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The U.S. Navy Celebrates Asian-American Pacific Islander Month

The history of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders' service to the United States stretches back to the 19th century, beginning with the U.S. Navy's presence in East Asia in the 1830s. Its mission was to protect U.S. interests during maritime trading wars. Many American ships that patrolled the region included sailors of Chinese descent who protected American vessels and diplomats in the region.

Corporal Joseph Pierce, a soldier in the Union Army who fought in both the Battle of Antietam and Gettysburg as a member of the 14th Connecticut Infantry, was one of the more than 50 Chinese-Americans who enlisted during the American Civil War. The tradition of service continued into the 20th century as the United States expanded as a global power on the world stage.

Fire Controlman Second Class Telesforo Trinidad of Filipino descent, became the first Asian-American to receive the Medal of Honor after rescuing two shipmates when an explosion occurred aboard the armored cruiser USS San Diego (ACR 6) in 1915. Risking his own life, Trinidad entered a smoke-filled fireroom and carried Sailors to safety before sustaining injuries from an explosion of the No. 3 boiler.

"For extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession at the time of the boiler explosion on board the U.S.S. San Diego, 21 January 1915. Trinidad was driven out of fireroom No. 2 by the explosion, but at once returned and picked up R.E. Daly, fireman, second class, whom he saw to be injured, and proceeded to bring him out. While coming into No. 4 fireroom, Trinidad was just in time to catch the explosion in No. 3 fireroom, but without consideration for his own safety, passed Daly on and then assisted in rescuing another injured man from No. 3 fireroom. Trinidad was himself burned about the face by the blast from the explosion in No. 3 fireroom." -Medal of Honor Citation

In the years since, 31 service members of Asian-American and Pacific Islander descent have received Medals of Honor.

Many Asian-Americans also distinguished themselves during World War II. One of the more than 200,000 Chinese-Americans to join was Cmdr. Gordon Chung-hoon. A Naval Academy graduate, Chung-hoon commanded the USS Sigsbee (DDG- 502), and received the Navy Cross for his leadership during a kamikaze attack aboard the destroyer in April 1945.

"Although his ship suffered major damage when struck by an enemy plane and all power was lost, Commander Chung-Hoon coolly carried out defensive maneuvers and directed his anti-aircraft batteries in delivering prolonged and effective fire against the continued heavy enemy air attack. Afterwards, he supervised damage-control procedures which resulted in his ship being made sea-worthy for a safe return to port under its own restored power. Commander Chung-Hoon's gallant fighting spirit, courage and unwavering devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service." -Navy Cross Citation

In 2009, the guided missile destroyer USS Chung- Hoon (DDG 93) was named in his honor.

Through the Navy's female reserve program, Asian-American women also supported the war effort, mainly as linguists and nurses. Lt. Susan Ahn Cuddy blazed a trail when she became one of the first Asian-American women to join the Navy alongside her brothers in 1942. The daughter of Korean immigrants, Cuddy would go on to become a code breaker and the first female Navy gunnery officer.

To recognize the decorated history of Asian-American and Pacific Islander service members several attempts were made to create a formal celebration before efforts to introduce a joint resolution was successful.

Asian-American and Pacific Islander observations began as an annual week-long celebration after President Jimmy Carter signed a Joint Resolution in October 1978. Lawmakers chose May to commemorate the journey of the first Japanese immigrants to America and honor the work of thousands of Chinese immigrants who completed the transcontinental railroad in May 1869. President George H.W. Bush signed a bill into law proclaiming May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) in 1992.

More than 25 years later, the United States Navy continues to honor the achievements and contributions of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders to the United States. Today, more than 23,000 Asian-American and Pacific Islander Sailors serve our Navy team. These Sailors represent more than 56 ethnic groups, speak more than 100 languages from Asia and the Pacific Islands, and maintain a legacy of service and sacrifice.