A hero of mine died Monday, an unassuming grunt and uncompromising, admirable prick who led 1st Marine Division’s breakout during the brutal “Frozen” Chosin Reservoir campaign of the Korean War. You likely don’t know his name, but a mentor made it mine five decades later.
Kurt Chew-een Lee received the Navy Cross and Silver Star for heroic actions against Chinese and North Korean forces during the Battle of Inchon and the Chosin campaign, during which 12,000 Marines of 1st MarDiv and their Army and U.N. brethren found themselves surrounded by more than 60,000 Chinese. He should’ve been awarded the Medal of Honor. (More on that later).
Lee died at his home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 88. The number 8 brings good fortune in Chinese culture, and I venture to say he had a fair amount of it during the Korean War.
Most obituaries will probably focus on him being the first U.S. Marine Corps officer of Chinese descent at a time of great prejudice against Asian Americans – and of course, he was fighting Communist Chinese and North Korean forces on the Korean Peninsula. But in the same way he blew off hospitalization after getting seriously wounded the first time, he dismissed prejudices back then as “overplayed and a little ridiculous,” according to a 2010 interview he did with The Washington Post. He said: “They better not have had any biases like that. They’d have gotten their asses kicked.”
Chip on his shoulder? To borrow from Johnny Manziel, it wasn’t a Frito – it was a Dorito.
Most consequential to me was that he was a short (generously 5′-7″), skinny (130 pounds) lieutenant who silently proved to himself, his peers, his subordinates and the world that he could excel in a world of violence. This is not some sterile office environment, where you prove your value in the quality of products and your ability to be amenable in a team setting. This is a locker room – correction – it’s a prison yard and you’re one of the guards or the warden. If a prison guard can’t command immediate respect with his physicality, he’d better find another way or die trying.
Lee’s way? He pushed his men relentlessly and enforced standards mercilessly. A by-the-book infantry officer, he rode his men hard until they could recite machine-gunnery gospel chapter and verse. What’s the height of grazing fire? Is armpit height deep enough for this fighting hole? Are you obeying the eight principles of machine gun employment? (Or do you need to look it up?) What’s the max effective range of this .50 cal? Your .30 cal? Where’s your range card? Did you walk the dead space? Show me your gunner-down drill. Shoot off bipods, off tripods. Control your bursts. Control your gunner. Do it better. Do it faster. He trained his platoon day and night in the States, then aboard ship on the way to Korea, earning the derision of fellow platoon leaders. Not that he cared.
In the Martin Ross book Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950, his Marines recounted how much they dreaded his presence, yet how much they eventually came to respect (and try to protect him) during firefights and long movements as the Marines headed east in a fighting withdrawal from the Yalu River near China to Koto-ri and eventual evacuation via the Pacific Ocean.
Award citations only tell part of the story. Lee had gotten wounded during the Battle of Inchon, and was evacuated to a rear-area hospital weeks before the Chosin campaign began. When he discovered the doctors were planning on sending him to Japan for further treatment, he and another Marine stole a Jeep to drive back to his frontline unit. The jeep eventually ran out of gas, and they walked the final 10 miles.
The Chosin campaign was fought in winter, with temperatures as low as 30-below. As many men became casualties from frostbite as they did from enemy fire. Morphine syrettes had to be defrosted in a corpsman’s mouth before injection. It was in this environment that this short, skinny guy thrived. At critical points of the campaign he led the division’s movement, walking point for the lead battalion with a frozen compass and a map. Witnesses recalled seeing him wear a bright crossing guard’s vest in order to draw enemy machine gun fire to expose their positions for counterattack. Later, Lee reasoned that the vest helped maintain unit dispersion and ensured that the rest of the battalion wouldn’t lose sight of him in the hazy battlefield.
Lee’s battalion commander was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for gallantry in combat. That guy eventually became Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps and there is a building named after him at the Quantico Marine Base. No offense to him, but his accomplishments during that campaign pale in comparison to Lee’s feats of heroism and insanity. Archivists, historians and others like me have been left wondering, “Why not Lee?”
Lee retired as a major after 24 years in the Marine Corps. In the decades since, he was occasionally invited to be a guest speaker at Infantry Officers Course. Slack-jawed infantry lieutenants would listen with feet flat on the deck and backs straight as this small, old man lectured them about war and how they should lead their men.
I checked into 2/8 in December 2002, a couple months before the big push into Iraq. (There’s that number 8 again). My first boss, a great mentor, plopped a copy of Breakout on my desk and simply said, “Read it. Tell me what you think.” Around this time he started calling me “Chewy,” which I thought was a reference to Han Solo’s growling, hairy comrade.
I’m a little dense, so it only took me 3 weeks to figure out it was the amalgam of Lee’s Chinese name: “Chew-een” = “Chew-E” = “Chewy.” This was a subtle hint: “Be my Lieutenant Lee.” I didn’t come close and didn’t need to endure anywhere near the amount of hardship he did, but the name did give me something to live up to as we all headed to war for the first time and the other times since. (He still calls me “Chewy” today).
The Smithsonian Channel will rebroadcast its “Uncommon Courage” documentary about Lee and the Chosin campaign (all times Eastern – 7 p.m., Saturday, March 8; 2 p.m., Sunday, March 9; and 8 p.m./11 p.m., Monday, March 10). There also have been some great obits about him posted on CNN.com, Marine Corps Times and the Sacramento Bee.
A nicer tribute would be the Medal of Honor.