The First Chinese-American Marine Corps Officer Shouted Orders Even the Enemy Followed

There were few military officers that could shout a command like Chew-Een Lee. As the first Asian Marine Corps officer, he had an uncanny dedication to the Corps, its traditions and its combat effectiveness. As a former NCO, he could bark orders that would force everyone to follow.

Lee, a native Chinese speaker, was only 15 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. As a Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) student, he was understandably eager to get to the fight. He would finish high school by 1944 and immediately enlist. Rather than be sent to the front, he was held stateside and instructed to learn Japanese but would not see action in that war.

He was promoted to Sergeant and, as World War II ended, sent to officer training. When he graduated from Marine Corps officer training, he was the first nonwhite Marine officer and the first USMC Officer of Asian descent.

His language ability would prove useful in the next war. This time, the Marines were going to the Korean Peninsula — and Chew-Een Lee was going with them.

Kurt Chew Een Lee being honored in a parade later in life. (Courtesy of Jamie Stevenson)

Throughout the Korean War, Lee would display his bravado and dedication to his men. Before he could even ship out, he told friends he didn’t expect to come home and that he wanted his death to be “honorable” and “spectacular.”

Lee’s exploits with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines are somewhat legendary, even among the many incredible stories of the Korean War. He and his unit landed at Inchon to turn the tide of the war in 1950 and expel the Communists from the South. They would soon be expelled from the North by an unexpected turn of events.

In October 1950, China shocked the United Nations forces by crossing the Yalu River into Korea and intervening on the side of the North Koreans.

The Chinese counterattack caught everyone by surprise, including Lee and his Marines. On Nov. 2, 1950, the Chinese hit Lee and the 1/7 Marines as they slept during the midnight hour. With his entire force pinned down and unable to move or shoot back, Lee made a daring one-man attack on the Chinese positions.

Running up to their guns identifying himself in Mandarin Chinese, he began lighting up enemy foxholes with grenades that revealed their positions. Once the Marines saw the muzzle flashes, they knew where to shoot and could hit the enemy back.

As the Marines advanced on the attacking enemy, Lt. Lee began to bark orders to the enemy soldiers, who quickly became confused and disorganized in their retreat allowing the Marines to counterattack further and faster.

Lee was wounded during the bold attack. The next day, he was shot by a sniper and the combination of injuries forced the Marines to send him to the rear for medical treatment. With his arm in a sling and unconscious, Lee was unable to fight the decision. Once he woke up, however, all bets were off.

Although he was about to be sent to Japan for further treatment, Lee decided his place was with his men. He “liberated” a jeep from the field hospital with another Marine and drove it to the front. It ran out of gas ten miles away from his unit, and the two men walked the rest of the way.

Marines at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir (U.S. Marine Corps)

He would get back to 1/7 Marines in time to fight off a huge Chinese counterattack at the Chosin Reservoir, with the Marines outnumbered 6-to-1. Though forced to retreat from North Korea, the Marines would inflict heavy casualties on the Chinese, knocking 12 infantry divisions out of the war.

Chew-Een Lee fought that intense battle with a cast on his arm.

For his audacity in attacking the enemy with grenades and Mandarin Chinese, Lee was awarded the Navy Cross. For his actions at the Chosin Reservoir he earned the Silver Star. For his quick thinking in stealing that jeep, the Marine Corps looked the other way.

— Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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