California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
California Militia and National Guard Unit Histories
Chinatown Militia Units, 1942
Los Angeles and San Francisco
by Norine Dresser
Photographs Courtesy of: Peter Soo Hoo, Jr.
 

This article originally appeared in the December 1992 issue of the Gum Saan Journal, published by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. It has been updated as some facts concerning the State Guard and Militia have come to light since its original publication. It has been republished with permission of the author.
 
Abstract
Los Angeles Chinatown Militia Unit
San Francisco Chinatown Militia Unit
Faint Memories and Mementoes
Endnotes

Abstract

Shortly after the onset of America's involvement in World War II, Chinese American men in both Los Angeles and San Francisco demonstrated their patriotism by voluntarily forming special companies for the California Militia. There is no documentation of these efforts in military records-except for an insignia used by the Los Angeles Chinatown militia unit as part of its insignia-but a few photographs and personal recollections attest to the existence of these military units.
 

October 10, 1942 Parade in Los Angeles - 2nd Platoon Lt. Jack Hom. Color Guard: Lee Young, Kenneth Ung, Walter Quan & Tom Wing Kwai.

Snapshots of Chinese American men in uniform are all that remain as testimony to a time when the Chinese American community demonstrated its patriotism during World War II by organizing a militia unit. These photographic remnants discovered in Peter Soo Hoo Sr.'s old family album and now supplemented by memories of a few surviving members, show the readiness of the Chinese American community to make an overt statement of its feelings of loyalty to this country. They bear witness to the Chinese American community's active involvement in the larger war effort on the home front.
 
Even though most Americans had never heard of Pearl Harbor before December 7, 1941, they were nonetheless stunned when the Japanese attacked. Shortly thereafter, Chinese American men in Los Angeles awaiting induction into the regular military branches or unable to serve because of age or physical disabilities joined a special unit of the California State Guard which they dubbed the "Chinese Militia."

Former member Billy Lew reminisces from a 1992 perspective, "Come to think about it after so many years -I think we were a little crazy to organize that thing. What could we do if the Japanese invaded?" [1] However, when the unit first formed, the outlook was different.
 
Anti-Asian sentiments in Los Angeles were strong in 1942. Most non-Asians couldn't distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, or Korean residents. This was the time when Los Angeles Chinese, fearful of being mistaken for Japanese, put "Chinese American" stickers on their cars or wore "Chinese American" buttons or "ABCD" (American Born Chinese Descent) buttons to stave off dirty looks from suspicious Angelenos. Even Life Magazine, probably the most significant disseminator of public information at the time, was caught up in this preoccupation and published an article, "How to Tell Japs From the Chinese." [2]
 
The Los Angeles Chinatown militia unit was born in this hostile environment. Parades and visible training sessions at the California State Armory in Exposition Park called attention to the men's patriotism, creating a public marker of their non-Japanese status. Consciously or not, they were divorcing them selves from the Japanese because they were concerned that they might be suspected of anti-American sentiments. Early in 1942, volunteer state militia units organized in both Los Angeles and San Francisco Chinatowns. They were part of the California State Guard which had been created to take over emergency tasks in the event of Federal mobilization of the National Guard. Governor Culbert Olson requested that
men between 16 and 24 not serving in the armed forces or National Guard volunteer for service in the State Guard. [3]

Brigadier General Donald E. Mattson, then Commander of the Center for Military History in Sacramento, explains that the government created the State Guard (and the lesser known, less organized California State Militia) at the onset of World War II because it was thought there would be fighting in California. [4] To promote concern about protection of home territory the State Militia circulated a recruitment poster (see below) in the Bay Area proclaiming, "To All Male Citizens of San Francisco: ... If you would rather fight for your home and family than live like a slave you will join the 17th Infantry, California State Militia ... Now!" Fear about California being attacked was reinforced by a newspaper article about a Japanese submarine surfacing off the coast of Santa Barbara on February 23, 1942. [5]
 

17TH INFANTRY
CALIFORNIA STATE MILITIA
A LICENSED MILITARY ORGANIZATION
STATE ARMORY
14TH & MISSION STS. - SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.

To All Male Citizens of San Francisco:

1. You are going to be called upon to fight for your country either at one of the battle fronts or, if the occasion arises, in the streets or in the vicinity of San Francisco.

2. If you are young enough and in good physical condition you may have the opportunity of meeting the enemy on the field of battle.

3. If you are in this class you will want to have as much preliminary training in the functions of a fighting man as you can get before you go into the Service.

4. You can secure valuable preliminary training, FREE OF ALL CHARGES, by joining the California State Militia, 17th Infantry. You can receive this training on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday every week from 7:30 to 9:30 p. m.

5. If you are intelligent and anxious to prepare yourself for a commission or non-commission officers' warrant, the 17th Infantry conducts an officers' and non-commission officers' school every Friday night from 7:30 to 9:30. These schools are open to all members of the 17th Infantry and every basic subject in the school of the fighting man is taught in these Friday night classes. If you are anxious to get ahead in the Service, attendance at the 17th Infantry officers' or non-commission officers' school will place you far ahead of the average recruit when you go into the Service.

6. If you are over the draft age or have a slight physical disability which keeps you out of the active service, you still have the opportunity of serving your country by becoming a member of the 17th Infantry, California State Militia. Every man who must remain at home during this war may have to fight for his home and family in the event of an invasion. TRAINED citizens will stand and fight-because they know how to use a weapon that can repel the enemy, and they belong to a military group organized to cooperate with the regular army.

7. Untrained civilians are apt to become hysterical and run from danger-because they have no military leadership-no training that would enable them to cooperate with a military unit.

8. Every male citizen of SAN FRANCISCO should belong to the CALIFORNIA STATE MILITIA and should JOIN AT ONCE! Select either Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night for your training and go at once to the State Armory, 14th and Mission Streets, at 7:30 on the night you want to begin training. You will be assigned to a company and begin training immediately. Remember, there is no charge of any kind for this training.

IF YOU WOULD RATHER FIGHT FOR YOUR HOME AND FAMILY THAN LIVE LIKE A SLAVE YOU WILL JOIN THE 17TH INFANTRY, CALIFORNIA STATE MILITIA . . . N O W !

M. H. AUERBACH, Captain C. S. M., Commanding.


Yet, beyond deployment in Chinatown, the men in both militia units were not clear about what their responsibilities would have been in case of emergency. [6] George Tom recollects, "I don't think there was that much call for us to do anything at the time. There were no real riots or anything like that. But I would think that if there was an invasion or something like that and they needed the manpower to guard something that we would be called." [7] In addition, since many residents in Chinatown didn't speak English well, most assumed they would be used as communicators to the community.

Los Angeles Chinatown Militia Unit
(California Chinese Reserve, California State Militia)

Prominent community leader and one of the founders of New Chinatown in Los Angeles, Peter Soo Hoo, Sr., was the commander of the Chinese community militia unit and convinced others to join him. Soo Hoo had been active in the Chinese American Citizen's Alliance (CACA) an organization to protect the civil rights of Chinese Americans-and he recruited his friends from there. According to Stanley Mu, "Peter Soo Hoo was the motivator. He put in many hours, but of course, he was one of the leaders of the community. " [8]

Captain Peter Soo Hoo, Sr., California State Militia - Commander of the Chinatown Militia Unit in Los Angeles.
 
George Tom was 20 when he joined the Chinatown militia. "I was active in community affairs at the time. I had the Chinese Boy Scout Troop. Most of the young persons who had the time would join. You see, a lot of the Chinese people work on Saturdays and Sundays, so they couldn't go or join up."

A 1942 Los Angeles Times article states that the Chinatown militia unit drew celebrities like Hollywood actors Roland Got and Richard Loo as well as UCLA star wrestler Ed Tom [9] [10] The article quotes Second-in Command Loo who stated: "Naturally we want to do our part." [11]

Militia members met on weekends for drill practice at both the CACA Lodge located at 415-1/2 North Los Angeles Street and at the Armory in Exposition Park. They drew on the expertise of their own members for leadership. For example, Stanley Mu, who was still a student at Belmont High School, was experienced in handling rifles and guns because he was enrolled in the United States Army Reserve Officer Training Corps or ROTC classes. He taught these skills. George Tom had taken an Instructor's Course from the American Red Cross, so he gave lessons in First Aid. Professor Isadore L. Contera of Filipino descent, who taught at the California Institute of Technology (or Cal Tech), became a volunteer teacher of Jiu Jitsu.

Esprit de corps ran high. The men bought their own standard United States military uniforms but the rifles they carried were old ones supplied by the Armory. With the encouragement of Peter Soo Hoo, Sr., they designed their own shoulder patch and pin to embellish their uniforms. The designs were based on Sun Yat-sen's famous Three Principles or San Min Chu I, incorporating Chinese symbols of blue sky, white sun, golden pagoda, and the color red.

Parades were one of their most important activities. Stanley Mu relates that when the men marched, the Chinese American community always clapped and cheered them on. "Our militia drew the community a lot closer together. I think they felt more secure because we had a unit."
 
Both the Chinese American and non-Chinese community enthusiastically received them. The men paraded down major thoroughfares on occasions such as the Chinese celebration of Double Ten Day (October 10, being the birthday of the Republic of China, established in 1911), as well as American celebrations like the Fourth of July. Eventually the militia unit grew to about 60 members.
 
Los Angeles - Beale Wong and Archie Got in training.
 
Relaxing at a picnic, Stan Mu (3rd from left), Others identified; George Tom, Herb Tom, Forrest Yee, Mayward Tom and Cy Chan of Los Angeles.
 
San Francisco Chinatown Militia Unit
(Company F, 17th Infantry, California State Militia)
 
In contrast to the high-keyed Los Angeles division, San Francisco's Chinatown militia unit did not have such a positive response. Their commander, Thomas Chinn, remembers that they received little support from either the California State Militia or the Chinese American community, which remained essentially unaware of their existence.

Captain Maurice Hursh Auerbach of the California State Militia had approached Chinn, who had been an Air Raid Warden, about organizing a Chinatown militia unit to be known as Company F of the 17th California Infantry [12] Chinn agreed and brought in Johnny Kan as Assistant Commander. Chinn recalled, "It was difficult to recruit members. It was mostly by word of mouth. At that time, if you put something like that in the Chinese newspaper, you would start them on a scare and they would be more and more afraid that something was going to happen. We explained that our job was to defend Chinatown in case of an attack. Otherwise we had no function. " [13]
 
 
Shortly after Pearl Harbor the state activated the California State Militia which was suppose to help local authorities maintain law and order in the event of direct attack. Here, Captain (later Major) Maurice Auerbach (left) is in conversation with Company F commander, Thomas Chinn and his deputy, John Kan. The company was responsible for the Chinatown area of San Francisco.
 
Chinn comments on a situation that underscores the racial distrust of those times. Two Caucasians wanted to join his group claiming eligibility because they lived in the Chinatown area. Although the Chinese Americans welcomed them, the suspicion among members was that the Caucasians were there to keep an eye on their activities. This suspicion was never confirmed or disproven.

The Adjutant General's Office promised the San Francisco men that rifles were forthcoming, but none ever arrived. No pins or insignias were available to them, either. Chinn recalls that when they requested a special design for their shoulder patch, Capt. Auerbach recommended against it. "Special insignia doesn't mean anything outside of Chinatown. And if they [non-Chinese] see a foreign insignia, that means more trouble for you... Don't try and change anything." And they never did.
 
The San Francisco Chinatown militia unit never had access to actual weapons. Instead they purchased wooden bayonets from an Army surplus store. Walter Lee was put in charge of bayonet practice because of his ROTC experience. He complains. "Even the high school ROTC had 1903 Springfield models... but we had nothing, nothing at all."[14] In spite of this, Lee used an Army manual and taught the volunteers how to use bayonets-step one, step two. He showed them basic drill commands and how to salute.

Drill practice took place Friday nights from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.. Since they did not have access to the Armory, they met in the auditorium of the Nam Kue Chinese Language School, located on Sacramento Street in the heart of Chinatown. But many had to take time off from work to get there at those hours. Some took the bus and for those with cars getting there was equally difficult because of gas rationing and the lack of parking places.

According to Chinn, when they first formed they became a kind of "half-baked" company. "We got nothing. We were promised forever being promised-but after six, eight months with nothing and we were still going through this thing-what for? We were paying money for every little thing ourselves. Why keep it up? We would be ashamed to ask our friends to come in. We couldn't promise them anything because we couldn't get our promised fulfilled."

The Chinatown militia unit had no financial support. They were never given any directives from above. There were no mock drills for first aid practice. They were never told what to do in case of attack. They had only one parade through Chinatown and that was under the guidance of a few police inspectors, including Inspector Manion who was the head of the police squad for Chinatown. Although they ultimately recruited as many as 34 men, many dropped out of the organization because there were no rewards in being members.

It was not until 1990 that Chinn and Lee first learned that there had been a Los Angeles Chinatown militia unit at the same time as theirs. They were amazed by what the Soo Hoo photos revealed, but they were also disheartened. They recollected that no matter how much recognition they craved, they were rejected and never fully acknowledged for their support of the war effort at home. For example, only Chinn and one other person, Johnny Kan, ever received official certificates of appointment as Commissioned Officers. All the rest of the men never received anything to say that they were members. Chinn laments, "That was something we were promised and never got."

While looking at one photo of the Los Angeles Chinatown militia unit proudly parading down Wilshire Boulevard, Walter Lee concluded, "Compared to those people, we were just a bunch of jokers here."

Faint Memories and Mementoes

In both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Chinese communities, the militia units were short-lived. Most men recall being in it for one year or less. Brigadier General Mattson speculates about its disappearance: "As the combat zone moved further into the Pacific, California ceased to be in danger." Thus membership declined as the need for their services diminished. In addition, when members moved into regular servicemen roles, they were not replaced. Because of the short life span of the Chinatown militia units, most surviving members have only vague memories of their experiences which pale in comparison to their vivid recollections of active duty in the regular armed forces.

The Soo Hoo photographic mementos and the faint memories that they stir evoke a kind of pathos in the militia men's struggle to declare themselves loyal to the United States.
Their public-spirited efforts on the home front, particularly in San Francisco, were never completely appreciated which may explain, in part, why their activities and achievements have
been ignored in official records. [15]

The two Chinatown militia units were part of a brief moment in history, one that has been overlooked and unmarked in the military documents of those times. All that exists officially is a picture of the pin worn with pride by the men in the Los Angeles Chinatown militia unit while demonstrating their patriotism.

Endnotes

I wish to thank George Tom, Stanley Mu, Billy Lew, Thomas Chinn, and Walter Lee for sharing their memories with me. I am also appreciative to Peter Soo Hoo, Jr. for allowing me to duplicate his priceless family photos and to George Tom for lending me his memorabilia. In addition, I am deeply indebted to Brigadier General Donald Mattson and his gracious staff at the California State Military Museum for giving me permission to forage through their documents and for helping me with this research.

1. From an interview, 2 July 1992.

2. "How to Tell Japs from the Chinese: Angry Citizens Victimize Allies with Emotional Outburst at Enemy," Life (22 December 1941), pp. 81-82.

3. For a complete history of the California State Guard, see History of the California State Guard published by the Adjutant General of the State of California, 1946.

4. From an interview, 9 May 1990.

5. James Hart, Companion to California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 452.

6. During wartime, confusion as to the precise duties of the State Guard was not limited to Chinese Americans. An April 13, 1942 article in The Nation, "Confusion Hampering Growth of the Home Guard Movement," pp. 27-28, gives details of problems in the Home Guard movement across the country. That situation no longer exists and their responsibilities are clearly defined on the Fact Sheet of the California National Guard, Number 6, regarding the State Military Reserve and published by the Military Department Office of Public Affairs, Sacramento, CA 95821-4405. Emergency tasks, in support of civil authority, potentially include: emergency medical services; homeless shelter operations; mass care and shelter; protection of critical state facilities; communications support; operations liaison with emergency services organization.

7. From an interview, 3 July 1984.

8. From an interview, 12 March 1985.

9. "California Chinese Reserves Put in Day of Training," Los Angeles Times (20 April 1942), Part II, p. 1.

10. Roland Got's career ended abruptly during the war when he drowned in a boating accident. Richard Loo, who died in 1983, became best known for his wartime roles portraying villainous Japanese military officers in such films as "Keys of the Kingdom," "Purple Heart," "God is My Co-Pilot," "China Sky," "Back to Bataan."

11. "California Chinese Reserves Put in Day of Training," (20 April 1942), Part II, p. 1.

12. The Los Angeles Chinatown militia unit was also a company of an infantry, but none of the interviewees recalled the precise information.

13. From an interview, 7 May 1990.

14. From an interview, 7 May 1990.

15. Information, other than designs for specialized insignia, is also missing about specialized Korean and Mexican divisions of the State Guard or State Militia as well as a Philippine Suicide Squadron and a Women's Suicide Squadron.

If any reader has information on these other units or knows more about the Chinese American militia units, I would appreciate hearing from them. Please contact Professor Norine Dresser, c/o Gum Saan Journal, Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, P.O. Box 862647, Los Angeles, 90086-2647. or email her at norine@norinedresser.com

[WELCOME] [LOCATION AND HOURS] [CURRENT EXHIBITS] [MG WALTER P. STORY LIBRARY] [SATELLITE AND PARTNER MUSEUMS]
[HOW CAN I HELP?] [WHAT'S NEW?] [UPCOMING EVENTS] [CALIFORNIA MILITARY HISTORY] [HERALDRY & INSIGNIA] [ONLINE BOOKSTORE]
[CALIFORNIA CENTER FOR MILITARY HISTORY] [LINKS]

FastCounter by LinkExchange
Questions and comments concerning this site should be directed to the Webmaster