Honoring Asian-American service in World War I

By Kevin BraafladtMay 5, 2021

Sgt. Sing Lau Kee, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry.
Sgt. Sing Lau Kee, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry. (Photo Credit: Picasa) VIEW ORIGINAL

Since the earliest days of First Army, Soldiers of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent have been changing the face of the force.

Even as war clouds settled over Europe in the early 1900s, the U.S. was beginning to recognize the extraordinary bravery of the Filipino troops who served in the Philippines during the Moro Rebellion.

Pvt. Jose Nisperos, a member of the U.S. Army’s 34th Company of the Philippine Scouts, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Lapurap on September 24, 1911. Even with a broken arm and numerous spear wounds rendering him incapable of even standing, Nisperos had fired his rifle with one hand, repulsing the enemy and saving dozens of troops.

Just a few years before the United States entered into World War I, Cadet Vicente P. Lim graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, the first Filipino ever enrolled in that institution. He graduated 77th out of 107 cadets.

When the United States officially joined the war on April 6, 1917, and began raising the massive Army required for the conflict, Asian/Pacific-Americans would again answer the call. The stories of their tenacity and resolve would lead to some incredible “firsts.”

Sgt. Bhagat Singh Thind was stationed at Camp Lewis, Wash., in 1918. Thind, an Indian American from British colonial India, was a Sikh and the first U.S. Soldier to be allowed, for religious reasons, to wear a turban in uniform. While Thind enlisted too late to see combat, he served at Camp Lewis for the remainder of his service.

Other Asian/Pacific-Americans did see wartime action, becoming some of the first to be recognized for valor in combat.

Pvt. Tomas Mateo Claudio, a Filipino soldier attending the University of Nevada, became the first, and only, Filipino American to die during the war. He initially served with the 41st Infantry Division in the trenches of the Toul Sector and, later, with the reserve division near Paris. He was eventually transferred to the Marne sector where he was killed on June 29, 1918, as a result of enemy fire during the battle of Chateau-Thierry. 

Pvt. Henry Chinn was killed in action in the Argonne Forest. He had been serving there with Sgt. Sing Lau Kee in what would come to be known as the “Lost Battalion.” Both Chinese-American Soldiers, they were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry.

Sgt. Kee’s story is awe-inspiring. On Aug. 14, 1918, Kee (then a private) was staffing a message center for the regiment as it was rotating into the front lines. With a constant rain of shells, there was no way to maintain an intact field telephone wire so the regiment relied on runners. These young Soldiers would literally run throughout front lines carrying vital orders and information. It was an incredibly dangerous but vital job with an extremely high casualty rate; the runners were routinely targeted as they moved. 

Over the course of several days, every one of Pvt. Kee's messenger comrades was either killed or wounded running messages. Due to the shortage, Pvt. Kee remained on duty for more than 24 hours straight. Despite being gassed and severely wounded by shrapnel, he refused to be evacuated and continued to perform his job as a runner. The Independent, a weekly publication from New York, described it as "running eight miles thru shrapnel and machine gun fire." A fellow Soldier called Kee "the best American in our regiment."

When Pvt. Kee was presented the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism, he became the first Chinese-American to receive a combat medal in United States history. He was also awarded the Purple Heart by the U.S. Army for his wounds and the Croix de Guerre, with silver gilt star for valor, by France. The official division history said of Pvt. Kee's bravery, "It was only one more evidence of the fact that in the cosmopolitan composition of the Division lay its strength."

The 77th Infantry Division showed its own appreciation for Pvt. Kee's heroism by promoting him to Color Sergeant in November 1918. The position of Color Sergeant was a position of honor – only the most reliable and steady men were allowed to protect the "colors" because the sight of a unit’s flag running away or being captured by the enemy could cause panic or defeat in battle.

Many other Asian/Pacific-Americans served with distinction in the First World War. While exact numbers are difficult to track, there were more than 5,700 Filipinos serving in the Navy by the end of the war. Thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipinos served in the U.S. Army. Many of them were later allowed to become naturalized citizens due to their service, overcoming numerous legal obstacles that would otherwise have restricted their efforts.

Despite historic obstacles, Asian and Pacific Americans have persevered and contributed to every aspect of military life. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month, we pay tribute to the bravery of those outstanding troops.