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April 25, 2014

Remembering the First Chinese-American Marine

by Jim Stevenson

Early last month, the first U.S. Marine Corps officer of Chinese descent died at his home in Washington D.C.  Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee (pinyin: Lǚ Chāorán) was 88.  I had the opportunity to meet and speak with him several years ago as the Smithsonian was unveiling a one-hour television documentary about his heroic service during the Korean war, specifically Major Lee’s brave deeds at the Chosin Reservoir in what is now North Korea.

The battle in 1950 was one of the U.S. Marine Corps’ finest hours. Greatly outnumbered by Chinese and North Korean forces, the Marines led United Nations troops to safety.

Lee was born in Hawaii. His family, all of Chinese descent, were living in California by time World War II had begun. Standing next to him, I struggled to imagine Lee as the ferocious fighter described by one of his fellow Marines. Lee was short, slim, quiet and gracious. But he told me he enlisted with the Marines to counter what he called the “meek, obsequious, bland Asian” stereotype in the United States.

Major Lee proved himself extremely valuable when he single handedly exposed a Chinese gun position, yelling in Mandarin “don’t shoot, I’m Chinese.” The ploy gave his unit just enough time to successfully attack when all other options would likely have failed. Then with a broken arm in mountainous terrain at night in sub-freezing temperatures during a heavy snowstorm, he led about 500 U.S. Marines to reinforce and rescue other troops.

About 90% of his rifle unit were killed or wounded.  Lee himself was shot and evacuated from the battle. He was later awarded the prestigious Navy Cross.

Late in life, Lee told his story to me and others as if it had just happened. He said he was never afraid. Lee figured he was destined to die in combat there, so he wanted his death to be both “honorable and spectacular.”

Major Lee did not die in spectacular war-time fashion. He did die with great honor. He defied the odds and lived a long life. That was fortunate for me and all who met him. I will always remember his firsthand accounts of amazing bravery in an overwhelming hostile environment to uphold beliefs and values of freedom that our country holds dear.