FALLS CHURCH, Va. – Most people are surprised when they find out that Asian-Pacific American women, particularly Japanese-Americans, served in the U.S. military during World War II, said Judy Bellafaire, curator of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
“Many Japanese women served in the armed forces while their families were in internment camps during the war,” Bellafaire said. “Lots of Japanese and Chinese women were trained as interpreters and translators and some Filipino-American women put their lives on the line as members of the underground resistance in the Philippines.”
Asian-Pacific American Women first entered military service when the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, recruited 50 Japanese-American and Chinese-American women to be trained as translators at the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minn., Bellafaire said. After training, 21 of them were assigned to the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section at Camp Ritchie, Md. They worked with captured Japanese documents, extracting information on military plans.
In 1943, Chinese-American women were recruited to serve with the Army Air Force as “Air WACs,” Bellafaire noted. They were often called the Madame Chiang Kai-Shek Air WAC unit. Hazel Toy Nakashima and Jit Wong were the first two women to become “Air WACs.” They served in such jobs as photo interpretation, air traffic control and weather forecasting.
Chinese-American Hazel Ying Lee was one of 38 Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, who died in the line of duty. Lee died in a two-plane crash after receiving identical instructions from an air traffic controller on her approach to Great Falls Air Force Base, Mont., Bellafaire noted.
Another Chinese-American, Maggie Gee, took male military pilots up for qualifying flights to renew their instrument ratings and co-piloted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers through mock dogfights staged to train bomber gunners.
“Although the Navy refused to accept Japanese-American women throughout World War II, some Chinese-American women volunteered to serve,” Bellafaire noted. Among them was Honolulu-born Marietta Chong Eng who enlisted in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, because her brother was in the Navy. Trained as an occupational therapist, Eng helped rehabilitate Sailors and officers who had lost arms and legs in the war.
Filipino-American women performed some of the most daring feats during the war as members of the Philippine underground. These women helped American forces in the Philippines throughout the three-year period of Japanese occupation, Bellafaire said. They smuggled food and medicine to American prisoners of war and carried information on Japanese deployments to Filipino and American forces working to sabotage the Japanese army.
Bellafaire said she stumbled upon fascinating stories about the exploits of two Filipino-American women while researching information for a pamphlet and exhibit for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
Josefina V. Guerrero supplied American POWs with food, clothing and medicine and passed them contraband messages, Bellafaire said. “In the early days of the Japanese occupation, she was asked to map Japanese fortifications at the Manila waterfront. Her map included information on secret tunnels, air raid shelters and a number of new installations in which the allies were interested.”
Shortly before the American invasion of Manila in 1945, Guerrero carried a map through Japanese-held territory that showed the location of land mines along the planned invasion route, Bellafaire said.
“She walked most of the way with the map taped between her shoulder blades,” Bellafaire said. “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 Infantry Division with the map, enabling the Americans to avoid the land mines that had been laid for them.”
Florence Ebesole Smith Finch, the daughter of an American soldier and a Filipino mother, claimed Philippine citizenship to avoid being imprisoned by the Japanese, Bellafaire said. “She joined the underground resistance movement and smuggled food, medicine and other supplies to American captives.”
Finch was eventually arrested by the Japanese, tortured and sentenced to a three-year prison sentence, Bellafaire said. American forces liberated her after she had served five months of her sentence. She went to Buffalo, N.Y., her father’s hometown and enlisted in the Coast Guard, the curator said, to “avenge the death of her late husband,” a Navy patrol torpedo boat crewman killed at Corregidor, a small Philippine island.
Guerrero and Finch were awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom after the war for their exploits with the Philippine underground resistance movement.
A small number of Asian-Pacific American women served in the Army Nurse Corps, like Helen Pon Onyett, who risked her life tending wounded soldiers on landing ships in North Africa, Bellafaire noted. She said more than 200 Asian-Pacific American women joined the Public Health Service Cadet Nurse Corps.
“Although thousands of Asian-Pacific American women have served and are serving in the armed forces in times of war and peace, only a small number have told their stories by registering with the Women in Military Service for America Memorial,” Bellafaire said.