Oakland 98-year-old awarded Congressional medal for World War II service

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Decades after his patriotism, an Oakland Army veteran is being honored with a Congressional medal for his military service during World War II.

At 98, Harry Lew is one of just 300 or so surviving Chinese American veterans of the war.

Last year, Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the roughly 20,000 Chinese Americans who served during World War II during a virtual ceremony. Lew, who still enjoys playing tennis in San Francisco with fellow seniors each week, was finally presented with the honor during an in-person ceremony at Lake Park, a senior living community not far from Lake Merritt. Now vaccinated, roughly 75 people attended, including members of Lew’s family.

“It was really amazing,” Lew said after the ceremony. “I really feel happy and very good that I served my country well.”

The honor comes as Asian Americans across the country have faced a rise in racism and violent attacks in recent months, attacks that are unfortunately nothing new for many veterans. Even as they served their country, many also faced racism and discrimination. Many of those with Chinese ancestry who served in the war were barred from becoming citizens because of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other discriminatory policies.

“What was extraordinary for these 20,000 Chinese American veterans was the choice they made in the face of gross prejudice despite facing racial discrimination at home, including the hateful Chinese Exclusion Act that remained in place until 1943,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., whose own father signed up to serve, during a virtual ceremony to honor the 20,000 veterans in December. “These men and women were proud to serve our country. They deserve our deepest gratitude, and it is with tremendous pride that we honor them today.”

Helen Wong, commander of the American Legion Cathay Post 384, has been tracking down dozens of veterans like Lew to hold ceremonies before it’s too late.

“The urgency is that most of our veterans are age 95 and up so we want to get these medals out as soon as we can,” Wong said Saturday. “It tells you we’re no less patriotic than the next door neighbor. There’s a lot of anti-Asian hate going on, but I think with stories like this we’re able to honor our elders and those we served with with pride. We’re going to keep going.”

As a young man, Lew landed at Balikpapan, Borneo, where he remembers helping arrest enemy spies the second day after landing. “Incidentally, I was the only Chinese-American soldier in the 727th Amphibian Tractor Division,” he said, adding that he was able to communicate with Chinese speakers at a camp in the area, who pointed out the spies. “The information received from those spies was of great importance to our forces in Borneo,” Lew said. The veteran also remembers helping bring fresh drinking water to those in the camp.

On Saturday, Lew said he was thrilled to see support for his efforts. “Despite coming from different backgrounds, Chinese-American service members fought alongside their fellow Americans with a shared love for their country,” Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said during the virtual ceremony in December. Chinese Americans “flew bomber missions over Europe, served on our ships in the Pacific, stormed the beaches of Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate Central Europe.”

“With this honor,” Takano said, “we are telling a more complete story of the people who fought for the United States during World War II and the personal and systemic challenges they faced.”

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