Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Ernie Kim: Korean Americans and World War II

Objective: To understand the contributions of Korean American soldiers during World War II.

Before World War II, tensions escalated between Japan and the United States during the 1930s. This hostility ultimately culminated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. A consequence of the attack was rising anti-Japanese sentiment and, later, the persecution of Japanese Americans with Executive Order 9066. The order imprisoned approximately 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. While only Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were incarcerated, the anti-Japanese sentiment also extended to immigrants and Americans of other Asian descent groups, including Korean Americans.

Although Asian Americans faced intense discrimination in the United States, they served the nation at home and in the armed forces. Ernie Kim, for instance, was a parachute lieutenant in the U.S. Army and fought at the Battle of the Bulge during WWII. As the sole survivor of his unit, he was captured and imprisoned at the German POW camp in Heppenheim. In the POW camp, he received no medical care and very little food. When he was finally rescued, Kim weighed only 65 pounds and suffered from severe depression. The injustice of an individual soldier sacrificing his life for the nation while suffering discrimination at home needs to be furthered explored in Asian American history.

In this lesson, you will read passages from different secondary sources, conduct your own research, and write on the contextual themes and historical events that shaped the experiences of Korean Americans during WWII. This lesson is intended to be taught in tandem with a WWII curriculum.

Common Core Standards (California)

Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies (Grade 9-12)

WHST 9-12.1: Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.

WHST 9-12.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

WHST 9-12.5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.

WHST 9-12.7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Content Standards (California)

History/Social Science (Grade 11)

HSS 11.7: Students analyze America’s participation in World War II.

HSS 11.7.3: Identify the roles and sacrifices of individual American soldiers, as well as the unique contributions of the special fighting forces (e.g., the Tuskegee Airmen, the442nd Regimental Combat team, the Navajo Code Talkers).

HSS 11.7.5: Discuss the constitutional issues and impact of events on the U.S. home front, including the internment of Japanese Americans (e.g., Fred Korematsu v. United States of America) and the restrictions on German and Italian resident aliens; the response of the administration to Hitler’s atrocities against Jews and other groups; the roles of women in military production; and the roles and growing political demands of African Americans.


Video, “For Susan Ahn, WWII Was a Fight for America and Korea”

Selected passages on Korean Americans during WWII  (download PDF from sidebar above)

Internet and computer access


  1. Review the events that escalated the tension between Japan and the United States in the years prior to World War II.
  2. Watch “For Susan Ahn, WWII Was a Fight for America and Korea” to introduce the role of Korean Americans during WWII.
  3. Read selected passages (downloadable PDF) on Korean Americans during WWII.
    (Note: This step can be assigned as homework the night prior to lesson day.)
  4. Discuss as a group the themes and historical events that emerge from the video and selected passages.
  5. Independently, conduct further internet research on life for Korean American civilians or Korean Americans’ participation in the U.S. military during WWII. Find at least two scholarly articles.
  6. Reflect and write a brief essay that addresses the following questions:
    • What was the relationship between Korean Americans and Korea?
    • What was the relationship between Korean Americans and Japan?
    • What barriers did Korean Americans face during WWII in and outside the United States? What are the similarities to other minority groups in the United States?
    • What were possible ramifications of Executive Order 9066 on Korean Americans?
    • How did anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII create tension between Japanese Americans and Korean Americans?
    • Optional: What are possible remnants of WWII in today’s experience for Korean Americans?

Possible Extension One

Ernie Kim was introduced to ceramics through a Veterans Administration class that provided occupational therapy after World War II. This experience helped Kim to find a new path in life: “I realized I could serve myself and the community by becoming a ceramic artist.” What role can art play in the reintegration of combat soldiers into civilian life? Research the topic of art therapy for veterans to understand how Kim benefited from such a program. You can start with the following sources:

American Art Therapy Association. n.d. “Art Therapy, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Veterans.” Americans for the Arts.

Veterans Families United. n.d. “Art Therapy: Visual, Performing, Written.”

Possible Extension Two

Korean Americans were not the only ones facing injustice. Many other minority groups served in the armed forces but continued to face discrimination at home during WWII, notably African Americans. Research the experiences at the U.S. home front of another minority group.

For more lessons based on Ernie Kim, visit the artist’s teacher packet.