By Steven Johnson | ECT Staff Writer
Kurt Chew-Een Lee has been gone from NRECA for 20 years, but coworkers remember him well—formal, demanding and precise, just like his demeanor on the battlefields of Korea.
For long before he was a taskmaster on pension compliance issues for electric cooperatives, Lee’s valor and daring saved 8,000 troops from massacre in a hell halfway around the world and brought honor to his ancestry.
“He had a hardnosed Marine way of looking at things,” said John Wade, NRECA vice president for risk management and chief actuary. “He is someone who, if you knew him, you wouldn’t forget him.”
Neither would the men who served under the command of Lee, who died at 88 on March 3 in his Washington, D.C., home.
“He was very strict, by the book, but he was responsible for many of us getting out alive,” said Ronald Burbridge, a rifleman in Lee’s unit. “I thank God many, many times that he was my platoon commander.”
Four years before the Korean War, Lee already made his imprint on the military as the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps.
Born Jan. 21, 1926 in San Francisco, he traced his interest in the military to Junior ROTC in high school and joined the Marines in April 1944, toward the end of World War II. To his disappointment, he was assigned to Japanese language training instead of combat, but remained resolute, sailed through officer school and received his commission in April 1946.
Not all Marines approved of his rank. A slight, wiry man, Lee was the target of racial slurs and mocked as a laundryman because of his Chinese background.
“I didn’t let racial discrimination hamper me in any way,” he explained in 2013 to Veteran Journal. “If people know that you’re a serious Marine—what is there to discriminate against? Sure, you’re not 6-2 with eyes of blue, but nevertheless, you’re probably more effective than the average Marine. And this was appreciated by my leaders.”
On the night of Nov. 2, 1950, 1st Lt. Lee’s platoon was in the Sudong Gorge on the eastern side of the Korean peninsula, when it encountered a wave of Chinese forces that entered the war in support of North Korea a few days earlier.
“The Chinese attacked that night at midnight. All hell broke loose,” Lee said in “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin,” a 2010 Smithsonian Channel documentary that recounted his exploits. “The whole place erupted with gunfire, explosions; the cacophony was tremendous.”
In the darkness, no one knew where the enemy was. Lee told his Marines to hush and conducted a one-man ruse to get the Chinese to reveal their positions. With a submachine gun in one hand and grenades in another, he raced toward the opposing forces, randomly shooting and lobbing explosives to simulate a full-scale assault.
As he edged near the outpost, he shouted in the Mandarin he remembered from his school days: “Don’t shoot! I’m Chinese!”
Momentarily confused, the Chinese were ripe for a counterattack. Lee’s men unloaded on the fire they identified from the enemy’s muzzles. By daybreak, the Chinese had abandoned their positions.
For his bravery, Lee received the Navy Cross, the highest combat honor awarded through the Navy Department to Marines.
“I wanted to dispel the notion about the Chinese being meek, bland and obsequious,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.
A BLIZZARD AND A COMPASS
Shot in the leg and arm during the fighting, Lee was shipped to a field hospital at Hamhung.
When he learned the military planned to send him to Japan to recuperate, he and another wounded Marine absconded a Jeep to return to their company.
With his right arm in a sling, Lee took command of a Marine rifle platoon and headed toward Chosin Reservoir in northeastern North Korea, where Chinese Communists had cut off advancing United Nations forces.
The fighting from Nov. 27, 1950 to Dec. 8, 1950, occurred in some of the most wretched conditions in the history of war. Temperatures dropped to 30 below zero, and blizzards made movement all but impossible. For cover, U.N. troops stacked bodies of dead, frozen Chinese soldiers like bales of hay.
Lee’s task was to lead 500 drained men on an eight-mile trek, in the dark of night, over uncharted hills and along rocky, frozen mountain ridges to provide a rescue route for trapped Marines.
As he recalled 60 years later: “It was like shadow boxing with a blindfold on.”
Using only a compass for navigation, Lee guided his men safely and led them to their mission, even though the U.N. forces were outnumbered 6 to 1.
“Through his indomitable spirit, 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,” according to his citation for the Silver Star.
On Dec. 8, Lee was hit by a round of machine gun fire that re-injured his arm, still in a sling, and ended his service in Korea.
“I never expected to survive the war. So I was adamant that my death be honorable, be spectacular,” he said in a 2010 interview with the Washington Post.
Lee served as an instructor at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia and as a combat intelligence officer in Vietnam before retiring in 1968 with the rank of major. In civilian life, he was a supervisor for several years at New York Life Insurance before joining NRECA, where he worked from the mid-1970s to 1994.
Colleagues said Lee didn’t make much of his heroics; but then, the subject wasn’t something that came up in routine conversations.
“I wasn’t aware of all the background,” said Joe LoTempio, NRECA pension marketing representative, who worked with Lee for about three years on regulatory compliance issues with the NRECA pension plan. “I did know he was the highest ranking Asian-American in the Marines at one time and he was proud of that.”
Lee acknowledged he wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, but said to Veteran Journal that there was a purpose to his brusque, no-nonsense manner.
“People claim I wore a big chip on my shoulder. Sure. This chip is my learning tool of expelling ignorance,” he said.
But if he demanded respect, he was more than willing to return it. “Kurt was the kind of manager you quickly learned not to answer a question by beginning with ‘Well, I think …’ ” LoTempio laughed. “At the end of the day though, he could be very personable and fair.”
In recent years, Lee’s story became more well-known. The Smithsonian documentary was released in 2010, on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, and he was featured in a 2013 film, Connor Timmis’ “Finnigan’s War.”
On Feb. 15, Lee was honorary marshal of the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco, properly dressed in full uniform, riding in a World War II-era Jeep on Market Street to a chorus of cheering thousands. He was honored at a luncheon the next day. They were his last appearances related to the war.
“What a character he could be. The bark was way bigger than the bite,” said Debbie Nicholson, NRECA benefits service representative, who butted heads with him one time over a procedural matter.
“After that he was my best bud. Once he knew he couldn’t intimidate you, the whole relationship changed. He would call me up to his office and talk IRS code with me,” she said. “A remarkable gentleman in many ways—I certainly learned a lot from him.”