Valor Friday

| May 10, 2024 | 14 Comments

Kurt Chew-Een Lee

Kurt Chew-Een Lee was the child of Chinese immigrants. Growing up in Sacramento, when America entered World War II, Lee was only 15. As a participant in JROTC during those high school years, it should be no surprise that he enlisted as soon as he turned 18. The eldest son of six children (three boys, three girls) in his family, Lee joined the Marine Corps in 1944. He saw it as his duty to serve his country. He’d grown up in a family of proud Chinese. His mother would read aloud Chinese works like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Because of this he felt his role as a warrior was honoring his heritage too.

After basic training in San Diego, he was assigned to learn Japanese (already knowing Mandarin). Excelling in the classes, he was retained as an instructor. This disappointed him, as he wanted to go fight. In his own words he said it was “demoralizing” to have to remain in the States while other Marines got to go fight. He rose to the rank of sergeant and was selected for officer training before the end of the war.

Lee said at the end of the war he stayed in the Corps because, “Quite frankly I was ashamed.” He was a Marine sergeant who ended the war without a Purple Heart, and no battle scars. Like many men who volunteer to serve in war, but don’t get the chance to see war, he held regrets that he’d been given an easier course of duty. He decided to take the opportunity to become an officer, and says, “I was enough of a student of history to know that it won’t be long before we would be in another war.”

Lee passed the college equivalency training needed to start commissioning, and attended The Basic School (Marine officer training). His Basic School class, in 1946, was made entirely of enlisted Marines. It was the last such class. Lee said some of the officer candidates were privates first class, while others were staff NCOs like gunnery and technical sergeants. Many were combat veterans of the Pacific War. All were “true blue” Marines that were electing to become officers in the Corps rather than mustering out as roughly 320,000 were doing at this time.

Upon commissioning, Lee was the first non-white and first Asian Marine officer in the Corps’ history. He was sent to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners.

When North Korea started their surprise invasion of South Korea in June 1950, Lee was a platoon commander in the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (1/7 Marines). They shipped off to support the United Nations effort against the communists in September 1950.

1/7 Marines have a respectable combat record. Constituted after World War I, some of the most famous names of Marine Corps history served in their ranks during the Second World War. John Basilone was a 1/7 Marine when he earned the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal. At the time, the battalion was under the command of then-Lieutenant Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller. Puller earned his third (of an eventual five) Navy Cross while commanding the unit in that same action at Guadalcanal.

In the Korean War, a staggering eight Marines of 1/7 earned the Medal of Honor (6 posthumously). In Vietnam, another three men of 1/7 Marines would earn the Medal of Honor (2 posthumously). It was the kind of unit where uncommon valor was a common trait.

Before leaving for Korea, Lee describes the scene at home. As the first-born son, his parents were understandably worried about Lee heading off to serve in another war. Especially one that was not going well for the UN side.

“I came from a family of limited means. My father, whose Chinese name was Brilliant Scholar, distributed fruit and vegetables to restaurants and hotels in Sacramento. He stayed home from work that morning, and my mother, whose Chinese name was Gold Jade, made a special meal. There was an awkward moment when the clock on the wall said it was time to depart. My mother was very brave. 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.”

By this time, Lee’s brother Chew-Mon Lee had also gone to serve. He enlisted in the US Army, and was commissioned an infantry officer. He too saw service in Korea during the war.

While enroute to Japan, Lee spent the two week journey drilling his platoon on the deck of the transport ship. He was known for being formal, even amongst his peers of the same rank. When the unit arrived in Japan for some last minute training and drilling, Lee’s superiors tried to more him to a staff position doing translation duties. He resisted this, telling them that he was there to “fight communists”, and was allowed to retain his field command.

Lee and his men landed on Korean soil at Inchon on 21 September 1950. From there, they were part of the successful push against the North Koreans, driving them back over the 38th Parallel. When it looked like the UN forces were on the path to defeating the North Koreans completely, their communist allies in China sent tens of thousands of troops to reinforce them. As winter fell on the Korean peninsula, the fighting devolved to a stalemate. Both sides started to dig into defensive positions among the mountains. Fighting over that winter became more like the trench warfare of the First World War than it did the quicker, ground covering actions of the Second World War.

With the sudden arrival of the Chinese troops, there were pockets where Allied units were completely surrounded. Some of them were able to fight their way out, and some were captured en masse. Lee’s fellow Marines wondered if he’d be able to fight the Chinese. They soon learned that he would. “I would have … done whatever was necessary,” he told the Los Angeles Times many years later. “To me, it didn’t matter whether those were Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, whatever — they were the enemy.”

On the night of 2 into 3 November, Lee and his men were attacked in the pitch darkness by Chinese forces. Lee ran down the line, focusing his men to fire on the enemy muzzle flashes. After the initial barrage though, everything suddenly went silent. Pitch black, surrounded by an unseen enemy, and now they couldn’t even see where the enemy was firing from. How can we get the enemy to start exposing themselves again?

Lee advanced, alone, to attack each enemy position. This drew their fire to himself, allowing his men to then locate their position and start hitting the enemy with the accurate fire of Marine riflemen.

While attacking the enemy line, and forcing some of them to retreat, Lee shouted to the enemy in Chinese, adding to their confusion. At one point he yelled, “Don’t shoot, I’m Chinese” in Mandarin. He punctuated the verbal assault with grenades and rifle fire of his own. During his brave action that night he was wounded by enemy fire in the leg. As day began to break, he was hit by an enemy sniper round, which shattered his right elbow. Inspired by the dauntless and unflinching courage of their commander, Lee’s men charged after him and, despite their initial outlook appearing bleak, drove the communist forces from the area.

Lee was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award for combat bravery, for his actions that night. He was sent to the rear to a hospital to have his injuries treated. After a few days he learned that he was to be sent to Japan for recuperation. Well Lieutenant Lee didn’t like that idea too much, so he and another wounded Marine broke out of the hospital.

The two men stole an Army Jeep and drove back to their unit at the front. When the Jeep ran out of gas ten miles short of their destination, they walked the remaining distance. Lee, you’ll recall had just five days prior been shot in the leg and had his right arm in a sling, making it largely useless.

Returning to 1/7 Marines, Lee was given command of a rifle platoon. He immediately began drilling and training his men for the coming battles. Sometime around here, in mid-November, Lee was able to meet up with his brother Chew-Mon Lee. The younger Lee was a first lieutenant assigned to the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry. He had previously been wounded in action, and the two men were both resting as much as possible while preparing for the next battle.

Just days after their in-theater reunion, Chew-Mon Lee would earn the Distinguished Service Cross (the Army award equivalent to the Navy Cross) for heroism in action. On 30 November, when his company was attacked by a numerically superior force that completely surrounded them, he took command of the company when the commander was killed. Knowing that losing the company commander could panic the men, as could the sudden and large number of casualties they incurred, he moved from position to position encouraging and calming the men.

With Chew-Mon’s calm, steady leadership the men held their position. When a sniper started to harass them from an elevated position on a nearby hill, Chew-Mon personally led a small team to assault the hill and silence the enemy fire from it. From that hill he established his command post, and sent a runner through the enemy encirclement to call for reinforcement.

Thanks to Chew-Mon’s decisive leadership and bravery under fire, the men under his command repelled repeated fanatical enemy assaults. Completely surrounded, with no way out, they held their position and fought back against the enemy long enough that a friendly relief force was able to punch through the enemy line.

When they did, he observed that the friendly tanks were unable to distinguish friend and foe. Chew-Mon got the attention of one of the tank crews so they wouldn’t shoot him, then ran to the tank, and mounted it. Climbing aboard the armored vehicle, with significant enemy fire bouncing off the hull of the tank, he rode it forward, directing their fire into the enemy.

Chew-Mon would be a career Army officer, serving through the Vietnam Era. He was a colonel and State Department military attache when he died in 1972 at the age of 44 by his own hand.

On 2 December, another American unit was surrounded and at risk of being killed or captured. Kurt Lee’s platoon was given the task of leading a 500-man charge up a hill at the Chosin Reservoir to relieve the men of 2/7 Marines. Lee was given no direction for how to accomplish the mission, he was just ordered to stay off the roads. As a relief force, the men carried heavier loads than they would normally.

Lee led his men single-file forward. Going through the scrub was difficult as it was snowing. Not just snowing, it was blizzard conditions. Constant heavy snow fall combined with heavy winds reduced visibility. The biting wind made the temperature, which got to as low as -20 degrees, even worse. It’s why the veterans of this battle, perhaps the most storied of the war, are known as the “Frozen Chosin” and, due to the high numbers of casualties, “The Chosin Few.”

Cut off, in the bitter cold and snow, the UN troops at Chosin held off the enemy, just like the men of the 101st Airborne had done just six years previously in an abnormally cold winter in Bastogne. The other common thread between the two battles is the lack of proper cold weather gear for the troops. It was a bitter fight in both the figurative sense as well as in the literal, as it was bitterly cold. It was at Chosin that Chesty Puller, now a full colonel and soon to be general, described the dire situation thusly; “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”

Lee led his men through the rough, rocky mountain using only his compass, and was said by the Marine Corps to have made an “epic night march” to the relief of the surrounded Marines of 2/7. When they finally made contact with the enemy, the lead elements were halted by fire from a rocky escarpment. Lee maneuvered his platoon in an attack through heavy enemy fire to silence the position.

He ordered his men to attack the hill with one of George Patton’s favorite tricks, “walking fire.” This is an infantry tactic in which the men lay down their own covering fire while advancing. They fire at the enemy enough to keep their heads down while simultaneously advancing on the enemy. When they got to the hill they charged up, attacking the enemy foxholes.

Lee was credited with killing at least two personally, with his arm still in a cast! When they got to the top of the hill, they saw the enemy had positioned themselves for defense on the other side of the hill. Lee and his men had attacked them from behind. The surprise and the speed with which they attacked the enemy drove them from the numerous foxholes and bunkers on the other face of the hill, and they found the enemy in full retreat.

Lee was “providing such aggressive and inspirational leadership that fire superiority was regained and the enemy was routed” and they rescued the embattled 2/7 Marine company. They broke through and relieved 8,000 Marines who were at risk of being annihilated by 60,000 communist troops. It wasn’t without cost though. A full 90% of Lee’s company was killed or wounded, but they kept the evacuation route open.

Not even a week later, on 8 December, as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir continued, Lee’s platoon was once more pinned down by heavy enemy fire. Lee braved the heavy enemy fire to move among his men, to direct them in an orderly retreat. Only once he was assured that all of his wounded had been collected did he start to find shelter for himself. He’d tempted fate once too many, and the enemy finally hit Lee. He was severely wounded by a burst of communist machine gun fire.

Lee received the Silver Star for his actions in December 1950. He also was forced to take that ticket out of the war. Of the eight men from 1/7 Marines to receive the Medal of Honor that I mentioned above, a full four of them (three posthumous) were for the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

“Certainly, I was never afraid,” Lee told the Washington Post in 2010. “Perhaps the Chinese are all fatalists. I never expected to survive the war. So I was adamant that my death be honorable, be spectacular.”

While Lee and his brother Chew-Mon were in Korea earning some of the country’s highest awards for valor, their younger brother Chew-Fan Lee was in school to be a pharmacist. He joined the Army’s Medical Corps after graduating in 1951, even though he held pacifist beliefs. Like his brothers, he too would be called to serve in Korea. He didn’t get a fancy cross to wear on his uniform, but he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for his services there. He continued to serve in the Army and made it a career.

Lee remained in the Corps after his second war. He served in a variety of positions, rose to the rank of major, and retired in 1968. He’d served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam.

Among the men he served with, more than one thinks that he deserved the Medal of Honor. “I didn’t care what color he was,” Ronald Burbridge, a rifleman in his unit in Korea, said in an interview for a 2010 Smithsonian documentary. “I have told him many times, thank God that we had him.”

In retirement he worked as a compliance officer for an electrical co-op. He was active in veterans and Chinese-American groups, telling his story. He was twice married. He never had any kids of his own, but had adopted a step-daughter from his second wife. He died in March 2014 at the age of 88. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“He was very formal,” his niece Lori Lee said after his death. “He was a really, really nice guy. But he was really proud to be a Marine. He was a Marine to the very end.”

 

Category: Historical, Korea, Marines, Navy Cross, Valor, We Remember

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STSC(SW/SS)

Three brothers, Three heroes.

I salute all three and their parents for raising good men.

FuzeVT

Hard as woodpecker lips! Hoorah, Marine! (Goes for all of the men in that family.)

Steve1371

And for all of those who fought in -20 weather.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

That such men lived, and served…..
(pass the kleenex, damned dusty here)

CDR D

Awesome! Thanks Mason.

SFC D

The warrior DNA is strong in this family.

Marine0331

Semper Fi Devildog!!!!

Marine0331

Another bad-ass American Patriot!!!!

Green Thumb

Bad ass fucking post.

Great way to start the day.

KoB

Hardcore! Betcha if one looked that word up in Mr. Webster’s Book of Definitions, one would find a Family Portrait of these Warriors.

Great story, Mason…Thanks…again!

JustALurkinAround

Valor Friday articles are my favorite releases of the week. All of these wonderful stories make my service seem insignificant. I know it wasn’t, but I sure feel that way.

Jimbo

A movie should be made of this man’s life.

Skivvy Stacker

I believe I saw a presentation about this Marine on Ollie North’s program “War Stories”. I remember thinking; “I’d follow this little lemon colored character anywhere” [fellow Marines are allowed to make racially insensitive remarks, so fuck you].
I don’t know what it is, but I find that the people who have been mistreated, and oppressed the most in this country seem to be the ones who fight the hardest, and hold the highest regard for America. We could all take a lesson from them. God bless every fuckin’ one of them.
Why do I love this country? Maybe because I was bullied so damn much as a kid, and while I was in the Marines. Maybe those of us who have had to face the reality of the tyrant understand what the Founders of this country were rebelling against…who knows?
In any case, I’m proud to SHARE the title of United States MARINE with Kurt Chew-Een Lee!

Just An Old Dog

I have a book somewhere in my collection that was written by 1/7s mortar platoon Commander that mentioned the huge set of balls and when the weather was bad Lee wore a road guard vest ds his men could always see him,