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Chinese American WWII veteran celebrates 99th birthday, Congressional Gold Medal

By THE HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER Published: September 10, 2020

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — As the families of thousands of Chinese ­Americans who served in World War II wait to receive their Congressional Gold Medals, one Hawaii veteran was recognized Wednesday while marking his 99th birthday.

Because of restrictions, an in-person birthday celebration for Albert Kam wasn’t possible, but he was feted nonetheless at a virtual party at Maunalani Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where he lives.

An activity room was festively decorated for the occasion and a cake was served, according to Czarina Tabilas-Palmeira, the center’s community life director. The celebration did double duty as a recognition of Kam as a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress.

“You could see the joy in my dad’s face during the call,” his son, Steve Kam, said in an email. “Although my dad didn’t say much, his smile and body gestures did the talking for him.”

Roughly 20,000 Chinese Americans served in the Armed Forces in World War II, and Congress passed a recognition act for them in 2018. The Congressional Gold Medal was to be awarded collectively to the veterans in an April ceremony in the nation’s capital, but the pandemic put that on hold.

Over 3,000 of these veterans nationwide have been approved for the medal, with more expected to be added to the list, according to retired Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, a former Hawaii state adjutant general and co-­chairman of the Chinese American World War II Recognition Project-Hawaii.

Lee, who hosted Wednesday’s celebration, said Kam is among 300 Hawaii recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal.

“When I first heard about the Chinese American WWII Veterans Recognition Project from a friend, I immediately submitted an application for my dad as a way of showing him how much we appreciated his service while in the Army,” Steve Kam said. “Growing up in Hawaii, he frequently talked to my brother and I about his deployment to Guadalcanal but we didn’t know where this was. Neither my brother nor I served in the military but we were always grateful to those who served, served to protect our freedom and our way of life.”

Tabilas-Palmeira said Kam had been counting down the days until the celebration.

“He knew about the event and it was something that was really making him feel motivated throughout the whole week,” she said.

“Every day he would wake up and ask, ‘What is today’s date?’ He was really looking forward to this day.”

Kam was born Sept. 9, 1921, in Waipahu. After graduating from McKinley High School, he worked as a pipe fitter at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard for five years before being inducted into the military, according to his family. He served in the Army from 1945 to 1947 as a private first class firefighter.

Kam received an Asiatic-­Pacific Services Medal and a WWII Victory Medal. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Army in 1947, he resumed civilian duties at Pearl Harbor until he retired in 1977. Kam and his wife, Florence Ching, have two sons, two grandsons and a granddaughter.

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