Sunday, March 16, 2014

Kurt Chew-Een Lee

First United States Marine Corps
officer of Chinese descent
Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee (Chinese) <> January 21, 1926 - March 3, 2014) was the first U.S. Marine Corps officer of Chinese descent. Lee earned the Navy Cross under fire in Korea in September 1950, serving in the 1st Battalion 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division

Lee and his younger brothers Chew-Fan Lee and Chew-Mon Lee all earned bravery medals in the Korean War.

Early life

Chew-Een Lee was born in 1926 in San Francisco and grew up in Sacramento, California. Lee's father was M. Young Lee, born in Guangzhou (Canton), emigrating in the 1920s to the Territory of Hawaii and then California. Once established in America, M. Young Lee returned to China to honor an arranged marriage. He brought his bride to California and worked as a distributor of farm produce to hotels and restaurants. Lee's brother Chew-Fan Lee was born in 1927 in Sacramento. In 1928, a third son was born to the family: Chew-Mon Lee. The Lee family included three daughters: Faustina, Betty and Juliet.

Military career

World War II

At the time of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Chew-Een Lee was a high school student going by the nickname "Kurt", associated with the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (Junior ROTC). In 1944 when he was an 18-year-old student of mining engineering, Lee joined the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC). Small for a recruit, Lee was about 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) tall, and around 130 pounds (59 kg), but he was wiry and muscular. At the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Lee was assigned the task of learning the Japanese language. At graduation, he was retained as the language class instructor, a decision that disappointed Lee because he wanted to ship out and fight in the war. He earned the rank of sergeant and had just been accepted to officer training class when World War II ended.

From October 1945 to April 1946, Lee was enrolled in The Basic School, newly reactivated for USMC officer training. Second Lieutenant Lee graduated to become the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war.

Korean War

At the start of the Korean War, First Lieutenant Lee was in command of the 1st Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment training at Camp Pendleton under Colonel Homer Litzenberg. Soon, his unit received notice that it would ship out for the war zone at the beginning of September. Lee wanted to set a strong example of a fighting Chinese American. He said he "wanted to dispel the notion about the Chinese being meek and obsequious." He did not expect to survive the war, and intended his death to "be honorable, be spectacular".

Lee's brother Chew-Mon Lee had by this time joined the U.S. Army and was also training for Korea. Lee described the difficulty of leaving home as the family's first-born son:
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.

Battle of Inchon

Lee's unit shipped out on September 1, 1950. For two weeks he drilled his men day and night on the deck of the ship, enduring derision from the other platoon leaders. After arriving in Japan for final battle preparations, Lee's superiors tried to reassign him as staff officer handling translation duties. Lee insisted that he was only there to "fight communists", and was allowed to retain command of his platoon.

The 1st Battalion 7th Marines, including Lee, landed at Inchon on September 21, 1950, to attack the North Koreans and force them to retreat northwards. The People's Republic of China sent troops to stiffen the North Korean fighting response. On the night of November 2?3 in the Sudong Gorge, Lee's unit was attacked by Chinese forces. Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy's muzzle flashes. Following this, Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy front and attacked their positions one by one to draw their fire and reveal themselves. His men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted casualties, forcing the enemy to retreat. While advancing, Lee shouted to the enemy in Mandarin Chinese to sow confusion and then attacked with hand grenades and gunfire. Lee was wounded in the knee and in the morning light was shot in the right elbow by a sniper, shattering the bones. He was evacuated to a MASH unit (an army field hospital) outside of Hamhung. For bravely attacking the enemy and saving his men, Lee was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest honor given for combat bravery.

Lee was under hospital care for five days when he learned he was to be sent to Japan for recuperation. Unauthorized, he and another wounded marine took an army jeep and drove it back to his unit, walking the last 10 miles (16 km) when the jeep ran out of gas. He was assigned to command the 2nd Rifle Platoon whose officer had been wounded. Lee exercised his platoon in combat maneuvers while his arm was in a sling. This extra training helped his platoon take a leading role in heavy fighting a month later.

Some time in mid-November 1950, Lee met up with his brother U.S. Army First Lieutenant Chew-Mon Lee at a Marine field headquarters. Both men had been wounded and were resting up before further battle. The Sacramento Bee  published a photograph and a brief report of the meeting. Chew-Mon Lee addressed his brother respectfully as daigo, meaning "elder brother", and gave him a gift of army-issue 30-round "banana" clip magazines which could be taped together to supply 60 rounds of carbine ammunition before reloading. This was regarded as superior to the USMC regulation 15-round clips then in service. A week or two later, on November 30, 1950, Chew-Mon Lee performed heroically in battle, earning the Distinguished Service Cross.

Battle of Chosin Reservoir

Late on December 2 after several days of exhausting combat during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Lee's platoon was given the task of spearheading a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces in an effort to relieve the outnumbered Fox Company of 2nd Battalion 7th Marines trapped on Fox Hill, part of Toktong Pass and strategic to controlling the Chosin Reservoir road. Lee's relief force was given heavier loads to carry through the snow, up and down lightly wooded hills, through extreme cold (-20 °F, -29 °C), and under the very limited visibility of snow blizzard and darkness. Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, had no instructions for Lieutenant Lee on how to accomplish the mission except to stay off the roads with their heavily reinforced roadblocks. As point man of 2nd Rifle Platoon in Baker Company, Lee used only his compass to guide his way, leading 1st Battalion in single file. Suddenly pinned down by heavy enemy fire coming from a rocky hill, Lee refused to be delayed in his mission. He directed the men to attack the hill with "marching fire", a stratagem used by General George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply just enough suppressive fire to keep the enemy's heads down. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and the battalion charged, attacking enemy soldiers in their foxholes. Lee, with his right arm still in a cast, shot two enemy soldiers on his way to the top. When he reached the top, he noticed that the other side of the hill was covered with enemy foxholes facing the other way in expectation of an attack from the road, but the foxholes were now empty and the enemy soldiers were over 400 yards (370 m) away in rout because of the fearfully sudden 1st Battalion attack from their rear.

Following this success, communication was established with nearby Fox Company on Fox Hill. 1st Battalion directed mortar fire against the enemy and called in an airstrike, then Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack which forced a path to Fox Company. During this attack Lee took a bullet to the upper part of his right arm, above the cast on his elbow. Regrouping his men, Lee led Baker Company in more firefights against pockets of enemy soldiers in the Toktong Pass area, securing the road. On December 8, 1950, a Chinese machine gunner targeted Lee, wounding him seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Lieutenant Colonel Davis received the Medal of Honor for commanding the relief of Fox Company. Lee was awarded the Silver Star.

Throughout Lee's time in Korea, his brother Chew-Fan Lee was a student at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Pharmacy. Upon graduating in 1951, Chew-Fan Lee joined the Medical Service Corps (United States Army) at the rank of lieutenant, despite being a pacifist. In Korea, he performed bravely in action and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.

Vietnam War

Lee served at The Basic School from 1962 to 1965, beginning as commanding officer of the Enlisted Instructor Company at the rank of captain. He earned the rank of major on January 1, 1963, at which time he was made chief of the Platoon Tactics Instruction Group. In his 27 months at this position he trained future Generals Charles "Chuck" Krulak and John "Jack" Sheehan. Lee served overseas in Vietnam during 1965-1966 as Division Combat Intelligence Officer for 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Amphibious Force. He organized a division-level translation team for quickly processing foreign language documents captured by marine field units.

Later life and death

Lee retired from military service at the rank of major in 1968 and worked a civilian job with New York Life Insurance Company for seven years. During this period, Lee's mother died in Sacramento, and Lee's brother Chew-Mon Lee died at the rank of colonel during army service in Taiwan. His brother Chew-Fan Lee advanced in his career as hospital pharmacist. In 1975, Lee began working as a regulatory compliance coordinator for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; a position he held for almost two decades. Lee was married twice, producing no children. He had a step-daughter from his second marriage. Lee retired from his civilian career, living near Washington, D.C. in Arlington, Virginia.

Lee died on March 3, 2014 at the age of 88.


The vigorous fighting spirit that Lee gave to his USMC company resulted in it being allowed to keep the name "Baker Company" even after the U.S. military switched in 1956 from the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet (B for Baker) to the NATO phonetic alphabet (B for Bravo)  In a 2002 speech about the Chosin Reservoir battle, General Ray Davis said that Lee was the bravest Marine he ever knew.

In 2000, the California Military Museum mounted an exhibit describing the bravery and military service of the three Lee brothers. Lee is a member of the Legion of Valor, and represented the group in a meeting with President George W. Bush in 2007.

The story of Lee's bravery in the Korean War was the subject of a documentary produced by the Smithsonian Channel. The documentary, titled Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin, was broadcast on Memorial Day, May 31, 2010. David Royle of the Smithsonian Channel said that the filmmakers interviewed a number of veterans who served alongside Lee, many of whom believed that "he should have been awarded the Medal of Honor." Joe Owen was one of the marines fighting under Lee's leadership, and he told Smithsonian Channel documentarians that if it had not been for the death of Lee's company commander soon after the November 2?3 action, Lee would have been properly nominated for the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor of the United States.

Lee gave his final film interview for the Korean War documentary "Finnigan's War", directed by Conor Timmis.

Early in his career, Lee's superior officers criticized him for his aggressive chip-on-shoulder attitude. Lee maintained the pugnacious stance throughout his life. Lee responded to critics by saying that the chip is "my teaching tool to dispel ignorance."


Lee received decorations for bravery and service in the Korean War and in Vietnam. In addition to the Navy Cross, he also received the Silver Star and the Navy Marine Corps Commendation Ribbon with "V" Device (for valor in combat).

Navy Cross Silver Star Purple Heart w/ 1 award star

Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal w/ valor device Combat Action Ribbon US Navy Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon

Navy Unit Commendation Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal China Service Medal

American Campaign Medal World War II Victory Medal Navy Occupation Service Medal

National Defense Service Medal w/ 1 service star Korean Service Medal with 2 bronze service stars Vietnam Service Medal with 2 bronze service stars

United Nations Service Medal for Korea Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation Vietnam Campaign Medal