142nd Wing home pageNewsArticle Display

Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage is American Heritage

An ad celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month for Airman Magazine that ran in the May 2016 tablet edition. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Maureen Stewart)

An ad celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month for Airman Magazine that ran in the May 2016 tablet edition. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Maureen Stewart)

PORTLAND, Ore. --

“We are a country of all extremes, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world. Our people defy all the ethnological and logical classifications.”

-Frederick Douglass, Dec. 7, 1869

As we celebrate the month of May as part of the 142nd Wing, we observe Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. For some, this month comes and goes without a clear understanding of what or why we are celebrating, so I wanted to dig in to bring more light to this fascinating subject at an important time in contemporary life.

Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month is a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States. A broad term, Asian/Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).

During the month of May, we remember, or perhaps learn for the first time the cultural perspectives and civic contributions of this many-faceted group.

As we dive into the history, issues like immigration, citizenship, nationality, culture and what all of these terms mean in the real-life, day-to-day experience of modern Americans, and in relation to each other, begin to surface. Taking the time to learn about and reflect on our composite nationality means to consider these things from all possible angles.

For example, many Asian and Pacific Islanders are leaders in their fields and exemplary heads of state. Their work not only focuses on elevating their craft, but  helps remove barriers for others.

We celebrate leaders like Chien-Shiung Wu, a leader in experimental physics who emigrated from China in 1936, earning her Ph.D. at U.C. Berkley. Wu would go on to work in the field of subatomic particle physics, making groundbreaking contributions to the field and adding value to the body of scientific knowledge.

Patsy Mink, a third generation Japanese American, was born and raised on the island of Maui. Her professional career was marked by underlying racism and stereotyping as she couldn’t secure a job, despite her high academic marks and accolades. After starting a legal practice, Mink would go on to win a seat to become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Hawaii in 1964. Her legislation tackled important issues for women, children, immigrants and minorities.

Along with stories of successful immigrant individuals and families, looking back into history also shows societal fears, flaws and mistakes. Asian Americans on the west coast faced an extremely high hill to climb after being singled out prior to WWII.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, FDR signed executive order 9066, creating a west coast militarization zone. Within hours, people of Japanese descent in California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon were imprisoned and sent to 10 internment camps. 

Unfortunately, this shadow side of history hits close to home. Just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, federal authorities started at the top, rounding up prominent citizens of Japanese descent in Portland, Oregon. In May 1942, Japanese Americans here were forced to abandon their homes and businesses while being detailed to the Portland Expo Center, where 3,676 people were held and relocated to internment camps. Across the west, more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were sent to the camps. 

Although their loyalty had been questioned in the most elemental way, thousands of Japanese American men signed up for military service from these detention camps, becoming a part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. 

The 442nd saw over 14,000 serve, 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and eight Presidential Unit Citations. It is one of the most decorated military units in American history. 

Other American-born Japanese would serve in an intelligence capacity as translators in the Pacific theater.

In fact, military history is full of accounts of tremendous bravery and valor by its Asian-American service members in every conflict from the war of 1812 to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The stories are many, but no single story represents the AAPI experience as a whole. We only know ourselves when we consider others.          

Take the time to ask others you serve with about their culture, their heritage and their experience. This month we take a moment to celebrate the contributions of our fellow Asian and Pacific Islander service members.