsman at Mare Island, California. However, her dream was to fly and as soon as she had saved enough money, she took flying lessons. She accumulated 50 hours of flight time and qualified for acceptance into the WASP. After graduating from the training program, Gee was assigned a training position. She took military pilots up for qualifying flights to renew their instrument ratings and copiloted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers through mock dogfights staged to train bomber gunners.

A small number of Asian-Pacific-American women entered the Army Nurse Corps during World War II. Army nurse Helen (Pon) Onyett risked her life tending wounded soldiers from the landing craft that came ashore in North Africa. She was awarded the Legion of Merit for her actions during the war and retired from the Corps as a full colonel. Major Mildred Nouchi also elected to make the Army Nurse Corps her career. During the Vietnam War, she was stationed at an Army hospital in Japan.

Over 200 Asian-Pacific-American women joined the US Public Health Service Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II. Gail (Chin) Wong, a Chinese-American, served from 1945-1949. She later worked in a Veterans Administration hospital from 1972 until her retirement in 1988.

Although the Navy refused to accept Japanese-American women throughout World War II, some Chinese-American women volunteered to serve. Marietta (Chong) Eng, born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a Chinese-American family, decided to enlist in the WAVES because her brother was in the Navy. Her recruiter was initially uncertain about Eng's eligibility and had to check the rule book. The Navy trained Eng as an occupational therapist and assigned her to the US Naval Hospital on Mare Island, California, and later to the Naval Hospital in Corona, California. Ensign Eng helped rehabilitate sailors and officers who had lost arms and legs in the war, teaching them to accomplish the many tasks of daily living.

Nymphia (Yok) Taliaferro of Tacoma, Washington, joined the WAVES and was assigned as the Director of the Radio Communication School at the University of Miami at Oxford, Ohio.

Filipino-American women worked with the underground resistance movement to help American forces in the Philippines throughout the three-year period of Japanese occupation during World War II. These courageous individuals smuggled food and medicine to American prisoners of war (POWs) and carried information on Japanese deployments to Filipino and American forces working to sabotage the Japanese Army.

Florence (Ebersole) Smith Finch, the daughter of an American soldier and a Filipino mother, was working for the US Army when the Japanese occupied Manila, the Philippines. Claiming Filipino citizenship, she avoided being imprisoned with other enemy nationals at Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. Finch joined the underground resistance movement and smuggled food, medicine and other supplies to American captives. Eventually, she was arrested by the Japanese, tortured, and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Finch was liberated by American forces after serving five months of her sentence. Returning to the United States aboard a Coast Guard transport, she headed for Buffalo, New York, her father's hometown. She then enlisted in the Coast Guard to "avenge the death of her late husband," a Navy PT boat crewman killed at Corregidor. Seaman First Class Finch was the first Coast Guard SPAR to receive the Asian-Pacific Campaign ribbon in recognition of her service in the Philippines. At the end of the war, she was awarded the civilian US Medal of Freedom.

Another Filipino woman who received the Medal of Freedom after the war was Josefina V. Geurrero. She supplied POWs with food, clothing, and medicine, and passed them contraband messages. A member of the underground resistance, Geurrero was asked in the early days of the occupation to map Japanese fortifications at the Manila waterfront. Her map included information on secret tunnels, air raid shelters and a number of other new installations in which the allies were interested. Just before the American invasion of Manila in 1945, Geurrero was asked, by her underground contacts, to carry a map through Japanese held territory showing the location of land mines along the planned American invasion route. She walked most of the way with the map taped between her shoulder blades. She strapped a pack on her back, distracting the enemy, who concentrated their searches on the pack rather than on her. She reached the 37th Division with the map, enabling the Americans to avoid the land mines that had been laid for them.

After the war, 11 Nisei (second generation Japanese-American) WACs, one Chinese-American WAC and one Euro-American WAC, all skilled Japanese translators who had trained at the Military Intelligence Service Language School, accepted assignments to the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section of General Douglas MacArthur's Headquarters in the Army of Occupation in Tokyo, Japan. There they worked as clerks, secretaries and translators.

The Nisei WACs, Americans "with Japanese faces," were expected to show the Japanese what Americans of Japanese ancestry were like, and to help build bridges across a cultural gap. MacArthur, however, did not approve of enlisted WACs serving overseas. He gave the women a choice of returning to the United States as WACs or being discharged from the Army and serving one-year contracts in Japan as civilians with US federal civil service status. All 13 agreed to stay in Japan as civil servants.

During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Asian-Pacific-American women continued to enter the military and to work in civilian organizations affiliated with the military, although in reduced numbers. Ruth A. Tanaka joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1949 and served for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. During her military career, she was stationed at the 98th General Hospital, Munich, Germany; Tokyo Army Hospital, Japan; Fort Ord Army Hospital, California; the 110th Evacuation Hospital, Germany; Beaumont General Hospital, Texas; the 121st Evacuation Hospital, Korea; and Letterman Army Hospital, San Francisco, California.

Lieutenant (junior grade) Yachie (Doi) Abarbanell of Fowler, California, joined the Navy in 1953 and served as an assistant cryptographic officer at the Naval Station in Long Beach, California.

Ellen Miyasaki, born in Kalopa, Hawaii, volunteered for duty with the American Red Cross. During the Korean Conflict, she served as an interpreter at the American Embassy in Yokohama, Japan, from 1951 to 1952. She was then assigned to the neuropsychiatric department of the 141st General Hospital in Hakata, Japan, where she served from 1952 to 1953. She later served as an interpreter in Okinawa.

Rita Chow was selected for the Army RN Student Scholarship Program after graduating from high school. Chow joined the US Army Nurse Corps in 1954 as a second lieutenant. In 1955, she completed a Master of Science degree in teaching and surgical nursing at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The Army assigned her as a Medical Surgery Nursing Instructor at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, Colorado. She was soon promoted to first lieutenant and became an instructor to medical corpsmen at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. She was discharged from active duty in 1958 and spent the next 11 years in the Army Reserve. She taught at Army hospital reserve units in Detroit, Michigan, and New York City, and graduated from the Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1968, Chow transferred to the US Public Health Service Commission Corps, where she rose to the rank of captain and served as the Deputy Chief Nurse of the Corps from 1973 to 1977.

Betty (Ow) Lambeth was born in San Francisco, California, and joined the Army after high school. Staff Sergeant Lambeth says that her proudest moment in the Army was when she became the First Honor Graduate of Company A, 3rd Battalion of the 4th Advanced Individualized Training Brigade, in the Engineer Equipment Mechanics Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in May 1976.

Asian-Pacific-American women continue to volunteer in defense of the nation. Born in Xian, China, Colonel Yeu-Tsu "Margaret" Lee, US Army Medical Corps, was one of four active duty surgeons assigned to the 13th Evacuation Hospital, a National Guard unit from Wisconsin, during Operation Desert Storm. The unit set up a 400-bed hospital in northern Saudi Arabia and performed 125 operations. One of Lee's patients was a high-ranking officer of the Iraqi Republican Guard. Although the unit gave him the best care possible, she thought how ironic it was that the Iraqis had threatened to bomb allied hospitals, which was the reason that these hospitals were not marked with the Red Cross.

US Army Staff Sergeant Virginia Juloya-Balanga, born in the Philippines, also deployed to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. Juloya-Balanga found her moral guidelines in the service and has fulfilled her personal goals, living her life by the Creed of the Noncommissioned Officer and the Leaders Code.

A new generation of women has entered the armed forces determined to make their mark on history. In 1996, First Lieutenant Zun-May Woo, US Air Force, deployed as part of a seven-member team to the Air Force Top Dollar Competition, which tested the abilities of finance and contracting members to survive and operate in a deployed environment. Twelve such teams represented the best in their respective commands. Woo's team was announced the winner.

Captain Melissa Kuo of Manchester, Connecticut, joined the Marine Corps in 1992 and served on active duty until 1996, when she transferred to the Marine Corps Reserve. She spent a six month deployment aboard the USS Peleliu as a member of the first Western Pacific (WESTPAC) Marine Expeditionary unit to include women. Kuo joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1997 and served in Bosnia for nine months during Operation Joint Guard, a NATO peacekeeping mission.

As the 20th century comes to an end, Asian-Pacific-American servicewomen can be proud of their contributions over the past 50 years to the US military. To date, however, only a small number of Asian-Pacific-American servicewomen have registered with the Women In Military Service For America Memorial. Please remember that until these women are registered with us, we will be unable to tell the complete story of their service. Spread the word about the Women's Memorial and register any women you know who have served, or are serving, their country in uniform.

May is Asian-Pacific Heritage Month
More than two million women have served in the US Armed Forces beginning with the American Revolution. May is Asian-Pacific Heritage Month and an opportune time to tell the stories and relive the history of America's military women. The Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc., continues its national campaign to locate and register women veterans, active duty servicewomen, women serving in the National Guard and Reserves and women who have served in service organizations so that they can be recognized in the Memorial's interactive database—the Register—which places the names, photographs, military histories and memorable experiences of registered servicewomen at the public's fingertips. During Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, why not celebrate women's contributions by registering yourself, a relative, friend or historical figure in the Women's Memorial? If you are, or know of a woman who has served or is currently serving in the military, please call 1-800-4-SALUTE or write the Women's Memorial, Dept. 560, Washington, DC 20042-0560. Internet users can contact the Foundation through e-mail at hq@womensmemorial.org.