Maj. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, who grew up in Sacramento to become the first Asian American officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and a decorated Korean War hero, has died at 88.
He was found dead Monday in his home in Washington, D.C., possibly of a heart attack, said his niece Lori Lee of Sacramento.
Maj. Lee was a gung-ho Marine who gave no ground to enemy troops in battle or to bigotry at home. The firstborn son of Chinese immigrants, he climbed the ranks during a time of strong racial prejudice.
Standing only 5-foot-6, he was nevertheless an imposing figure with a wiry, muscular build and an intimidating gaze. He demanded that subordinates who did not respect him must nevertheless respect his rank.
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“His legacy will always be that he broke down barriers,” said Freeman Lee, past commander of VFW Chung Mei Post 8358. “He had to go up against prejudices and racism, and he was able to overcome that. He was like a (George) Patton or (Douglas) MacArthur. He would make a great general on the battlefield.”
Maj. Lee was a young, skinny lieutenant at the start of the Korean War who earned the respect and loyalty of his men as a fearless leader in extreme combat conditions. He received the Navy Cross, the Marines’ second-highest honor, for bravery during a fierce assault by Communist Chinese forces aiding the North Koreans on the night of Nov. 2-3, 1950.
To spur his men to fight, he took off in the darkness on a one-man raid and exposed himself to fire to pinpoint enemy positions for attack. Shouting in Mandarin to sow confusion, he hurled grenades and shot at Chinese troops, who fled. Wounded in the knee, he was shot the next day by a sniper and treated at an Army field hospital.
Unwilling to be sent to Japan for treatment, Maj. Lee took a Jeep without approval and drove with another wounded Marine to rejoin their platoon in Baker Company of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. He was assigned to help relieve a Marine division that was encircled by overwhelming enemy numbers while trying to defend their only escape road in the bloody Battle of Chosin Reservoir in December 1950.
Guided only by a compass in pitch-black darkness, he led 500 men through a nighttime blizzard over mountainous terrain at 20 degrees below zero. Pinned under intense enemy fire, he ordered his men to fire while advancing up a steep hill and shot two enemy soldiers along the way with his right arm still in a cast from his sniper wound. The ferocity of the Marine attack broke the resistance of enemy troops, who fled down the reverse slope.
Maj. Lee suffered another bullet wound in his right arm during the successful operation, which enabled 8,000 Marines to escape annihilation by 60,000 Chinese troops. Several days later, he was hit by machine-gun fire that ended his combat service in Korea. Although he received the Silver Star – the third-highest medal for bravery in combat – fellow Marines and other veterans who have studied his actions during the attack have argued that he deserved the highest award, the Medal of Honor.
“Kurt Lee was a hero among heroes,” said Jim Kunkle, a World War II fighter pilot and member of the elite Legion of Valor, a military organization open only to recipients of the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross or Air Force Cross.
“His combat actions were unbelievable, and many of us believe he should have gotten the Medal of Honor for Chosin Reservoir. He saved untold numbers of our troops by holding that valley pass open. He’s always been my hero.”
Born Jan. 21, 1926, in San Francisco, Chew-Een Lee was the third of seven children. He moved with his parents to Sacramento, where his father distributed farm produce to local restaurants and hotels. Known as Kurt, he enrolled in the ROTC program at Sacramento High School and studied mining at Sacramento City College before joining the Marines in 1944.
He was the eldest of three Sacramento brothers who were American heroes in Korea. His brother Chew-Mon Lee received the Army Distinguished Service Cross and rose to the rank of colonel. Another brother, Chew-Fan Lee, was a lieutenant who earned a Bronze Star as an Army medic.
After the Korean War, Lee served at The Basic School, a Marine officer training program, from 1962 to 1965. He was promoted to the rank of major in 1963 and was a combat intelligence officer in Vietnam. Besides the Navy Cross and Silver Star, he received a Purple Heart with one award star and other military honors.
The story of his gallantry in Korea has been covered in several books and was the subject of a 2010 Smithsonian Channel documentary, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin.” In 2000, the California Military Museum opened an exhibition honoring him and his brothers for their service in Korea.
Maj. Lee retired from the Marines in 1968 and settled in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for New York Life Insurance Co. for several years and retired after almost two decades as a compliance officer for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
He was active in veteran organizations and attended military reunions. He traveled widely speaking to students, civic groups and Chinese American organizations about his military service. He participated in recent Chinese New Year’s Day celebrations in San Francisco and was in Sacramento last week visiting relatives.
“He was very formal,” his niece said. “He was a really, really nice guy. But he was really proud to be a Marine. He was a Marine to the very end.”
Maj. Lee had no children during two marriages that ended in divorce. He is survived by his adopted daughter Nicole; three sisters, Faustina, Betty Mar and Juliet Yokoe; and his brother Chew-Fan.
Information about a service is pending. Maj. Lee requested to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.