By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; E01
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."
But the documentary and his famed exploits are not what he wants to talk about on this rainy Washington afternoon, in the city where he eventually settled after being detailed to Quantico.
What he wants to talk about as the afternoon gloom settles in the corners of the building's huge lobby, as the cleaning people come and go and vacuums turn on and off, is an afternoon more than 65 years ago, long before he ever set sail for the Korean Peninsula.
It is the day he told his mother that he had enlisted in the Marines. Rather coldly, he sees now, he waited to tell her until the day before he left.
"She did not say anything when I told her. Not a single word. But I could tell by her face she was totally crushed."
The family was Chinese, but he, like his father, had been born in Hawaii. They were living in Sacramento by the time he was a teenager and World War II was raging. His father, an intensely patriotic and proud man (of both China and the United States), sold produce to local markets. His mother raised the children and was "the prettiest woman in the community."
Lee "totally identified" with the Marines' reputation for being the first into combat. He enlisted to counter the stereotype of the "meek, obsequious, bland Asian."
The day after he told his mother, she made him a "banquet-type meal" of his favorite foods. When the family ate, she sat, wordless. She finally went to her room and sat on the edge of the bed. He followed her and stood beside her.
"I thanked her for the meal. I said I had to leave. And then she threw her arms around my waist. She was sobbing. She just cried. She never said anything."
There was so much ahead of him on that afternoon. The brutalities of the war, a successful military career, two marriages. After leaving the Marines, he worked for New York Life for seven years as a trainee supervisor, then nearly two decades for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association as a coordinator of regulatory compliance. He had no children but has a stepdaughter who is now "the closest person to me."
And yet, what haunts him still is his behavior that day, of failing to take into account his mother's feelings.
"I was, more or less, a young punk," he says. Later, he adds: "I'm glad I got another 20 years or so to try to make it up to her. She was a great lady."
Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin, premieres on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. Monday.