America, the land of possibilities, has always been so in perception for people from all over the world. For many decades now, residents of various countries have travelled to the USA to live a better life, work and better prospects. These people create the melting pot of cultures and ethnicities that make the country as diverse as it is today. The Asian diaspora is one such group of people and they have always actively participated in all the happenings of the country, even World War II.
Landing in the land of dreams
Asian women and people, in general, started entering the USA through Hawaii when it was still a colony of the British. Many came with their families and many independent women travelled alone as well to escape poor living conditions, poverty and to find better work from various Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. This was reduced as the US immigration laws were made rigid which restricted all labourers from countries from the aforementioned Asian countries. These first-generation immigrant women initially started working in agriculture at plantations, worked as house-help, seamstresses all while also managing their kids, families and the cultural differences they faced.
Asian American women actively participated in World War II in various roles such as pilots, factory workers, and guerilla fighters. These women worked in many important roles. In the 19th century, the influx of Asian people suddenly increased in the country although they were denied citizenship and other basic rights such as suffrage for at least another hundred years. All Asians were discriminated against but when in 1984 the attack on Pearl Harbour took place, it made it even more difficult for Japanese women to participate in war efforts. The entire Japanese community too faced discrimination and confinement etc.
Many experts say that the reason why these women wanted to serve in the war was to prove their commitment to the country and change the way the masses perceived them. The war also helped to bring a cultural shift in Asian American homes and women finally had the chance to go out and build a career for themselves.
Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee
Although women were not allowed to serve in the army, air force and any other defence forces, women civilian pilots played a vital role in the war. The WASP program, a wing of the federal civil services, delegated responsibilities to women civil pilots to fly for non-combat related missions. These non-combat missions included testing aircraft, transportation of aircraft to and from bases. They also transported weaponry, necessary supplies and many other things to the areas in which they were required.
Two of the women who trained for the WASP program were Chinese American women, Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee. Although these two women were of different ages and never met each other, they had very similar backgrounds and also had very crucial roles in the war. From a very young age, both of them were enchanted by the world of flying and aircraft. This translated into their adult lives and led them to have their part in World War II. In 1932, Halez Lee also became the first Asian American woman to have become a pilot and joined the WASPs in 1943.
Japanese translators in the Military Intelligence Unit
Apart from the pilots, there were also many translators for the American forces who helped them understand Japanese documents for intel. The Japanese speakers they employed for the translation were the Japanese American women themselves who monetized on their familiarity with both the languages, English and Japanese. The women were recruited purely based on their race and sometimes that did not work in the favour of the American Military Intelligence Unit. Many times, the women would not know any Japanese written in the document because the way it is spoken in homes was very different from what they had to translate. Despite these challenges, as many as 50 people enrolled for this job while the war was going on.
Susan Ahn Cuddy
While many worked in groups and were known for their efforts that way, some women became known for the heroic individual roles that they played. The first Korean couple to have travelled to America taught their daughter about the freedom struggle to get free from Japanese imperialism, back at home. The daughter, Susan Ahn Cuddy grew up determined to help America in every way that she could. This led her to become a member of Women Accepted for Emergency Volunteer Training (WAVES) and became the first Asian woman to get enlisted for the American Navy. Cuddy was also so good at her job that after a while she also trained navy personnel as their combat tactics instructor. Because of her descent and gender, she faced discrimination, sexism and suspicion despite the fact that she had contributed so much to the country’s war efforts.
Nieves Fernandez and her guerilla fighters
The Philippines had a significant role in the war as well, aside from fighting along with their soldiers. They helped American forces with guerilla warfare in hundreds during the three years of Japanese occupation. One of the strongest figures amongst all these guerilla fighters was a school teacher named Nieves Fernandez. She once led a group of 110 guerillas that killed at least 200 Japanese soldiers which made her famous as a deadly, barefoot assassin. She was greatly feared by the Japanese forces and the evidence to that was the 10,000 pesos bounty that they had put on her.
Not your typical “party in the USA”
As the war needed men to fight, other places needed more and more factory workers, ship fitters, welders and labourers etc. These are all the roles that were filled by Chinese-American women who were already looking for a way to step out of their life as homemakers, running grocery stores etc and have jobs outside. This gave them various opportunities and brought a cultural shift in the roles of women in Chinese households as well. They were no longer stay-at-home wives but could earn for their family the same as their male counterparts would. This also made it easier for them to let go of the isolated Chinatown community and mingle with the culture around them.
Generations of both Asian and Asian American women had inescapable boundaries because of their gender and race. This war, albeit ugly, was a chance to rise above the labels and make the lives for themselves that they wanted. This part is often neglected because we are busy talking about either the gore and bloodshed or commemorating the big achievements. But the understanding is complete, without having considered stories like these which are more than just women but members of the society who got their rights only as the last resort.