“I never expected to survive the war. So I was adamant that my death be honorable, be spectacular.”
– Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee
AsianWeek just reported that Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee will be in San Francisco from February 7-14 to celebrate the Lunar New Year with the American Legion Cathay Post #384 at their office on 1524 Powell Street.
If you don’t know him, Major Kurt Lee was the first Chinese American commissioned as a United States Marine. The Northern Californian native has accomplished much in his life. He was the Navy Cross for his heroism in the Korean War, was featured in the Smithsonian documentary Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin, and is recognized for changing the view of Asian Americans in the US military.
He is a true hero.
Reading his story made me think of my grandfather. Before he passed away, my grandfather gave me a small yellow notepad. In it, he scribbled a brief history of his life. It was the first time I had learned the extent of his adulthood and what he did for our family, and our country.
He was part of the campaigns in French North Africa and Sicily, Italy, led by US General Dwight Eisenhower. The invasion of French North Africa was known as Operation Torch. The 1st Division attacked Oran, Algeria. The campaign was a success and gave the Allies a base from which to launch their assault on Southern Europe.
The next deployment was to Sicily for Operation Husky. His division attacked Gela, Sicily. This effort opened the door to the invasion of Italy and eventual dismissal of the Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini.
His final operation was Operation Overlord. The 1st Division struck Omaha Beach. It was one of the most brutal invasions in human history. They suffered 30% casualties in the first hour of the assault.
After learning about this piece of history, watching Saving Private Ryan has never been quite the same. Whenever I watch that bloody beach massacre, I think about my grandfather and wonder how he did it. What he saw. How he survived. It’s sometimes… terrifying to think about.
The 1st Division pushed through France and over to Germany. They were involved in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle of World War II. My grandfather and his fellow troops were in Czechoslovakia when Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich finally surrendered.
When we were kids, he would often give me and my brother G.I. Joe figures (the 3.75″ action figures). One of the first figures was Tripwire, a mine detector. “That’s what I did in the war,” he told us. During those years of war, he was in front-line combat duty for a total of sixteen months.
I’m proud of all our Asian American military veterans and what they’ve done for us. If you’re free and in San Francisco one of those days, consider saying “Hi” to Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee as he’s visiting.
And if you have a story of a fellow Asian American in the US military that you’re willing to share, I would love to hear his or her story. Feel free to write it in the comments.