[By William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian]
As a small Chinese boy watching the great powers dog fight over China, becoming a pilot was akin to becoming an astronaut. The dreams of little Chinese boys fleeing war do not include becoming a Coast Guard pilot.
– Lt. Col. David Hsu, U.S. Army (ret’d.)
In the quote above, Lt. Col. David Hsu recounted his father, Coast Guard Capt. Kwang-Ping Hsu’s early years in war-torn China. Born in Shantung, China, in 1936, his life journey would lead him to experiences, events and places well beyond a young Chinese boy’s imagination.
The son of a professor of pathology at Beijing University, Hsu grew up during the Japanese invasion of China. At that time, the Chinese people faced the hatred and brutality of their Japanese invaders. He saw bombed and burning towns, tortured Chinese citizens, and crowds of scared refugees fleeing death and destruction. Hsu’s family also became refugees fleeing Beijing and moving inland to Kunming, China.
Known by friends and family as “Ping,” Hsu lived near the Kunming headquarters of the American Volunteer Group more commonly known as the Flying Tigers. Equipped with American fighter aircraft flown by American volunteers, the Flying Tigers fought Japanese “Zero” fighters in the skies over China. Ping’s father warned him to stay away from the giant American servicemen, claiming they dined on Chinese children. One day, young Hsu decided to observe a soldier up close and crept up behind one while his boyhood friends hid behind bushes. Seeing the boy out of the corner of his eye, the American grabbed him and sat him on a knee-high stone. Ping thought he would be eaten immediately, but the monster produced a rectangular object called a Hershey bar. It was the first time he had eaten chocolate and he savored every morsel. This act of kindness by a scary foreigner may not have influenced him, but it would certainly characterize the way he treated others later in life.
Hsu’s family escaped the ravages of World War II China thanks to his father’s academic background. In 1940, a visiting professor from the University of Virginia’s medical school taught at the University of Beijing and befriended Hsu’s father. His American friend convinced him to emigrate to the U.S. and take a teaching position at the University of Virginia. He departed China in 1945 and his family followed him two years later. In 1947, Ping, his mother and sister boarded the passenger ship SS Marine Lynx bound for San Francisco. From the West Coast, they travelled by passenger train across the U.S. Ping had heard rumors of the Wild West and expected to see robbers on horseback riding beside the train with bandanas covering their faces.
When the family arrived at their new home in Charlottesville, Virginia, Ping and his sister found they had to learn an entirely different language. They did so one word at a time, starting with “thank you.” However, the Hsu children faced a greater challenge than a language barrier. They were the only Asian children in Charlottesville and had to face racism from the city’s white society. Ping’s younger sister later recounted, “When we first appeared there, we were looked at like we were Martians.”
In elementary school, Hsu’s nicknames were “yellow skin” and “lemon drop” and he wound up fighting as often as he studied. Greatly outnumbered, Hsu realized he could never overcome racism through force. Instead, he found a typical Asian way of fighting back, through achievement. He became a stand-out soccer player and his grades soared. His high school classmates later elected him president of the school’s Key Club.
Hsu’s focus on academics and athletics paid off and he made many friends in high school despite the racism he often faced. By 1957, he had nearly completed high school and applied to the Coast Guard Academy. With his test scores, academic record and athletic accomplishments, he was accepted for admission. The Coast Guard Academy had never admitted a foreign-born cadet, so Hsu had to scratch out the word “state” in the place-of-birth block of the application and replace it with “Country: China.”
While at the Academy, Hsu was known by his friends as a cheerful and compassionate young man who brought out the best in people. He fit in at the Academy with its emphasis on military regimen and academic achievement and he excelled at athletics as a leading player on the soccer team. At the Academy, Ping had a penchant for schooling his friends in the best Chinese dishes and proper use of chopsticks. He also experienced racism there, but still made life-long friendships with many of the cadets.
While at the Academy, Hsu met his future wife. Chinese-American Rosemary Hu was the daughter of an entomologist working at the U.S. Agency for International Development (also known as U.S. AID) to fight the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria. At the time, she studied physics at Goucher College and the two met on a blind date at the annual Army-Navy football match-up. Rosemary later joked that she gained an extra letter in her last name when she married Kwang-Ping Hsu.
In 1962, Hsu completed his degree to become the first foreign-born graduate of the Coast Guard Academy.
After graduating from the Academy, Hsu qualified for flight training and earned his wings at the Naval Aviation School in Pensacola, Florida. He began his career flying HC-130 Hercules turboprop aircraft and would learn to fly many of the fixed-wing, amphibian and rotary-wing aircraft in the Coast Guard’s aviation inventory. Friend and fellow Coast Guard pilot, Montgomery “Mont” Smith, recalled of Hsu “I think he loved flying whatever the Coast Guard had and truly appreciated being in a service that allowed him to do that.”
Kwang-Ping Hsu with penguins in the Antarctic in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of the Hsu family.
In the first 10 years of his career, Hsu achieved the rank of lieutenant commander and earned two Coast Guard Air Medals for exceptional air rescue efforts. He became an accomplished polar aviator, serving tours as a helicopter detachment commander for icebreakers in the Arctic and Antarctic. He also participated in some of the most unique and important missions in Coast Guard history. For example, in early 1980, Hsu served in the search and rescue effort after the buoy tender Blackthorn was lost in a collision. Later that same year, he joined the initial response force deployed during the Mariel Exodus from Cuba.
Hsu’s record of service extended over 30 years and included command of two Coast Guard air stations. At Air Station Washington, he flew the Coast Guard’s Gulfstream executive jet to deliver commandants and government officials to meetings and events. As commander, he also oversaw the rapid mobilization of personnel and assets in 1982, when an Air Florida 737 crashed into the Potomac River. Hsu’s command coordinated search and rescue efforts and salvage operations for that tragic event. In 1986, while station commander of Air Station Barber’s Point, Hawaii, Hsu flew an HC-130 Hercules aircraft to Beijing, China. This was the first U.S. military aircraft to visit China since 1947, the same year he left his homeland to start a new life in America. In his last tour, Hsu served at the Pentagon as Coast Guard liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the First Gulf War. His tour during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm earned him the Joint Service Meritorious Unit Award and Joint Service Commendation Medal.
Kwang-Ping Hsu discussing Coast Guard aviation with his Chinese counterparts in 1986. Photo courtesy of the Hsu family.
Kwang-Ping Hsu experienced suffering and racial hatred early in his life, but he dedicated himself to helping others. A compassionate and responsible officer, Hsu led through example and had great concern for his peers and subordinates. Mont Smith recalled of Hsu, “He gave me orders to C-130 school in 1980 and it re-charged my career batteries, so to speak.”
Hsu also proved a great teacher, mentoring junior officers, such as Vivien Crea, pioneering female officer who later became vice commandant of the Coast Guard and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the service. Regarding her former commander, Crea recounted “he taught me don’t turn down opportunities just because they’re not what you expected. It was a lesson in being a good boss.”
Hsu retired from the Coast Guard in 1992. During his career, he had served his adopted country with honor and dignity. He flew jets, helicopters, fixed-wing amphibians and turbo-prop aircraft; he commanded two air stations; he flew the Polar regions and many historic response efforts; he was the pilot for commandants and dignitaries; and he served with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For these achievements, he received numerous medals, recognitions and accolades.
In retirement, Hsu was diagnosed with cancer. Even while he endured the ravages of disease, he tried to help others, writing a reference letter from bed for a caregiver applying for U.S. citizenship. Up until the end, he was enthusiastic and light-hearted and a role model for family, friends and service members. Hsu’s sister later claimed that “Ping thought that people are too serious these days and there’s too much political correctness. If people would joke a little more, it would be a better world.”
Hsu was survived by his wife, son David, a former Army Special Forces officer with combat tours in the Pacific and in Iraq, and daughter Cindy, who would become a news anchor with a television affiliate in New York City.
Hsu passed away in 2007 at the age of 71. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery beside many of the Coast Guard’s heroes and leaders. He had experienced his own version of the “American Dream” and served as a true role model for members of the Coast Guard’s long blue line. Hsu’s son David later wrote, “Dad always viewed his life as nothing less than extraordinary—a journey beyond any he could have imagined due to the opportunities of America and the Coast Guard.”
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.