Major Kurt Chew-een Lee, Asian-American Marines trailblazer dies at 88

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(CNN) – Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the first Asian-American U.S. Marine Corps officer, rose through the ranks beginning his career from World War II to the Vietnam War.

During the Korean War, he became commander of a machine gun platoon, to the shock of his men who had never before seen a person of Chinese ancestry. Some even questioned his loyalty as U.S. forces were battling Chinese forces, which had joined the conflict on the side of North Koreans.

In a November 1950 clash, Lee and his men were outnumbered in a surprise attack by Chinese forces. His actions there and in another clash would earn him a bevy of military honors, including the second highest military decoration, the Navy Cross.

Lee, at age 88, died in Washington, D.C. believed from what appears to be a heart attack Monday, according to close friend, Jamie Stevenson.

Long after his retirement from military service, Lee was always fit and a natty-dresser like a true Marine, Stevenson said. Well into his 80s, he still fit into his uniform from 1953, she said.

Lee was born in Sacramento, California, a son of Chinese immigrants.

Eager to fight in World War II, Lee joined the U.S. Marines in 1944.

“People said that’s the worst branch of the service. They’re the first in, last one out. He was like, ‘That’s where I want to be.’” Stevenson recalled Lee telling her.

Instead, he was based at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego as a language instructor.

When the Korean War started in 1950, Lee got his chance at the battlefield. He had arrived in Inchon, Korea that September along with UN troops, in an effort to retake the Korean peninsula from Communist forces.

By November 1950, the Chinese army entered the war on the side of the Communists in North Korea.

Inside his unit, Lee faced racial slurs like “Chinese laundry” or “The Chinaman.” But the source of his discrimination proved to be crucial in saving the lives of his fellow Marines.

Lee’s unit came under sudden attack on November 2, 1950, his company had their first encounter with the Chinese forces. Heavily outnumbered by the Chinese forces and their firepower, Lee’s unit was stuck until the gunfire stopped.

“It was eerie,” said Lee, describing the battle scene to a Smithsonian Channel’s documentary “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin.” “The Marines didn’t know where the enemy was.”

Lee struck out solo, trying to provoke enemy fire so his men could determine where the Chinese forces were hiding. He went out alone firing sporadic shots to make it seem like the Marines were advancing.

The Chinese began returning fire, exposing their position.

When Lee reached the outpost where the Chinese forces were hiding, he employed a ruse no one in his unit could’ve done.

“Don’t shoot!” he yelled. “I’m Chinese.”

Hearing Chinese confused them and the temporary distraction proved crucial as the Marines launched a counterattack.

Looking back on his war experience, Lee told the Washington Post in 2010, “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 earned a Navy Cross for his actions.

“I have told (Lee) many times, thank God we had him,” said Ronald Burbridge who served as a rifleman in Lee’s unit in the Smithsonian documentary.

Although injured, Lee returned to the battlefield. He led a mission to rescue a company of Marines overwhelmed by Chinese forces. On December 1, Lee guided his Marines in the frigid cold and through rocky hills to rescue them in the battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

He was awarded the Silver Star for his action. His citation read that “he contributed materially to the success of the epic night march of his battalion which resulted in the relief of the isolated Marine unit and the securing of vital ground.”

“His exploits in Korea were numerous. He was very successful in holding open a pass to allow our people to escape from the Chosin Reservoir, which is probably one of the greatest feats of military maneuvering in Korea,” said his friend, Jim Kunkle, 91, who served in World War II.

But he was not a boastful man, friends say.

When asked what he was most proud of, Lee didn’t talk about breaking down racial barriers or his experience in the Korean War, said Stevenson.

“What he’d say is, ‘I am most proud of being able to train future generations of Marines.’” Stevenson said.

Lee went on to serve in the Vietnam War and won a Purple Heart.

Lee had a sense of humor and always shared his opinion, Stevenson said. Living in Washington, D.C., he and Stevenson would drive around to various grocery stores searching for his favorite Chinese mooncakes with lotus seed and double yolk — which he savored.

By Madison Park