As soon as Mr. M. Young Lee, whose Chinese name meant “brilliant scholar,” immigrated to the US from Guangzhou, China, he traveled back to China to bring his wife, whom he had married in an arranged marriage, into the US. By 1926, the family had the first of their six children. The Lees’ firstborn was none other than the American war hero Kurt Chew-Een Lee.
Kurt Chew-Een Lee, or Lee junior, was born in San Francisco but grew up in Sacramento, where he attended school. In World War II, when the Imperial Japanese Navy under the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto attacked Pearl Harbor, Lee was a high school student attending the Junior Reserve Officers Training (Junior ROTC), where he earned the nickname Kurt.
However, as soon as he became 18 in 1944, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he was accepted despite being physically too small. Lee was 5 feet 6 inches and only weighed 130 pounds. The Marine Corp assigned Lee to learn the Japanese language. After graduation, the Marine Corp retained him as a Japanese Language instructor. This decision disappointed Lee as he wished to fight in the war. World War II ended with Lee attaining the Rank of Sergeant.
In the aftermath of World War II, Lee was enrolled in the Basic School. He graduated as a Second Lieutenant, becoming the first Asian-American officer in the history of the Marine Corp. After Lee’s graduation, he was tasked to interrogate the Japanese prisoners of war in Guam and China, where he put good use of his knowledge of the Japanese language. When the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, first Lieutenant Lee commanded the 1st platoon of Baker Company; his unit received deployment orders to ship out to the war zone by September.
At last, Lee got the fight he wanted to serve his country and partly distinguished himself and therefore dispel the racist view spread by Hollywood movies that the Chinese were a meek, obsequious and subservient race. Reflecting on the Korean War, Lee said, “Certainly, I was never afraid. Perhaps the Chinese are all fatalists. I never expected to survive the war. So, I was adamant that my death be honorable, be spectacular.”
However, First Lieutenant Lee’s by-the-book attitude created resentment in the troops. For many, it was their first time to have any contact with a Chinese person, let alone be under the command of one. The US at war with Asians also didn’t help Lee as the Asians were the enemy. His strict and enthusiastic approach to training also didn’t endear Lee to his subordinates.
At home, the Lee family, like most military families, found it difficult to say goodbye to their firstborn. Lee recounting on deployment day, said, “There was an awkward moment when the clock on the wall said it was time to depart. My mother was courageous. She said nothing. My father had been reading the Chinese newspaper or pretending to. He was a tough guy, my father, and I admired his toughness. He rose from his chair and shook my hand abruptly. He tried to talk but couldn’t, and that’s when my mother broke down.”
The Battle of Inchon
Lee landed at Inchon with the 1st battalion of 7th Marines on September 1, 1950. Their mission was to attack North Korean positions to force them to retreat northwards. However, the North Koreans were receiving aid, including troops from the people’s republic of China. As a result, Lee’s unit came under attack by the Chinese in November at the Sudong gorge. As the attack took place at night, Lee had his troops concentrate on the enemy’s muzzle flashes. After that, he single-handily advanced to the enemy position and engaged them to draw their fire.
After Lee’s platoon inflicted casualties on the enemy, the enemy retreated to confuse them further. Lee would shout at the enemy in Mandarin to confuse them while he, at the same time, engaged them with grenades. Despite the self-sacrifice, Lee was wounded in the knee, and a few hours later, he was again shot in the right elbow. Nevertheless, Lee’s bravery in battle and saving his men earned him the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor awarded for valor in combat.
After spending several days in the hospital, Lee learned that he was about to be sent to Japan for recuperation; he and another marine decided to slip away with an army jeep and rejoin his unit. Unfortunately for the two, the jeep had run out of gas and had no choice but to walk 10 miles until they reached their unit.
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir
After a few days of intense fighting on December 2 at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Lee’s unit received their marching orders. Their mission was to relieve the fox company, which was trapped on Fox Hill, part of the Toktong pass, and a strategic position that offered control of the Chosin Reservoir Road. However, heavy loads of supplies and armaments in the extreme cold temperatures meant the unit would march up and down hills with snow and limited visibility. This made making the relief effort even more burdensome.
Armed with only a compass to guide him, Lee had ordered his troops to form a single line but was immediately pinned down by the heavy fire. Nevertheless, the unit fought tooth and nail through to Rocky Hill. The fight was so intense that the Marines had to fight using “marching fire,” meaning the unit moved while shooting at the enemy to suppress them.
Lee called in mortar fire and air support on enemy positions and established communication with Fox Company on fox hill. Lee with Baker company kept pressing and engaging the enemy to force a path to fox company until finally achieving their objective. Unfortunately for Lee, a Chinese machine gunner gravely wounded him and effectively ended his Korean service. Nevertheless, Lee received the silver star for his actions during the relief effort.
Lee kept rising through the ranks serving in South Vietnam as a division combat intelligence officer. He organized a division-level translation team whose objective was to quickly process captured foreign language documents by the marines.
In 1968, Lee retired from military service at the rank of a major. Shortly afterward, his mother passed away. Three years after retirement, his brother Chew Mon Lee who had also served in the Korean War as an army officer committed suicide at the rank of a Colonel. Major Lee was married twice. Though he had a stepdaughter, he had no children of his own. After retiring from his civilian career, Lee lived in Arlington, Virginia.
Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee died at the age of 88 on March 3, 2014. He leaves behind an illustrious legacy where he continues to inspire generations of US Marines. The Major’s story embodies America’s greatness when America grants equal opportunity to all citizens, an America that is free from the shackles of racism and discrimination.