Vietnam War veteran and Monterey Park resident Thomas Yee wants future generations to know: freedom isn’t free.
“The U.S. asked us, as American citizens, to fight. And we did it because our president asked us to, for our country,” said Yee, 75, who fought with the 9th Infantry Division of the U.S. Armed Forces. “I want people to understand why people served, and to learn from the mistakes of war. If we’re still at war, we are still having mistakes.”
Yee joined other veterans to share his experiences living and fighting through the Vietnam War at an oral history interview event, hosted by the Chinese Family History Group in partnership with the Library of Congress and the Chinese American Museum, on Monday, May 22, at the Alhambra Civic Center Library.
Nineteen veterans, many of them of Chinese American descent, came to share their stories, which will be collected as part of the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
The veterans sat down with volunteers to answer questions on camera about their personal lives and military service in the respective wars they served in — including their memories being drafted or enlisted, any specialized training assignments, personal stories from the ground, and the reality of what their lives were like coming home after the war.
Even two World War II veterans — Calvin Lee and Robert Yup, both 99 years old — came to share their experiences, supported by family members who wanted to see their stories documented. They carried their Congressional Medals of Honor.
The interview-based project was established through the Veterans’ Oral History Project Act in 2000, and by law collects and preserves veterans’ accounts for future generations and researchers to access. The project consists mostly of audio interviews, but also collects video and primary source documents — letters, journal entries, photographs — from veterans as far back as World War I and as recent as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The oral histories become part of the permanent collections of the Library of Congress.
Library of Congress Liaison Specialist Andrew Huber said there are 115,000 accounts collected so far, nearly half from World War II veterans. Huber said that the Library’s collection of interviews, captured both through audio and video, have helped many younger generations get to know their grandparents and older generations, people writing books or creating documentaries, archivists and historians.
“Even a young person who might be thinking about joining the military, who wants to know what it’s really like from someone who was there, those first-hand accounts and personal stories are really helpful,” Huber said.
Suellen Cheng, with the Chinese Family History Group, who is the executive director emeritus of the Chinese American Museum, said that most veterans who share their stories don’t feel like heroes, “compared to those who sacrificed their lives.”
“So it’s very moving to see how they survived, but feel indebted to those who gave their lives,” Cheng said. “This project talks about veterans’ experiences on and off the combat zone, how they tried to communicate with their families back then, how they deal with trauma, how they looked for jobs after… those are the stories and parts of the human experience that need to be shared.”
Marjorie Lee, an archivist with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, said that there’s “nothing more empowering than hearing the voice of an actual veteran, with their variety of experiences and diverse backgrounds… they all have unique stories from their time in service to tell.”
“It doesn’t really scratch the surface… but even just one person tells their story, and it makes a difference. If we don’t start to tell their stories, then no one will ever know,” Lee said. “And we can learn to appreciate how we are able to enjoy our freedoms, thanks to the sacrifices of our predecessors.”
At the event, Alhambra Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler honored the veterans and presented a commendation to the Chinese Family History Group, which completely funded the project, and plans to continue its work at more oral history events.
All the participants received a copy of their oral histories to share. Another oral history event was held at the Santa Monica Public Library over the weekend, where 21 veterans shared their stories.
“Today’s youth don’t really understand the freedoms they have because of the struggle of veterans,” said San Marino resident Joseph Wong, 91, who served in the Korean War. He came to the event after his brother-in-law gave an interview. “So I hope they will listen to these stories, our stories, and learn to give of themselves to people, too.”
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