OPINION: Bing Wong’s story
Written By: Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac
Follow the link below to the Belmont Citizen-Herald article.
This Veteran’s Day, I would like to share a special story with the readers about an unsung local war hero of World War II. Belmont resident and Belmont business owner, the late Bing Yue Wong, who was one of only 20,000 Chinese Americans to serve in World War II.
The Congressional Gold Medal was to be awarded collectively to the Chinese American veterans at a ceremony in the nation’s capital on April 29th of this year. The Covid-19 outbreak has led to a postponement of these plans.
Japanese American Nisei soldiers received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011. Filipino vets were awarded the medal in 2017. Unlike Japanese and African American soldiers in WWII, with the exception of Chinese American units serving in China, the Chinese did not serve in segregated units. Chinese American soldiers earned every type of award for valor, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. This Congressional Gold Medal was being awarded because these men served and fought for their country.
Bing Yue Wong was born in Hoiping County in Guangdong Province, China. Seeking to leave behind famine and civil unrest in China, and hoping for a better life in America, he and his family immigrated first to Canada before arriving in America in 1928 at the age of 17. He was required to spend nine days at the Boston Custom House being interviewed before entering Boston. Andy Wong, the youngest of Bing Yue’s and his wife Sun Yan’s four children, told me that his parents regarded America as the land of opportunity, and they would often use the term “Gold Mountain” to describe America.
In 1940, Bing Yue registered for the draft and was subsequently drafted in 1941. Due to the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, most Chinese Americans serving in World War II did not have family living in the States. The Geary Act of 1892 reinforced the 1882 Exclusion Act and required those Chinese who were able to immigrate to America to carry special documentation, including certificates of residence from the IRS. Military Draft Rules at this time required that men with no dependents were to be drafted first. The Exclusion Act had created a bachelor society of single Chinese men in America who would end up volunteering or being drafted into the military. This group represented roughly one quarter of all Chinese Americans living in the US at the time.
Bing Yue Wong’s military service began with the 14th Infantry Division and he was soon sent to Panama for 18 months of training. During those 18 months of training, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed, though largely symbolic because only 150 Chinese immigrants would be allowed to enter the US per year. Upon the completion of training, Bing Yue was assigned to a three-man mortar team attached the 22nd Infantry of the 4th Division-M Company. Bing Yue’s next stops with the Army was Glasgow Scotland, Wales and then to combat in Normandy France.
According to an interview Bing Yue gave in 2000 with Richard Tang of the Chinese Historical Society of New England, he estimated that following the Normandy invasion he had spent 8 months on the frontlines with the most intense fighting taking place in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Bing Yue’s unit went into the Hurtgen battle with 14,000 soldiers, 11,500 were killed and just 2,500 US soldiers came out alive.
Years later, Bing Yue would describe his war experiences to his brother at the dinner table. He talked about spending numerous nights outside in the cold during the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive. He spoke in detail about how intense and traumatic the fighting in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest had been. Bing Yue described a moment when he watched a fellow soldier hold his hand up into the line of fire in hopes of receiving a wound that would take him off the front line. By sacrificing his fingers, the soldier succeeded.
The 22nd Infantry of the 4th Division fought in Normandy, Northern France, Belgium, the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge), Rhineland Germany and Central Europe. Bing Yue Wong was with them the entire time. In his interview with Mr. Tang, one gets a sense Bing Yue’s answers to Tang’s questions reflected his generation’s humbleness and modesty. Bing Yue was asked if he were ever wounded in combat. His answer was no at first, then he went on to explain, “Yes, but only once. I had gotten a piece of my ear cut off, the same time I hurt my back too.” Bing Yue was awarded five medals and sold one of them to a fellow soldier for 50 cents so the soldier would have a medal when he returned home to his family.
Bing Yue told others that though he was the only Chinese American in his unit he did not experience racism significant enough that he cared to recall. He said he got along fine with his comrades though there were definitely stereotypes about Chinese people.
After the war, Bing Yue settled in New York City. In 1947 Bing Yue married his wife, Sun Yan. Preferring not to raise their family in the city, they moved to Belmont and opened Bing’s Laundry in Waverley Square that same year. Bing’s Laundry was in the same location that Best Cleaners occupies today. He and his growing family lived in the back of the laundry before eventually saving enough to buy a house on Thayer Street.
Considering that the Wong family had to be amongst the first Chinese Americans to live and own a business in Belmont, I asked Andy what his family’s and his experiences were with racism while growing up in Belmont. Andy said his parents had a great gift of perspective on racism. His mother Sun Yan Wong knew racism in China when during World War II, Japanese planes bombed her family’s village forcing her and her family to run for their lives into homemade bomb shelters. She lived in China with the fear of being killed by the Japanese for the simple reason that she was Chinese.
As Andy said, “after that, milder forms of racism such as verbal taunts or other acts of apparent disrespect directed at his parents seem less important by comparison.” Andy, who was actually born and lived in Bing’s Laundry in 1953, told me that his parents taught all their children to ignore taunts and apparent acts of racism. As his mother said “we would NOT let someone else control our destiny and happiness”.
As is often the case following armed conflict, soldiers like Bing Yue Wong just wanted to get on with their life when the war ended. Bing Yue and Sun Yan’s goal was to provide opportunities for their children so that they would have a chance at a better life than their parent’s. Bing Yue and Sun Yan had limited education opportunities in rural China and the only formal education in the U.S. were night classes learning to read and write English. When you consider that all of the Wong children, Ken, Sue, Jean and Andy all hold advanced university degrees, one has to acknowledge that Bing Yue and Sun Yan achieved that goal of providing opportunities for their children and some.
When you visit the War Memorial at the Clay Pit pond, there is a memorial tile of Bing Yue Wong and his service to his country. Ed Gor, coordinator of the Chinese American WWII Veterans Recognition Project, said of these unsung heroes of WWII, “Most of them came back to become professionals, businessmen, getting married, starting families, just contributing—I’d call it almost silently –into the fabric of the United States of America.”
This November 11th, please visit the Memorial at Clay Pit and remember all those veterans that have served our country and this year we can give special remembrance to a silent unsung War Hero - a humble, modest, Belmont resident, businessman and most of all a loving father and husband to his wife and four children.
James MacIsaac is the chief of the Belmont Police Department and a longtime Belmont resident.