President Donald Trump recognized the contribution of two Hawaii-born leaders Tuesday when he issued a proclamation declaring May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Astronaut Ellison Onizuka, born on Hawaii island, was the first Japanese American to fly into space, on the Space Shuttle Discovery. He completed 74 hours in space and 48 orbits around Earth, according to Trump’s proclamation. He died in the 1982 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger along with the other crew members. He was also a lieutenant colonel and pilot in the Air Force.
U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong was one of Hawaii’s first two senators in 1959 and the first Asian American ever elected to the Senate, according to the U.S. Senate website. He was born on Oahu and was a University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate, military veteran, lawyer and businessman.
“We honor the more than 20 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who call America home, and we express our sincere gratitude to all those who are selflessly serving in the Armed Forces,” Trump’s proclamation read.
He added that Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures have “enriched the American experience” with their art, food, language and more.
In June 1977, two U.S. congressmen introduced a resolution to declare the first 10 days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage week. A month later, then-Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Spark Matsunaga helped introduce a similar bill. President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution between the two bills, but it didn’t pass into law. Then, in 1977, U.S. Rep. Frank Horton of New York proposed the bill that would proclaim a week in May as Asian-Pacific Heritage week. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush passed a bill that extended the celebration to a month.
“Sometimes people on the mainland forget about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Hawaii…that we are unique, flourishing cultures thousands of miles west of California,” state Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo) said. “Designating the month of May to recognize the contributions to military service, business, academia, sports, and so much more by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is a wonderful way to celebrate our differences that make our society so vibrant and diverse.”
Inouye was the first Japanese American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and was posthumously awarded the presidential medal of freedom.
Matsunaga was born on Kauai and had a pivotal role in creating the U.S. Institute of Peace. Following his death, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution was renamed the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, in honor of the congressman.
“He was someone that was writing and talking about clean energy bills back in the late ’70s — very futuristic mindset,” said Jose Barzola, education specialist for the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution. He added that Matsunaga was a visionary.