BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – It’s something perhaps we don’t think of very often on Memorial Day, but there was diversity among those who lost their lives for their country.
There was diversity among those who came home, too.
Of the 16 million fighting men and women who served in World War II, for example, more than 1 million were African American. In fact, Americans of virtually every color and ethnicity fought in the war, including 20,000 Chinese Americans.
One of those Chinese Americans was 18-year-old Frank Lee, born in San Francisco in 1925 to Chinese immigrant parents. He picked vegetables in Sanger as a teen, and was drafted at age 18, two and a half years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor – the base where Lee was assigned in 1944.
His daughter Betty Lee Wong attended a Memorial Day commemoration in his honor. She proudly displayed his photo to anyone who asked.
“This is my dad. Does he look 18?” she said, laughing.
Frank Lee served until 1946, married in 1947 and moved to Wasco in 1953, where for 61 years, he ran National Market, which through the years employed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Wasco residents, young and old.
Frank Lee and Chinese Americans like him might have been forgiven for any bitterness arising from discrimination. Their acts of patriotism, loyalty and courage took place at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its discrimination impacts were in place. The Exclusion Act prevented non-U.S.-born Chinese Americans from obtaining citizenship. Despite that, 1 in 5 Chinese Americans served during World War II, 40 percent of them without citizenship.
In recognition of his service, Frank Lee was among about 1,000 Chinese American World War II veterans awarded a Congressional Gold medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress.
His daughter accepted the posthumous award on his behalf.
“I just felt so honored and felt so humbled,” she said. “Humbled and honored to receive that.”
Frank Lee got a chance to hear quite a few thank yous when he flew back to Washington, D.C., aboard an Honor Flight in 2014.
Wayne Wong said the experience brought out the dormant military man in his father in law’s makeup.
“He said he was really proud to be an American,” Wong said. “People would come up to him in his Honor Flight cap and shake his hand and he was like a rock star.”
Frank Lee wore his cap daily from then on. And he was buried in it.
Lee understood as well as anyone that Memorial Day is the day we honor those killed in battle. That’s why, on this Memorial Day Monday, on behalf of Frank Lee, Betty and Wayne Wong offer a heartfelt thank you, on his behalf, to the ones who didn’t get to come home.
As we look around Hillcrest Memorial Park, it’s easy to wonder what kind of life those who sacrificed on the battlefield might have experienced if they had come back.
Frank Lee was one of the lucky ones. And in his six decades of civilian service to the small farm town of Wasco, he made it clear that he never took his good fortune or the sacrifices of his fellow Americans, Chinese and otherwise, for granted.