Obit of the Day: 1st Marine Corps Officer of Asian Descent
When Kurt Chew-Een Lee decided he wanted to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1944, his friends and family tried to dissuade the 18-year-old from joining what many consider to be the most strenuous branch of the U.S. military. But Mr. Lee could not be stopped, something the world would soon learn.
Commissioned as a lieutenant, the first officer of Asian descent in the Marines, Mr. Lee had to fight for the respect he deserved. Short of stature (only 5’6”) and the son of Chinese immigrants he faced prejudice throughout his career in the Corps. It was his actions on the battlefield that eventually forced his subordinates and peers to see him for the Marine that he was.
On November 2 and 3, 1950, Lt. Lee showed extreme courage under fire, venturing out on his own in the middle of the night to face Chinese and Korean troops. Speaking Mandarin to confuse the enemy, Lt. Lee used his rifle and grenades to force the opposition soldiers to flee. During the fight he was shot in the knee and took a sniper’s bullet to the shoulder. His bravery earned him the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ second-highest honor.
A month later, having returned to his platoon without permission and his arm still in a cast, Lt. Lee led 500 troops through a blizzard in -20°F (-29°C) temperatures up a mountain to provide relief for 8000 Marines trapped by 60,000 Chinese troops on Fox Hill. Known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Lt. Lee’s men surprised the enemy forcing them to flee Fox Hill and ensuring the escape of the trapped Marines. This time, Lt. Lee would be awarded a Silver Star for his actions in battle.
Note: Major Lee’s heroism was a focus of the 2010 Smithsonian Channel documentary, Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin.
About a week after Chosin Reservoir, Lt. Lee was wounded a third time and he was sent some to the U.S. to recover. While home he was promoted to captain.
During the Vietnam War, Capt. Lee served as a training instructor at The Basic School from 1962-1965. In 1963 he was promoted to major, the rank at which he would retire from the Corps in 1968.
Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee died on March 3, 2014 at the age of 88.
Sources: Sacramento Bee, CNN.com and Wikipedia
(Image of Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee is copyright H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY and courtesy of USA Today)
Also of interest:
General Vincente Blaz - The 1st person of color to reach the rank of general in the US Marine Corps
General Margaret Brewer - The 1st woman to reach the rank of general in the USMC
Colonel “Lee” Meyer - Served in the Marine Corps for 50 years.