World War II veteran Gilbert Hong Hin Hee was excited to be part of a group receiving a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of the service of Chinese Americans during the war.
What the former Army tech sergeant didn’t know was that he had also been approved, all these years later, for a Bronze Star for “meritorious achievement in active ground combat against the enemy.”
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy signed the award July 22.
The Bronze Star was to have been presented Saturday at Hee’s home in Hawaii Kai by retired Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, a former Hawaii state adjutant general and co-chairman of the Chinese American World War II Recognition Project-Hawaii.
But now the award will have to be made posthumously, and at a later date.
Hee died Friday at age 96 after battling a number of lengthy illnesses. The Army veteran had been moved back home to live out his final days.
Over 3,000 Chinese American World War II service members nationwide have been approved for the Congressional Gold Medal, with more expected to be added to the list, Lee said.
Fewer than 100 from that group, living and dead, have been nominated to the Army for a retroactive Bronze Star. Hee was going to be the first one to receive the award.
His son Gordon, who lives in Irvine, Calif., said his father never talked a lot about his Army service, which included driving a half-track vehicle in Germany and witnessing the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, but that service imbued his life.
“When we heard about the Congressional Gold Medal and then just recently found out from retired Maj. Gen. Lee about the Bronze Star medal, ” it was a nice surprise, Gordon Hee said by phone.
“All these years have gone by where his military experience was kind of downplayed within the family because, although it was there, he never really spoke of it or amplified it or made a big deal of it, ” Hee said. “It was just kind of a thing that he did that people recognized and respected.”
He added, “But at the end to have this kind of honor bestowed upon him for his service, to me was kind of a nice bookend for his life because he was a young man, went to service and then he received these great honors at the end. And his life in between, whether he himself recognized it or not, was highly influenced by his experience in the military.”
A review of Gilbert Hee’s record–his actual name was Hong Hin Hee–showed that, “Hey, this guy should have a retroactive Bronze Star medal, and the Army said, ‘You are right, ‘” Lee said.
Hee was part of the Central European campaign, sweeping from Normandy, France, to Germany, Lee said.
“I talked with him in June … and he was really grateful for the Congressional Gold Medal, ” Lee added. “I try not to tell families that I’m putting them in for the Bronze Star medal, just in case should it not happen.”
The Congressional Gold Medal was to have been awarded collectively to the Chinese American veterans–approximately 90 % of whom are now deceased–in an April 29 ceremony at Emancipation Hall in the nation’s capital. Congress passed the recognition act in late 2018.
COVID-19 delayed that as more of the aged veterans continue to pass away.
The journey has been a long and multifaceted one for veterans like Hee, who was born in Waimea, Kauai, to immigrant plantation parents.
“He found it amusing that a Chinese American boy from a small town in Waimea, Kauai, was driving a half-track loaded with U.S. troops through the snow in Germany during wartime. He would just blurt out things like that, ” his son said.
The modest man didn’t focus on his own experiences.
“What he would talk about is his great respect for the military and about his experience as part of the military–not in the day-to-day actions, but being part of that organization and being part of something great, ” Gordon Hee said.
His discharge papers say he was a supply noncommissioned officer with Company A, 357th Infantry Regiment, qualified as a combat infantryman.
After returning from the war, Gilbert Hee got a job with Amfac, a land development company. A former colonel who was working there came through the warehouse “and recognized Dad as a good soldier and took him under his wing, ” the younger Hee said. “And that led to basically his entire job career and success working at Amfac.”
Some Chinese Americans who served in the war did receive awards at the time, Lee said. But all too often, that wasn’t the case.
The Bronze Stars being newly awarded fall in line with the Congressional Gold Medal “for all the disadvantaged minorities that weren’t really recognized because of the discrimination back then, ” Lee said.
“That’s how it was back then. So we have a chance to make things right, ” he said.
U.S. Army Pacific is helping facilitate the Bronze Star awards.
Aging Chinese American World War II veterans and their families, meanwhile, have to wait on improving COVID-19 conditions for the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal.
Japanese American Nisei soldiers received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011. Filipino vets were awarded the medal in 2017.
“Nothing can happen until Congress presents the award in D.C. So we’re hopeful sometime within the end of the year, ” Lee said.
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