Honoring a True Warrior


No matter how hard most Americans wish for better racial relations there are elements of the American population that simply will not consider improving race relations.

America’s history includes white Irish and African slaves bought and sold, Irish Catholics that is; Chinese laborers were brought into California to build the transcontinental railroad from California east and mistreated terribly.

The Treaty of Guadalupe that ended the Mexican War (1846-48) superseded the original racist citizenship law of 1790 that required new citizens to be “free and white.”

The former Mexicans made American citizens by the Treaty had to face common to widespread racism common throughout most of America. The Chinese had it rougher than former Mexicans citizens.

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the City of Angels – Los Angeles (1879) – drunken white men “arrested” 18 Chinese working men, cut their “pigtails,” then, hung them in a mass hanging. None of the murderers, all white men were convicted of murders.

Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1872 then followed up with the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” that stopped most Japanese immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act that prohibited Chinese citizenship ended in 1943. We and China were making war on Japan.

During my lifetime we have endured total racial segregation throughout the country including education, train and bus travel, residential neighborhoods by restrictive covenants and the entire American military.

Little by little these legal restrictions disappeared, however, the anti-Asian passion was as deep and solid as that against Africans.

Case in point: A United States Marine Corps officer named Kurt Chew Een Lee.

Fact: Some superiors accused this officer of having a “chip on his shoulders.” He was a Chinese American.

Lee was born in California to Chinese nationals. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor when Kurt was 15. He enlisted in the Marines on his 18th birthday. Boot Camp in San Diego, then Japanese language school. The war ended before Sergeant Chew-Een Lee could see action. He decided to remain in the Marine Corps after the war. He applied for a commission; he was commissioned. 2nd Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee became, we think, the second Asian-American officer in the formerly all-white U.S. Marines. Hispanics were considered white.

Beyond deep patriotism, Lee had a personal motive: “I wanted to dispel the notion about the Chinese being meek, bland and obsequious,” he told the LA Times in 2010.

Then came the war in Korea and Lee got his chance to fight; he commanded a 48-man infantry platoon.

The 1st Marine Division (Reinforced), what President Truman had called the “Navy’s policemen,” brilliantly landed at Inchon harbor and took back the South Korean capital, Seoul, after brutal battles.

After the fight for Seoul against North Koreans, Lt. Lee’s platoon moved north while Chinese soldiers were sneaking south into Korea.

Chinese American Lt. Lee met Communist Chinese soldiers on the night of November 2, 1950.

Tony Perry (Los Angeles Times” wrote that though “…by the Korean War the U.S. military had been ordered integrated, suspicions and stereotypical thinking about race remained. Skeptics asked whether a Chinese American officer would fight against Chinese troops.”

“I (Lee) would have done whatever was necessary. To me, it didn’t matter whether those were Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, whatever – they were the enemy.”

When attacked by Chinese troops at night, Lt. Lee intentionally drew Chinese fire so his men could concentrate fire on muzzle flashes. He yelled orders in Mandarin Chinese that confused the enemy. With grenades he attacked the Chinese singlehandedly forcing them to retreat. He was wounded in the knee and arm.

He was evacuated to a mobile hospital (MASH unit). When he heard he was slated to be sent to Japan, he and another Marine stole a jeep and drove towards their unit. When they ran out of gas, Lt. Lee – arm in a cast, leg bandaged — hobbled ten miles to his unit. He was assigned another platoon just in time for the gigantic (December 1950) battle of the (Frozen) Chosin Reservoir. The Marines suffered 7,000 casualties. They destroyed seven Chinese Army Divisions.

After days of exhausting combat, Lt. Lee’s decimated platoon was assigned to lead a 500-Marine shock troop to relieve the Chinese-surrounded Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. Arm still in a cast, Lt. Lee’s led attack routed the Chinese. He suffered another arm wound, bandaged it and continued the attack. A Chinese machine gunner found Lee and wounded him again. Lee was evacuated.

For his Korean combat he was awarded a Navy Cross and a Silver Star.

He should have been awarded the highest American medal, the Medal of Honor. One wonders if he had not been a Chinese American would a Medal of Honor been awarded without hesitation. He was not even nominated for the Medal.

Major Lee died at 88.

As long as President Obama’s Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus is naming ships for farmworker union leader Cesar Chavez who served two years in a peacetime Navy and for San Francisco gay politician Harvey Milk who was dishonorably discharged from the Navy, shouldn’t Secretary Mabus initiate the process to award a Medal of Honor to a Marine’s Marine, Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee (ret), a Chinese American with a chip on his shoulders?

Raoul Lowerey Contreras’ newest book –Murder in the Mountains– (Floricanto Press, May 2016) is available at Amazon.com.

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