Korean War documentary, 'Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin,' debuts

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

The old Marine is sitting in the lobby of his elegant apartment building in Northwest Washington. Dark pinstriped suit. Checked shirt. Red-and-blue striped tie held in place with a gold pin. Chest full of medals. Black shoes shined to merciless perfection.

He is 84 years old. He is trying to hold his composure.

"I get sentimental thinking about this," Maj. Kurt Chew-Een Lee says in his gravelly voice, his brown eyes dropping. "Just thinking and talking about it."

Lee is the subject of "Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin," an hour-long documentary making a Memorial Day debut on the Smithsonian Channel. It's about one of the Marine Corps' greatest moments, when a few thousand Marines, surrounded and greatly outnumbered by Chinese and North Korean forces, led United Nations troops in bursting out of their death trap near the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, making their way to the coast and safety.

A short and skinny young lieutenant, Lee made a one-man raid on a Chinese gun position during that battle in the winter of 1950. He then led 500 men on a five-mile nighttime hike across mountainous terrain through a blizzard, in 30 degrees below 0, to re-enforce and rescue another position, all with a broken arm. Then he was shot and had to be evacuated. The fighting was so intense that roughly 90 percent of his rifle company was killed or wounded. He was awarded the Navy Cross.

"He was ferocious," says Lt. Joseph R. Owen, another survivor of that campaign, who served alongside Lee.

The documentary focuses on Lee's role as the first U.S. Marine-commissioned officer of Chinese descent during a time of great prejudice toward Asian Americans. His contemporaries recall hearing racial slights and insults during the era, but Lee politely dismisses the issue as "overplayed and a little ridiculous."

("They better not have had any biases like that," he says now. "They'd have gotten their [rear ends] kicked.")

It also details a battle, and a war, that are often an afterthought in U.S. history discussions.

"It was the Afghan war of its time, and in that way it resonates even today," says David Royle, executive vice president of the Smithsonian Channel. "When you hear the details, it's not that much different from young soldiers today fighting in the hills in the Hindu-Kush."

Lee -- about 5 feet 7 inches tall and maybe 130 pounds -- speaks about the war in crisp, economical terms, if not harsh ones. Much of the military's planning for the conflict was "horrible." The night of his heroic, near-impossible march, he was given "asinine directions" by superiors that he proceeded to ignore.

"Certainly, I was never afraid," he says. "Perhaps the Chinese are all fatalists. I never expected to survive the war. So I was adamant that my death be honorable, be spectacular."

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