Photo Information

Airman Gloria Ballesteros, aviation boatswain's mate (fuel), prepares to participate in a traditional Hawaiian dance while wearing Pacific-Islander attire during an Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebration aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

Photo by Seaman Brand R. Thomas

Marine Corps Observes Asian American, Pacific Islander Heritage Month

4 May 2020 | Lance Cpl. Morgan Burgess Headquarters Marine Corps

Throughout the month of May, the Marine Corps honors the past as well as the continuing contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Despite a history of challenges dating back to the earliest immigrants, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to embrace their culture and thrive in the Marine Corps.

Diversity, once viewed as a weakness, is now one of the Marine Corps’ greatest strengths. Marines use their personal heritages, traditions and unique ways of thinking to strengthen the Corps. The dedication and valor of Asian American and Pacific Islanders can be traced in every American battle since the Civil War.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps and those serving in the armed forces were removed, segregated and investigated.

More than 1,400 second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, or nisei, were serving in the Hawaii Territorial Guard before World War II. After the attack, they were stripped of their rifles and transferred to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, due to concerns that they might cause a security threat.

As racial discrimination grew for all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, many fought to prove their loyalty and slowly gained respect in the United States.

In Hawaii, after a month of guarding vital installations and helping the Red Cross, Reserve Officers' Training Corps students from the University of Hawai’i were dismissed from duty; they had been classified as enemy aliens and prohibited from military service. Not discouraged, the students petitioned the military governor, Army Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons to allow them to serve to prove their loyalty to the United States. A labor battalion, the Victory Varsity Volunteer, was established with Emmons’ approval. Through their hard work, they regained the U.S. military’s trust.

By 1979, the first nationally recognized Asian American and Pacific Islander week was celebrated; in 1991, it expanded to the entire month of May.

Sgt. Ariana J. Acosta is unlike the many who work in Headquarters Marine Corps; she is part of the less than one percent of Pacific Islanders in the U.S. military. Acosta was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, and grew up primarily in Makiki, Kalihi and Hilo. She did not leave her home state until 2015, the year she enlisted in the Marine Corps.

“There may be less and less prejudice against other ethnicities for those who still, for any reason, have some. Every year, I think we grow closer to achieving that.” Sgt. Ariana J. Acosta, graphics specialist at Plans, Policies and Operations

Generally, the Asia-Pacific region is considered to include East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. The region embodies a vast array of cultures, traditions and religions that have helped shape the United States to present day.

Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, helped write American history.

In 1944, he joined the Marine Corps at age 18 and expected to deploy to the Pacific Theater after boot camp but was instead assigned to a stateside Japanese language school. Disappointed that he did not serve in combat, he pursued a military career after World War II and earned his place in history as one of the first Asian-Americans to serve as a regular officer in the Marine Corps.

“People claim I wore a big chip on my shoulder, sure, this chip is my learning tool for expelling ignorance,” said Lee who was faced with the discrimination that came with being a “first.” Initially, his men doubted his loyalty to the United States, but that was quickly disproven with Lee’s acts of gallantry during the battle of Inchon and throughout the Korean War.

While leading a platoon, his unit was attacked at Inchon by Chinese forces. At the time, a lieutenant, Lee ordered his platoon to establish a defensive line, while he advanced alone to provoke the enemy to open fire and reveal their positions. It worked. As he drew fire from nearby Chinese forces, he said in Mandarin, “Don’t shoot! I’m Chinese!” The attack continued; his American accent had given him away. Lee’s extraordinary heroism earned him the Navy Cross.

Lee, who retired from the Marine Corps in 1968, died March 3, 2014, at age 88.

When asked which of her accomplishments in the Marine Corps made her most proud, Acosta said, “I can honestly say that I’m proud I was able to branch away from home. It’s a small town, small community. I’ve not just been able to branch away from a small place but [have] seen very big parts of the rest of the world in moderate doses, working for my country in a way that I can be proud of when I think about it in hindsight.”

The Marine Corps recognizes the many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, both in and out of the Corps, who fulfill America’s promise of new opportunity achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking and hard work, rather than by chance.

In addition to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, commands are encouraged to recognize the other cultural observances listed in MARADMIN 553/19.