Good morning, everyone. It's great to see all of you. Patty and I still go to church here on Sundays, so this is still home in some ways. I'm honored to have this opportunity to celebrate Asian Pacific American heritage with you.
We are celebrating one of the most diverse regions of the world: a geography that is nearly one-quarter of the world's land mass; creative peoples whose diverse cultures range from the two most populous nations on earth, India and China—to Micronesia, where just 110,000 people inhabit over 600 islands covering an ocean expanse five times the size of France—to Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation.
Today, we salute the tough, the resilient, and the courageous in each of our families—those who risked everything to come here. Moms and dads, grandparents, maybe even some of us in this room who left ancestral lands and most everything they owned behind to seek a new and better life here in America.
My own grandparents emigrated here from Hiroshima—in their day, one of the poorest regions in Japan. Like so many other immigrants, they were unbelievably courageous, joining a flood of humans coming here in search of opportunity—that chance for a better, more prosperous future.
Despite our notable differences, Asian Pacific Americans still have much in common—a magnificent legacy borne of struggle and sacrifice. For most, the journeys from the old countries were not easy. Some of our people came with nothing but the clothes on their backs. There was no common language. And, like other immigrant groups, they initially faced grinding hardship and exploitation. But they fought, earned their way, and made folks recognize their skills, knowledge, and attributes.
They came from 41 different "old countries" and taught us about the importance of family, the dignity of hard work, the limitless opportunities opened through education, and the immutable value of personal honor—longstanding beliefs and traditions.
Today, their descendants are leaders in every field of endeavor: religion, science, medicine, academia, music, the arts, the law, sports, fashion, cuisine, the military, and public service. Over the course of two centuries, our people have woven a rich tapestry of culture and contribution into the American way of life. With each new arrival on our shores, that gift continues to enrich our Nation.
Today, 90,000 Asian Pacific Americans serve in uniform, following in the footsteps of Asian Pacific Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who paved the way for all of us.
Some of those footsteps were made by the Nisei (2nd generation) Japanese Soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service.
I don't think the military will ever form units like them again, so their performance in battle is likely never to be repeated, certainly never to be outdone. These were not just good units, nor merely unique ones because of their ethnic homogeneity. They were premiere war-fighting units ranking among the very best in U.S. military history. Theirs is a story of magnificence in battle.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, deep fear and suspicion amongst the American people resulted in the infamous Presidential Executive Order 9066. Seventy years ago, nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—men, women, and children, more than 60 percent of them American citizens—were ordered to "war relocation camps" in desolate and remote locations such as Tule Lake, California; Gila River, Arizona; Hart Mountain, Wyoming; and Jerome, Arkansas. Forced from their homes and businesses, uprooted from their communities, many were declared "enemy aliens" and imprisoned in tar-paper shacks, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by American Soldiers.
Despite the injustice of that order, young Americans of Japanese ancestry from around the country signed up to serve in uniform to prove something that needed no proving—their loyalty as American citizens. They chose to demonstrate it in battle. Twenty-one of them were awarded the Medal of Honor—eight of them from a single unit, the 100th Infantry Battalion.
Small in stature, they were tigers in battle. Today, we can only guess at their capacity to absorb the punishment of combat and the stings of battle by surveying the awards they earned:
No other regiment in nearly 237 years of U.S. Army history has amassed an equivalent battle record.
Members of the MIS, the Military Intelligence Service, were equally courageous. The highly classified nature of their wartime missions kept secret its existence throughout the war and for decades thereafter. To this day, the MIS has never been fully recognized for its accomplishments:
You name the campaign, you name the landing, you name the battle—the MIS was there.
I regret that I do not know more about the equal contributions of other Asian Pacific American communities during World War II. We should all know more and contribute to the story telling. What I do know is that during the same period, the Chinese census in this country was about 107,000,yet 13,000 served among all branches of the military.
On the Bataan Peninsula, Philippine Scouts fought alongside General MacArthur's Soldiers and, with them, suffered through the Bataan Death March. Here at home, Filipino volunteers provided distinguished service in the Army's 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments.
Like the Japanese, Korean Americans were classified as "enemy aliens." They, too, risked death in secret underground actions in enemy-occupied areas of Asia. In Los Angeles, the city's Korean population formed the National Guard's "Tiger Brigade" trained to defend the Pacific coast against the very real possibility of invasion.
Asian Pacific women also served:
We should know more about all of these contributions. Following World War II, these battle-hardened and war-tested men and women came home to help put America on the road to greatness—providing leadership in government, in business, in education, and in so many other ways that they made their marks.
They brought back a tremendous sense of service, of sacrifice, and of having served something bigger than themselves. They were tolerant of views and politics different from their own—born of the intolerance some had experienced themselves and of what they saw during the war in places like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau.
Their strength was a catalyst for social change, racial tolerance, and full equality. They understood the ultimate responsibilities of citizenship, of fair play, and respect for the dignity of our flag and for all who pledged allegiance to it.
I am indebted to those Asian Pacific American heroes on whose shoulders I stood as I grew up in the Army.
There's perhaps no more renowned champion of our people and our heritage than our own commander-in-chief. Just last week, at a gala of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, President Obama affirmed his personal ties to our ancestry when he said: "When I think about [Asian Pacific] Americans, I think about my own family: my sister, Maya … my brother-in-law … my beautiful nieces … and all the folks I grew up with in Indonesia and in Honolulu, as part of the Hawaiian ohana, or family. This is a community that helped to make me who I am today. It's a community that helped make America the country that it is today."
The President has a deep, personal understanding of, and a strong connection to our history: the achievements and the challenges of more than 18 million Americans who trace their lineage to Asia and the Pacific.
Finally, as a young battalion commander serving in Cold War Germany, I heard one of our senior generals declare in a speech: "I know that when I die, I will die a free man, on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed." Then he pointed east and said, "And 37 miles from here, there is a people, a whole nation, who cannot say that and would not really understand the fundamental importance of those words."
Well, those words stuck with me. I realized that I had been taking the privilege of my American citizenship a bit for granted. You see, those words are my legacy as well. I know when I die, I will die on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed. And those words are your legacy also. And because they are our legacy, our children and grandchildren inherit them from us—they are able to make the same statement unequivocally.
Only the free, who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath such a legacy to others. The shackled cannot. And the free who are not willing to fight and die for it, cannot. Only the free who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath freedom to others—as our ancestors did for us, and as you, in uniform, are doing today.
Thank you for your service and for preserving my legacy as a free man.
God bless those who serve and have served in uniform. And God bless this wonderful country of ours.