Asian American women played a critical part in America’s war effort during World War II. Coming from diverse backgrounds—including Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino—they served in important roles ranging from pilots and translators to factory workers and guerrilla fighters.
Yet they worked on behalf of a country that was far from welcoming. From the time of their arrival in the mid 19th century, people of Asian descent were denied basic citizenship and voting rights for at least a century. For Japanese American women hoping to contribute to the war effort, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor ratcheted up barriers even further, as entire Japanese communities faced intense discrimination and incarceration in isolated prison camps. “For many, the impetus to serve came as a result of that racial discrimination—the desire to prove it wrong, and to demonstrate their commitment to the United States,” says Mika Kennedy, curator of the Japanese American historical exhibit Exiled to Motown.
Joining the war effort through organizations like the Women’s Army Corps, the Cadet Nurse Corps and the Military Intelligence Unit also opened a new world of personal freedom and career growth for Asian American women. “This represented a huge cultural shift for many, coming from families that prior to the war had not expected their daughters to stray so far from home,” says Kennedy.
Here are a few of the trailblazing women who made contributions to America’s war effort:
Hazel Lee and Maggie Gee: Flying High as WASPs
While female pilots weren’t permitted to serve in America’s armed forces until 1974, women civilian pilots played a crucial role during World War II. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, a division of the federal civil service, trained women to fly non-combat missions: testing military aircraft, transporting planes between bases, training male bomber pilots and hauling gunnery targets to be shot at with live ammunition. Among the nearly 1,100 women trained as WASPs were Chinese Americans Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944) and Maggie Gee (1923-2013).
While Lee and Gee never met, both had similar upbringings. Both came of age in an era marked by significant anti-Chinese discrimination. Each became enamored with flying at an early age: Gee once said that, when she was a child, she regularly scanned the skies for Amelia Earhardt, who often flew out of the Oakland airport. The one time Gee spotted her, she says, she waved—and got a wave back. Hazel Lee vowed to get her pilot’s license shortly after her first time on an airplane in 1932. She became the first Asian American female pilot later that year and joined the WASPs in 1943. Gee signed up later that same year.
Both said their Asian heritage could make things tough. During training, Gee later told a biographer, “I felt like an exhibit at the country fair, a two-headed cow, the amazing Chinese-American WASP. But only for a minute. I got back in my plane and once more was a pilot.” And Lee, who once made an emergency landing in a Texas field, had to convince a rancher with a pitchfork that she wasn’t a Japanese enemy fighter. Tragically, Lee died of injuries suffered after her aircraft collided with another on Thanksgiving Day 1944. She was 32, and the last WASP to perish in the line of duty. After the war, Gee graduated with a degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley, going on to work for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on weapons systems.
Japanese American Translators in Military Intelligence
When military recruiters needed Japanese speakers to translate enemy documents, they often hired Japanese American women to the Military Intelligence Unit, seeking to capitalize on their familiarity with the Japanese language.
But adjusting to the work wasn’t easy. “In some cases they were well-suited to the job—but many of the women didn't actually know any Japanese, or knew very little; they were selected to be translators purely on the basis of their race,” says Kennedy. “As you might imagine, there's a pretty big leap from conversational at-home Japanese to military Japanese, particularly where writing is concerned.”
Despite those challenges, says Kennedy, 48 Japanese American women would enroll at Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling in Minnesota, later becoming translators and clerical workers.
Susan Ahn Cuddy: Navy Gunnery Officer
The daughter of the first married Korean couple to immigrate to the United States, Susan Ahn Cuddy grew up hearing about her father An Chang-ho’s fight to free Korea from Japanese imperialism. When World War II began, Cuddy was determined to help the United States in any way she could, becoming the first Asian American woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1942 as a member of WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Volunteer Service). She soon became the Navy’s first female gunnery officer. Cuddy also worked as a combat air tactics instructor, training naval personnel before they deployed and in the Navy’s codebreaking office.
As a young Asian American woman training men, she often faced both sexism and suspicion because of her race. But she quickly gained recognition for her skill as an instructor. “It was funny because she was tiny,” her son Philip Ahn Cuddy told HISTORY.com. “So she would have to really contort herself to pull back on the firing mechanisms to load the machine gun.”
Nieves Fernandez and the Female Guerrillas of the Philippines
As a United States possession throughout World War II, the Philippines was integral to the America’s war effort in the Pacific theater. In addition to serving as soldiers alongside American forces during the war, hundreds of Filipinos became guerrilla fighters during the three years of Japanese occupation. It’s estimated that one out of 10 guerrillas was a Filipino woman.
One of the region’s most prominent guerrilla fighters was schoolteacher Nieves Fernandez (1906-1997). In a 1944 news article, Fernandez stated that she commanded a force of 110 Filipino guerrillas that killed 200 Japanese soldiers—while she herself became known as a deadly barefoot, black-clad assassin who would quietly ambush the enemy in the jungle. While Fernandez and her force did have access to some guns, she told the paper that they also became experts in crafting their own weaponry and grenades from gas pipes. Fernandez’s notoriety amongst Japanese soldiers was so great that there was reportedly a bounty of 10,000 Philippine pesos on her head.
Chinese American Women Defense Workers
World War II created a seismic shift in the American workforce, particularly when it came to earning opportunities. Participating in home front war industries allowed many Chinese Americans to earn substantial salaries for the first time, since defense companies that had previously barred Asian workers needed to actively recruit them after much of their white workforce was drafted into military service.
Chinese American women embraced the chance to work outside of isolated Chinatown communities and family owned businesses like laundries, restaurants and grocery stores. As ship fitters, welders and other laborers, these workers played an integral part in shipyards, aircraft factories and other areas of the defense industry, especially on the West Coast.