Aging Chinatown vets have esprit de corps at Canal St. post

Tommy Ong, a Vietnam War-era veteran, at a Veterans Day parade in a Chinatown. Courtesy Tommy Ong

BY GABE HERMAN | The American Legion Post 1291 is headquartered in a nondescript building along Canal St. in Chinatown that is easy to miss. But inside is an organization full of life and community, and work being done to honor the local Chinese-American veterans who served the nation through the generations.

Lieutenant B.R. Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post 1291, named for a Chinese-American bomber pilot who died fighting in World War II, is open every day at 191 Canal St. Its rooms on the second floor have the feel of a relaxed community center, with regulars playing dominoes and chatting while others grab a nearby coffee or tea and sit to read a newspaper.

There is also more official business, like meetings, and preparing for events, like an upcoming trip to the White House for a ceremony commemorating the Dec. 20 passage of the Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act. The act had unanimous bipartisan support in Congress and honors the 20,000 Chinese-Americans who served in World War II.

Post 1291 currently has 46 vets from World War II. But Corky Lee, commander of the Sons of American Legion Post 1291, noted that they are getting older, many in their 90s or past 100, and unfortunately many are dying, leaving fewer left each year. Chairman Peter Woo, a World War II vet, died on Dec. 15. He served in the famed Flying Tigers Unit, a fighter pilot group in the China, Burma and India theater.

The Chinatown post has a total of 530 members, down from 600 just two years ago due to older members passing away. There are 180 members of the post’s Auxiliary, for female family of vets, and 90 in the Sons, for male family members.

Chinatown veterans and family members gathered at the Lt. Kimlau American Legon Post on Canal St. last month in support of a bill to honor Chinese-American World War II veterans. Photo by Corky Lee

Vietnam War veterans are currently the largest group at Post 1291, followed by those who served in the Gulf War. It is older members, though, who are more frequent visitors to the post’s headquarters, according to member Tommy Ong, who served in the later years of the Vietnam War and turns 67 on Jan. 25.

Ong, a jovial and friendly man who is semiretired and comes here about once a week, said the older members who are fully retired will come five days a week.

“It’s fun, it’s fraternal,” he said of spending time at the American Legion.

Ong grew up in Astoria but moved to Chinatown with family when he went to Brooklyn Tech for high school, for the shorter commute. Coming from a poor background, he took an ROTC scholarship to attend the University of Akron in Ohio.

“I wasn’t keen on the war,” he said. “I took it for the scholarship.”

When Ong turned 18 in 1970, he was entered into the draft lottery. He vividly remembers the dread of driving in his car and listening to the announcements of which birthdays would be drafted. His day, Jan. 25, came up second, and he was so upset that he pulled his car over on the road.

“I contemplated my future, dying in Vietnam,” he remembered.

Peter Woo, the former chairperson of the Lt. Kimlau American Legion Post, recently passed away. He is just one of many elder members that the Canal St. post has lost in the past couple of years as many members are now in their 90s and 100s.

Ong trained at Fort Dix, but didn’t see combat, serving in Korea at a missile base.  He joined the Legion in 1983 and is a lifetime member. He serves on the board and participates in events like parades that the Legion participates in every year for Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Sept. 11. The parades go down Mott St. to Kimlau Square, at East Broadway.

Ong really enjoys the community, the friendly feel of people who went through similar experiences.

“When you joke and make nonsense, everyone understands you,” he said. “It’s a good camaraderie.”

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