All Things Soldier: Major Kurt Lee — Small Only In Stature

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

It is often said that the Korean War was the “forgotten war,” and that is most unfortunate. Several years ago, I thanked a Korean War veteran for his service, and he teared up, telling me that I was the first person ever to do that. He is now in his 90s, and I hope that over the years the increased respect and honor that we have as a culture have begun to express to veterans has made its way to the ears and heart of this man via others, other than just myself. He certainly deserves it.

Thankfully, Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee was appropriately honored and awarded for his valor while fighting in the United States Marine Corps, and for his service between 1945 and 1968. He served in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. However, it is for his bravery during the Korean War for which he is most well-known, due to the fact that he saved over 8,000 American lives from being trapped, killed, and/or captured by the Chinese who crossed over into North Korea. He was a 1st Lieutenant at the time, and was part of one of the most famous battles of the Korean War, that of Chosin.

Lee spoke Japanese, and had hoped to deploy to the Pacific. However, he stayed stateside, but stayed in the Corps after WWII was over. He was commissioned as an officer in 1946, served in Korea, and then as an intelligence officer during Vietnam.

In 1950 Korea, as a lieutenant, Lee was carrying bullets in his body and had a broken arm from a previous battle and was in the hospital. He left the hospital against medical orders to go help his guys. In spite of his injuries, he still led his troops in the dead of winter into a situation that could have been a blood bath for all. At one point, he snuck up on the Chinese and spoke in Mandarin to some of the soldiers. The confusion he caused made enough of a pause and a distraction that the Americans could fire first. It was the brutal cold and snow that caused the battle to be known as the Frozen Chosin, and at one point Lee got through a storm with only the use of a compass.

Lee was about the height and weight of my own dad — 5’6” and around 130 lbs. However, he had the heart of a lion and he fiercely loved America. He endured racism, and the men who served under him and who were rescued by him spent the rest of their lives thanking Lee for what he did.

It is thought that Lee was the first Chinese-American to become an officer in the Marine Corps. He had brothers who served as well, one reaching the rank of colonel. Lee was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, and the Navy Marine Corps Commendation Ribbon (with a “V” for valor, and General Ray Davis said that Lee was the bravest man he ever knew. Lee died in 2014 at the age of 88, and I believe that America will forever be in the debt of a courageous man who was only small in stature.

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner