Kurt Chew-Een Lee, then a Marine Corps first lieutenant, poses for a photo during the Korean War. US Marine Corps photo.
In 2022, Feb. 1 marked the first day of the Lunar New Year, and in tribute, Arlington National Cemetery highlighted the extraordinary military service of Chinese American Marine Kurt Chew-Een Lee. The Korean War veteran, whom Arlington officials identified as the first Asian American officer in the Marine Corps, is remembered for his intuitiveness in outwitting Chinese troops and his bravery in leading 500 Marines to rescue Americans from a deathtrap near Chosin Reservoir.
For many Devil Dogs in his unit, Lee was the first person of Asian ancestry they had ever met. He suffered a long list of slurs and other racial discrimination as he won his fellow Marines’ trust and respect.
Born in San Francisco on Jan. 21, 1926, and raised in Sacramento by parents who had emigrated from China, Lee enlisted in the Marines toward the end of World War II. The 18-year-old had learned to speak Japanese and was eager to use his newly acquired skill in the Pacific theater, but instead, he remained stateside to teach Japanese language school.
In 1946, Lee felt a profound desire to lead Marines and became an officer. But at just 5-foot-6 and weighing roughly 130 pounds, he wanted to prove himself in combat, which he knew would be the way to overturn the stereotypes his fellow Marines held of him.
“I wanted to dispel the notion about the Chinese being meek, bland and obsequious,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.
If his fellow Marines wondered whether Lee could bring himself to fight Chinese soldiers, those doubts evaporated on the night of Nov. 2, 1950.
“The Chinese attacked at midnight,” Lee told the Smithsonian Channel during the documentary Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin. “All hell broke loose. Whole place erupted with gunfire. Explosions. The cacophony was tremendous. It was like we were in the middle of a trembling bowl of jelly.”
Lee, who was a platoon leader with 1st Marine Division, ordered his Marines to remain vigilant as he advanced alone to provoke the enemy to open fire.
“Too many people think that they can save the lives hiding behind a boulder and not firing,” he said. “In order to accomplish the mission, you’ve got to keep moving and always forward.”
Lee ran toward the Chinese, took pop-shots from his M1 rifle, and rolled to a different position to hurl a hand grenade. He hoped his effort would appear as if a much larger Marine assault force had launched an attack. The ruse worked, and the Chinese returned fire, exposing their position. Lee crept up toward the perimeter of the enemy outpost and called out in Mandarin, “Don’t shoot; I’m Chinese!”
His voice distracted the Chinese, confusing them into retreating, but his American accent gave him away. The Chinese fired, and Lee was wounded. Even so, he threw his last two hand grenades and assaulted the Chinese position, finding several dead soldiers — the rest had abandoned their post.
For his actions, Lee received the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor a Marine can receive.
“We were inspired by Lee,” mortarman Lt. Joe Owen recalled, according to the documentary. “He became the character of Baker Company, 7th Marines.”
Less than a month later, in December, while Lee recovered in a field hospital, thousands of Chinese forces overwhelmed the region and surrounded 8,000 American troops. He put his arm in a sling and left the hospital against orders. He joined another wounded Marine, stole an Army jeep, and raced to return to his unit. When the jeep ran out of gas, Lee had to walk 10 miles to reach the front lines.
Once there, he led a daring rescue mission to save Americans overwhelmed by Chinese forces during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
“Can you imagine a night attack extending 10 miles across uncharted, unknown territory, no opportunity for reconnaissance?” Lee asked rhetorically in an interview. “Unknown enemy dispositions, 20-30 degrees below zero with a blizzard thrown in your face, you at the point leading 500 men on an urgent mission?”
The seemingly impossible mission to save 8,000 men from certain death or imprisonment earned Lee the Silver Star medal.
“His exploits in Korea were numerous,” friend and World War II veteran Jim Kunkle said, according to CNN. “He was very successful in holding open a pass to allow our people to escape from the Chosin Reservoir, which is probably one of the greatest feats of military maneuvering in Korea.”
Lee also served in the Vietnam War as a division intelligence officer and retired from the Marines in 1968 as a major. Lee died in 2014. He was 88.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.