Kevin Allen

Retired Marine Maj. Kurt Chew-Een Lee stands in his uniform.

Sacramentan to be honored twice as Korean War hero

Published: Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011 - 4:12 pm

One of the unsung heroes of the Korean War, Marine Maj. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, 85, is being honored this weekend by hundreds of Northern California war veterans and prominent Chinese Americans at two banquets.

Lee, who graduated from Sacramento High and Sacramento City College, is credited with leading 500 Marines more than 12 miles through a blizzard and over mountains to relieve a Marine company in danger of being wiped out by the Chinese.

Lee's mission helped save 8,000 Marines breaking out from Chosin Reservoir, where U.S. forces were encircled by 60,000 Chinese troops, said retired Army Col. Benton Hom of Sacramento.

Lee was saluted at a veterans' banquet at noon Saturday at the Mayflower restaurant, 3022 L St.

He'll also be honored at a second banquet hosted by the Chinese Benevolent Society of Sacramento at 6 p.m. today at the Asian Pearl Restaurant, 6821 Stockton Blvd.

As the first Chinese American commander to lead Marines in battle, Lee broke down racial and ethnic barriers in the military and back home. The Bee's Sept. 24, 1951, edition reported, "One of the strange phenomena of the 1st Marine Division's fighting in Korea was the oft repeated spectacle of a Chinese leading marine infantrymen into combat against his brethren."

Freeman Lee, a Chinese American veteran and commander of the VFW's Chung Mei Post 8358, credits Maj. Lee with changing Marine lore and American history.

"He was able to gain the respect of his men through his bravery and patriotism and thus able to overcome discrimination and racism in the battlefield and also the military," Lee said.

"He brings recognition and pride to his Chinese community and all of Sacramento."

Lee remembers there was a rabid of fear of Communism spurred by North Korea's invasion of South Korea in the summer of 1950.

Richard W. Stewart, a nationally known expert on the Korean War and the fierce battle at Chosin Reservoir, said vastly outnumbered U.S. troops were able to avoid a humiliating massacre and capture.

After the North Koreans had been defeated, Gen. Douglas McArthur had ordered the U.S. troops north to the Yalu River to try to capture the entire Korean peninsula, Stewart said.

"As we were attempting to solidify our hold over northeastern Korea, the Chinese hit us around Thanksgiving 1950 in full force, threatening to cut off Marine and Army infantry divisions," Stewart said. "We had to flee Korea but the Chosin Reservoir battle, by carefully withdrawing, the Marines saved themselves and the Army saved other elements and saved us from a terrible defeat – 30,000 U.S. soldiers captured and marched off into captivity."

Lee described leading his men in 20-degrees-below-zero weather across the rugged mountain terrain.

"It was a precarious undertaking," he said. "It was inadequate planning by the commanders. They had an unworkable set of orders I had to ignore and follow my own judgment. The maps were useless. It was like wearing a blindfold in a box," he said of navigating the blizzard.

"I had to make decisions on the move. We were loaded down by a double supply of ammunition and three days of rations."

One of those who owes his life to Major Lee is Cliffford Meyer, of Citrus Heights, who was a Marine corporal trapped in Youdam Ne, North Korea.

"He was in the first battalion, I was in the third, as a wire team leader," said Meyer, 81. "We strung telephone wire between the infantry company and the battalion command post because radios didn't work in that cold mountainous weather.

"He's a national hero," Meyer said of Lee. "He should have been given the medal of honor... he led a relief column through the mountains in waist high snow to relieve Fox Company. They were fighting off a Chinese regiment and they were taking heavy casualties. They were protecting the road because the only escape we had was a narrow mountain road and if the Chinese had taken that road, none of us would have survived."

The Chinese drove the Americans south of the 38th parallel. The U.S. forces fled to the port of Hugnam, where they evacuated 80,000 Korean refugees between Dec. 8 and Christmas 1950, "then blew up the port so the Chinese weren't able to use it," Stewart said.

Lee, who had been shot in the arm by sniper fire, was awarded the Navy Cross for extreme valor, "which is a great honor – I'm sure he deserves every bit of it," Stewart said. "His actions probably saved hundreds of Marines, but it was a team effort. There were a lot of heroes at Chosin."

Lee said his biggest sense of accomplishment came later when he was assigned as chief tactics instructor for new Marine commanders of rifle, machine gun and mortar platoons.

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