Korean War Hero Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the First Chinese-American Marine, Dies at 88 Years Old

Lee overcame racism and saved upward of 8,000 men during one climactic battle

On November 2, 1950, Marine Corps Lieutenant Kurt Chew-Een Lee struck out ahead of his unit in the midst of a blizzard in the mountains of Northeast Korea. Lee commanded a machine-gun platoon in First Marine Division, and they were facing advancing Chinese troops deployed to aid North Korean forces. By drawing enemy fire and yelling phrases in Mandarin, he confused and exposed the position of Chinese units. His bravery enabled his unit to take a Chinese-occupied base, despite their significantly lower numbers.

Lee died last week at the age of 88. For his heroism during the Korean War, he received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, and two purple hearts, and before retiring in 1968, he rose to the rank of major. Born in northern California in 1926, Lee became the first Chinese-American Marine in 1946. As the only Asian American in his unit, Lee initially faced his fare share of prejudice and racism from fellow Marines and those under his command. Driven by a sense of patriotism, Lee earned their respect, though. "I wanted to dispel the notion about the Chinese being meek, bland and obsequious," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.

Around 20,000 Chinese Americans served in World War II, and many served in Korea, as well, including two of Lee’s brothers. Following World War II, the U. S. Army dropped the designation “Asian American” and abolished segregated units. As a result, exact estimates of the number of Chinese Americans who served in Korea remain unknown.

In 2010, the Smithsonian Channel produced a documentary called “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin," which focused on one of Lee’s most famous exploits. In December of 1950, he lead 500 marines on a rescue mission to save another unit of 8,000 men at the battle of Chosin reservoir. For more on Kurt Chew-Een Lee and his heroic story, take a look at these clips. 

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