‘On behalf of a grateful nation’
Chinese-American vet honored for Navy service during WWII
Saturday, August 21, 2021
By Robert Marchant
GREENWICH — When George Tai signed up to serve in the U.S. Navy in 1944, he did not know what the future would hold, but he believed in taking a chance for a better future.
Tai didn’t expect much in the way of gratitude for his service, beyond the honorable discharge he received and the granting of American citizenship that came with it.
But an additional measure of gratitude was bestowed on the 95-yearold sailor at the Nathaniel Witherell home on Friday afternoon, when he received the Congressional Gold Medal for his wartime enlistment.
The award, in the shape of a golden coin, was presented by a member of the Chinatown post of the American Legion in New York City, after the Pledge of Allegiance and a performance of “The Star- Spangled Banner.” The award to Tai was presented “on behalf of a grateful nation,” said Thomas Ong, a member of the American Legion Post. “It was a long time coming,” he added.
Tai, who has limited verbal capacity while still expressive and alert, smiled and saluted his old friends from the American Legion Lt. B.R. Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post 1291 on Canal Street in lower Manhattan, who drove up from the city for the presentation.
“Wonderful, wonderful,” he said, his eyes brightening as he shook hands with his fellow veterans. “Thank you.”
Tai, who co-owned a restaurant in Westport for many years, was one of 20,000 Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans who volunteered to serve with the U.S. military during World War II. He was a young seaman on Chinese merchant ships, traveling to New York and Baltimore regularly before his enlistment.
His son, Jack Tai, said his father decided the possibility of a future in America was worth a gamble, and he entered a recruiting station in the U.S. and got an enlistment with the Navy. A photo of his graduating class of new recruits in Virginia on display at the Witherell ceremony shows him in crisp navy blue, the only Asian sailor in his group.
Tai went into service on ships in the Pacific as a seaman in the closing days of the war in the Pacific, working in the engine room or in kitchen galleys, and he was stationed on a destroyer at one point, according to his son. His family heard little about the details of his service, said Jack Tai, a Greenwich resident. “He never talked about it.”
George Tai married a young woman from Guangzhou, China, Kan Lai Chang, known as Agnes, after the war, settling in New York, raising three children and working hard. Agnes worked as a seamstress, and George operated the Golden House in Westport for many years, among a number of other jobs.
Tai was a regular presence at the American Legion Hall on Canal Street. Gabe Mui, a member of the post and friend, said Tai always left an impression on those he met. “Nice guy, strong voice, he always had a presence. I always called him ‘Mr. George,’ ” said Mui, a Vietnam veteran.
There was little recognition for Chinese-American veterans of World War II. While other ethnic groups who served with the U.S. forces in the war had been granted the Congressional Gold Medal, it took lobbying and advocacy for all Chinese- American veterans to be granted the award in 2018, when the authorization was passed by Congress and signed by then- President Donald Trump.
The civilian medal demonstrates national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions, according to the provisions of the U.S. Senate.
Karen Chan, a member of the American Legion Auxiliary, was one of those who walked the halls of Congress and burned up the phone lines to advocate for men such as Tai to gain the recognition. Her own late father was in the Army medical corps in World War II, in the China- India-Burma Theater, and the award to Tai, an old family friend, was also a way of honoring her father, she said.
“Our goal is to educate the public about this group of people who served, and preserve their legacy. We don’t want people to forget,” said Chan, a resident of Brooklyn, N.Y.
There are about a dozen World War II veterans in the Chinatown American Legion Post, their leaders said, and about 200 Chinese-American veterans alive in the country today from that war.
Jack Tai said his dad was a true American success story. He worked as a cook, waiter and bartender to provide an education for his three kids. Today, the extended family, including Tai’s seven great-grandchildren, has earned educations from prominent colleges and universities. Four of them are due to enroll at Greenwich Country Day School later this year, Jack Tai said, and they have all lead productive lives.
George Tai has lived with family in Greenwich since 2008, along with another residence in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. He moved to the Witherell, the town-owned nursing home and rehab facility, in 2019. His wife recently passed away.
Jack Tai said the moment of appreciation for his dad was well-deserved. His father was first and foremost proud of his family, he said, and after that, “he’s most proud of his service to our country.”
His son said he was grateful his father took the chance in 1944 to serve in the Navy. “We wouldn’t be here without his risk-taking. … Life is about taking risks, and we’re all pleased he did,” Tai said.
Continuing, Tai said, “He worked hard — two or three jobs when I was a kid, and on weekends. Great story, coming from nothing, we grew up in a tenement in Chinatown. We’re lucky we had great parents like that. Now it’s time for giving back.”
To celebrate, the family was taking out Tai for dinner. “He loves a good hamburger,” his son said with a laugh.
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