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Maj. Kurt Lee, Korean War hero, dies at 88

Mar. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Then-1st Lt. Kurt Chew-een Lee led Marines to rescue troops under siege during the Korean War's Battle of Chosin Reservoir. His exploits are featured in the Smithsonian Channel documentary 'Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin.'
Then-1st Lt. Kurt Chew-een Lee led Marines to rescue troops under siege during the Korean War's Battle of Chosin Reservoir. His exploits are featured in the Smithsonian Channel documentary 'Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin.' (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Channel)
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Marine Maj. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, a legendary hero at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, and the Corps’ first Asian American regular officer, died Monday at his home in Washington, D.C., according to multiple sources. He was 88.

Lee, who was born in San Francisco and raised in Sacramento, earned the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for separate acts of valor within a one-month period during the early part of the war. At one point, he led his Marines through a blizzard and intense enemy fire to save eight thousand more Marines from certain capture.

On Nov. 2-3, 1950, then-1st Lt. Lee, commander of a machine gun platoon within Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, took immediate countermeasures when a larger enemy force fiercely attacked his platoon and overran its left flank as it was defending approaches to the main supply route south of Sudong, according to his citation. Exposing himself to intense hostile automatic weapons, grenade and sniper small-arms fire, Lee carried out personal reconnaissance, well in advance of his own lines, to re-deploy the machine-gun posts within the defensive perimeter.

Forced back by extremely heavuy fire, he reorganized his unit and instructed his men to cover his approach. He then moved up an enemy-held slope in a deliberate attempt to draw fire and thereby disclose hostile troop positions, his citation states. Despite sustaining serious wounds as he pushed forward, Lee charged directly into the face of the enemy fire, inspiring other members of his platoon to press a counterattack and drive the hostile forces from the sector. For his outstanding courage, brilliant leadership and unswerving devotion during that battle, Lee received the Navy Cross.

Although sick and weakened from his wounds, Lee — who refused hospitalization — again led his 1st Marine Division troops in battle against enemy forces from Nov. 27 to Dec. 8.

Surrounded at the Korean border by tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers, the 200 members of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, were pinned down by intense enemy fire at the Toktong Pass, along the 1st Marine Division’s main supply line, during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. They were running out of ammo, and the sub-zero temperatures were just as deadly as the enemy fire.

If Fox Company failed, the Chinese could break through the pass and cut off United Nations forces positioned near the man-made reservoir.

Lt. Col. Ray Davis, commander of 1st Battalion, picked Lee to lead a daring rescue mission.

On the night of Dec. 1, using only a compass, the young lieutenant guided his Marines in the pitch black, over North Korea’s icy and rocky terrain, toward Fox Company’s position.

The next day, he skillfully maneuvered his Marines forward in the face of heavy fire. Lee personally accounted for two enemy dead and provided such aggressive and inspirational leadership that fire superiority was regained and the enemy was routed, according to his citation.

When 1/7’s Baker Company finally made the rescue, “there wasn’t many left in Fox Company,” retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 Wally Dugan, who served with Lee in the 7th Marines at Chosin, told Marine Corps Times in 2011.

Lee was a constantly moving presence on the line at Chosin. “He never stopped,” Dugan said.

Just days later, on Dec. 8, Lee’s platoon was pinned down by intense hostile fire while attacking south on the main service road from Koto-ri. Observing that the heavy fire was inflicting numerous casualties, Lee exposed himself to the deadly fire to move among his troops, shouting words of encouragement and directing a withdrawal to covered positions. Assured that the last of his wounded was under cover, he sought shelter for himself but was struck and severely wounded by a burst of enemy machine gun fire.

He told The Washington Post in May 2010 that he was never afraid during his trek.

“Perhaps the Chinese are all fatalists,” he said “I never expected to survive the war. So I was adamant that my death be honorable, be spectacular,” he said.

Lee’s exploits later became the subject of a Smithsonian Channel documentary, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin.”

In honor of the passing of the war hero, Smithsonian will rebroadcast the documentary several times in the days ahead. The air times:

■ 7 p.m. Saturday, March 8

■ 2 p.m. Sunday, March 9

■ 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Monday, March 10.

In recent years, his fellow veterans — led by American Legion Post 384 in San Francisco — have been lobbying for Lee to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts of heroism during the Korean War.

“We’ve all heard stories about brave young men who’ve jumped on grenades to save their comrades and have been awarded the Medal of Honor,” retired Air Force Lt. Col. Roger Dong, chairman of the post’s War Memorial Commission, told Marine Corps Times in 2011. “Just because Kurt Lee did not die does not mean he should not be recognized with the Medal of Honor. Who knows how many people are alive today because of him?”

In the 2011 interview with Marine Corps Times, Lee said he was proud to be a “pioneer” as the Marine Corps’ first Chinese-American officer.

“I was not the poster boy type — ‘6-foot-2 with eyes of blue,’” he said at the time. “But it was a challenge and I enjoyed it. Very few people tried to knock that big chip off my shoulder.”

Just weeks ago, Lee served as parade marshal of San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade.

“Though he spoke of his own mortality, casually mentioning that he ‘didn’t have much time,’ no one who had the honor of seeing Major Kurt Lee during his recent trip here believed it,” according to the Legion post’s March newsletter. “On the relevance of his service, on being the first regular commissioned Chinese American, and a minority officer in the United States Marine Corps, Major Lee stated, ‘Certainly, I was never afraid [of death]. ... I was adamant that my death be admirable, be of some consequence to my race.’ ”

Staff writer Tony Lombardo contributed to this report.

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