Kurt Chew-Een Lee, Marine Corps hero, dies at 88


Then-Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, pictured with a machine gun during the Korean War. (Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel/©Showtime)
March 12

Kurt Chew-Een Lee, a retired Marine Corps major who received the Navy Cross during the Korean War for his lone, head-on charge into hostile fire to force enemy troops to reveal their positions, an action that saved thousands of American lives, was found dead March 3 at his home in Washington. He was 88.

His stepdaughter, Nicole Ashley, confirmed the death but did not know the exact cause.

The son of Chinese immigrants, Maj. Lee was said to have been one of the first officers of Asian ancestry in the Marine Corps.

As a first lieutenant and platoon leader in 1950, he earned the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, two of the military’s highest combat decorations for valor, in a 36-day period that included some of the fiercest and highest-casualty fighting of the Korean War.

In September of that year, U.S. forces had landed at Inchon in South Korea, forcing North Korean troops back north near the Chinese border. Chinese forces then crossed into Korea and joined in the fighting.

Lt. Lee, leading a machine-gun platoon in the far north of the Korean peninsula, often advanced to within hearing distance of the enemy forces, shouting to them in Mandarin Chinese to sow confusion.

He received the Navy Cross for action on the night of Nov. 2-3, when his unit was outnumbered and under heavy attack. He had instructed his men to shoot at the muzzle flashes from enemy weapons. According to the citation on the award, he “bravely moved up an enemy-held slope in a deliberate attempt to draw fire and thereby disclose hostile troop positions.”

Wounded in the knee and elbow during the firefight, Lt. Lee was evacuated to an Army field hospital, where he learned a few days later that he was about to be sent to Japan to recuperate.

With a sergeant and a commandeered jeep, but without authorization, he left the hospital and returned to combat.

In operations between Nov. 27 and Dec. 8, “although sick and in a weakened condition from previous combat wounds . . . he led his unit across trackless frozen wastes of rocky mountain ridges” near North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir to help rescue a beleaguered Marine company, according to the Silver Star citation.

This and other operations helped thousands of outnumbered U.S. troops make their way to safety, escaping death or capture. But on Dec. 8, Lt. Lee was hit with a burst of enemy machine-gun fire, ending his combat service in Korea.

Almost 60 year later, in an interview with The Washington Post, Maj. Lee would reminisce, “Certainly, I was never afraid. . . . Perhaps the Chinese are all fatalists. I never expected to survive the war. So I was adamant that my death be honorable, be spectacular.”

He was interviewed on the occasion of a Memorial Day 2010 broadcast of a television documentary on the Smithsonian Channel, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin,” in which he was a primary subject.

Chew-Een Lee was born Jan. 21, 1926, in San Francisco, the eldest son of a Chinese immigrant who made a living as a distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables. He acquired the nickname “Kurt” in high school and later took legal steps to make it part of his name.

In 1944, he joined the Marine Corps, hoping to participate in combat. But he was sent to Japanese language school instead.

After the war he became a commissioned officer. Nevertheless, there were periods when he was mocked for his Chinese ethnicity, becoming the butt of jokes about a Chinese laundryman and the subject of questions about whether he would take up arms against his ethnic countrymen.

On the troopship carrying Marines to Korea he insisted on drilling his men on deck each day, undergoing derision from other platoon leaders who thought such measures unnecessary and foolish.

Marine Corps duty after Korea included service as an intelligence officer during the war in Vietnam and an assignment as an instructor in platoon tactics.

He retired from the Marine Corps in 1968, worked for seven years as a trainee supervisor for New York Life, the insurance company, then in 1975 came to Washington where for two decades he was coordinator of regulatory compliance with the National Rural Electric Cooperative.

His first wife, Linda Rivera, predeceased him. His second marriage, to Helga Schneider Lee, ended in divorce. Survivors include a stepdaughter, Nicole Ashley; three sisters; and a brother.

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