Asian American Pacific Island Heritage Month – Chinese-American Women in the AWVS

During World War II, a large number of Chinese-American women made important contributions to the United States’ efforts in the fight against the Axis powers. A key example of these contributions, many of which centered on transportation, involved Los Angeles’ Chinatown branch of the American Women’s Voluntary Services (AWVS) throughout the war years. AWVS, which was modeled after a volunteer organization for women in England, had been established in January 1940 – nearly two years before the U.S. entry into World War II. By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, membership in AWVS had reached approximately 18,000; this number expanded to more than 325,000 over the next few years.

The contributions of AWVS members on the home front encompassed a wide range of activities, which included riding motorcycles and even dogsleds and driving automobiles, trucks, and ambulances on behalf of the war effort. The AWVS Chinatown branch, under the leadership of Emily Lee Fong and May Chan, exemplified the large extent to which various means of mobility figured in the organization’s work. Many belonging to this branch took were trained in motor transportation, automotive repairs, and map reading. Members of the branch also served as chauffeurs for servicemen in the Los Angeles area as needed, and helped direct traffic for local military motor convoys.

The members of this AWVS branch also participated in various aviation-oriented activities. Among other things, these women conducted air raid precaution classes and – to help prepare for possible attacks by enemy aircraft at night — created blackout curtains to minimize outdoor light. Daisy K. Wong, who served as an instructor for the air raid precaution classes, underscored the importance of these activities in an interview with the Chinese Press newspaper. “The women of Chinatown are definitely responding to the need for gearing the home to possible wartime emergencies which the next blackout may bring,” she said.

Other aviation priorities pursued by women in this AWVS branch involved supervising the work of girls at Chinatown’s YWCA center as they assembled small model airplanes for experimental use by both the Army and Navy. Several of the women in the branch also helped out on a regular basis with shore-to-land signaling for planes flying through that part of California. As a volunteer named Alice Fong Yu later recalled, “Every Sunday morning from 6 a.m. to noon, we would help with charting the course of all aircraft in the area.” Through these efforts and others, the members of Los Angeles’ AWVS Chinatown branch did more than their fair share to help the U.S. and its allies win the war.

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