By Ashanti “Accel” Henderson, Contributing Writer

On Nov. 11, Veterans’ Day, we honored individuals who fought and are fighting for our country. This recognition is especially important for those who did not receive a hero’s welcome in life or in death upon their return home but instead faced continued discrimination. Hazel Ying Lee is a veteran, recognized as the first Chinese American woman in the military to fly, but not as a true American or military hero until decades after her fiery death.

Below the earth and above the skies, Hazel Ying Lee was born to break barriers. She entered the world on Aug. 4, 1912 in Portland, Oregon, a place with high anti-Chinese sentiment, as one of eight children born to Chinese immigrant parents—one of her brother’s would go on to serve his country, as many Chinese Americans did during World War II, and also die in the line of duty. Her life and career were short-lived but spectacular. She was athletic, fearless and vivacious by nature. She had wings. Lee’s passion and skill eventually propelled her into an elite group of women in the Air Force and allowed her to soar, bravely risking her life for her country.

The story of Hazel Ying Lee is one of an unsung pioneer for America and China. While most young women were secretaries or teachers, she was flying across borders at a time when most people had never left their hometowns. Lee was intrigued by flying from a young age and, with an initiative suited to her take-charge attitude, found a job as an elevator operator—one of the few jobs available to Chinese women—to save for pilot lessons through the local Chinese benevolent society. In 1932, the same year she received her pilot’s license, 19-year-old Lee took her first flight. At the time, less than 1 percent of American pilots were women.

The following year, Lee took the Japanese attack on China as her call to action. Having strong ties to her ancestral land, she traveled to China and volunteered to serve in the Chinese Air Force to fight Japanese aggression on the main front, but was turned down because she was a woman. She would continually be denied on the basis of gender discrimination, even after Japan invaded in 1937. She worked as a military desk clerk and flew commercial flights from Nanjing to support herself while residing in Canton until her return escape to the United States via Hong Kong in 1938 as the Japanese encroached further onto Chinese soil.

While Lee was denied the chance to fight as part of China’s military front, she faced a two front battle against gender and racial discrimination upon her return home. Although she was eventually permitted to join the U.S. Air Force, as a female pilot, she was treated very differently. Women were practically forced to pay to protect their country. They received lower pay than their male counterparts but were charged for uniforms and for room and board, and received no military benefits. As a person of Chinese descent, she was seen as an unwanted foreigner by her fellow Americans— (The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in effect until 1943). During a crash landing, she was almost attacked by a farmer who mistook her as a Japanese enemy. Even so, Lee remained dedicated, working 7 days a week with barely enough time to rest and with fulfillment of her passion as her only reward.

Lee was finally given the opportunity to fly for the military due to the shortage of male pilots after the Pearl Harbor attacks. She enjoyed doing something that was novel for Chinese girls and the danger of it all. She joined what became the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) in 1943, a select group of women who flew high-powered fighter planes, such as the P-51 Mustang and other fighter jets, as the first Chinese woman to fly for the military and one of two Chinese Americans in WASP. Lee was considered a brave and talented pilot by the younger girls in her squadron who looked up to her. She initially transported the fighter jets between training bases, shipping docks and other transit stations, but rapidly advanced from ferrying aircraft to flying the fighter jets on missions herself.

Within just a year of joining the military and just over a decade after obtaining her pilots license, Lee died on Nov. 25, 1944 after sustaining injuries from a landing collision in Great Falls, Montana en route from New York. World War II opened up many doors for Lee, but many remained closed. Since she was a woman, she was not permitted a military burial and was labeled a civilian, meaning her family bore the burden of her death and her funeral expenses. She was nearly cast out of her designated burial lot because Chinese were not allowed to be buried in the same cemetery lot as whites. Through protest, her family helped her to transcend the discrimination in life and in death. She was laid to rest in an Oregon cemetery overlooking Columbia River. Lee was posthumously awarded veteran status over 30 years later, and over 60 years later, the WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.



Featured Image: U.S. Air Force


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