A Seafaring Legacy
16 May 2023
From Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Haydn N. Smith
America’s naval strength comes from the resilience, training, and diversity of our more than 300,000 Active Duty Sailors. Of those Sailors, over 23,000 of them are Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, representing a huge variety of ethnic groups and speaking more than 100 languages. This diversity of experience ensures a resilient, capable naval force.
NAPLES, Italy— America’s naval strength comes from the resilience, training, and diversity of our more than 300,000 Active Duty Sailors. Of those Sailors, over 23,000 of them are Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, representing a huge variety of ethnic groups and speaking more than 100 languages. This diversity of experience ensures a resilient, capable naval force. Recognizing their experience and honoring their heritage builds the path forward.
Asian Americans have served at every level of naval command to include Adm. Harry Harris, former Commander, U.S. Pacific Command. During his Command, a Japanese Prime Minister visited USS Arizona for the first time, recognizing the Dec. 7th attack on Pearl Harbor.
Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attacks in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt executively ordered the relocation of over 120,000 ethnic Japanese into internment camps in the U.S., most of whom were American citizens of Japanese descent.
In the face of extreme discrimination, more than 33,000 Japanese Americans volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during the World War II. An all-Japanese American infantry regiments, the 442nd, would became one of the most decorated military units in American history, receiving 9,485 Purple Hearts and 21 Medals of Honor during their European campaign.
But long before the WWII, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders played critical roles in the U.S. Navy. Filipino sailors were highly sought after in the global maritime industry for their voyaging expertise, but had only served sparsely in the U.S. Navy as early as the Civil War, but following the Spanish-American War, and the temporary accession of the Philippines as a U.S. territory, President William McKinley issued an executive order allowing the Navy to enlist 500 more. The Philippines gained independence in 1946, and an agreement negotiated the next year allowed the U.S. Navy to recruit Filipino nationals. Over the next four decades, about 35,000 Filipinos served in the Navy, initially as stewards and mess attendants. Eligible to serve in all enlisted and officer positions by the 1970s, they later rose to the Navy’s highest ranks.
It is the heritage of this agreement between the U.S. Navy and the Philippines that enables Personnel Specialist Seaman Recruit Mary-Glorian Agonos, a native of the Philippines, to enlist in the U.S. Navy and serve in Italy at Commander, Navy Region Europe, Africa, Central. Agonos enlisted in 2022 seeking independence, education, and the ability to help her family back home.
“The biggest challenge has definitely been the separation from my family,” said Agonos. “I’m an introvert and I’m not a fan of socializing, but luckily, I’m in a great command with the best roommates ever. They have become like my second family, and have helped me adjust to the unfamiliarity and challenges I have faced.”
The cultural shift from high school in the Philippines to boot camp in Illinois was a difficult one, especially with a language barrier that she quickly overcame.
“I wasn’t worried about the language barrier in boot camp because I had other more concerning matters to worry about,” said Agonos. “Luckily people aren’t very judgmental here if you aren’t proficient in the language.”
Agonos is one of many Asian and Pacific Islanders that carry on their proud tradition of seafaring service that has helped shape the U.S. Navy into the global maritime superpower that it is today. Their crucial contributions to America’s military and society are worth remembering, and that is why we celebrate Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Navy Region EURAFCENT oversees nine installations in seven countries, enabling U.S., allied and partner nation forces to be where they are needed, when they are needed in order to ensure security and stability in the European, African, and Central Command areas of responsibility.