On a hilltop in Placerville, the El Dorado County Veterans Monument offers a beautiful and fitting tribute to those who served to defend this nation and its Constitution.

Young Lieutenant Kurt Lee in black and white photo.
Lieutenant Kurt Chew-Een Lee

Some are manifested by name and rank. Others, including Korean War hero and Marine Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee, are honored with plaques that can only begin to tell their stories. As stories of pure heroism go, Lee’s is tough to beat, said his friend — fellow Marine and fellow Navy Cross recipient — Richard Buchanan.

In fact, in a time when the term is diluted and diminished by overuse and broad-brush application, Buchanan wonders this about Lee, who died at 88 in 2014:

“The debate going on over who’s a hero and who’s not a hero,” Buchanan said. “How do you categorize Kurt when everybody’s a ‘hero’?”

Formal portrait of retired major Kurt Lee in Marines dress blues and Legion of Valor cap.
Major Kurt Chew-Een Lee, retired Marine

A millionaire athlete who buries a game-winning jumper, hits a walk-off homer or kicks a field goal with time running out? Heroes? No. Not even close, Buchanan said.

Lee’s heroics included taking bullets to save lives, outwitting the enemy to destroy it, and then going back for more, Buchanan said, and all of which we will get into momentarily. First, a bit of background.

Born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants and raised in the Sacramento area, Lee enlisted in the Marines during World War II, itching to fight. Instead, the Corps sent him to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, where he taught languages while attending officer training school. He emerged as a history-making second lieutenant and the first Asian officer in the history of the Marine Corps.

While Lee endured racism from his fellow Marines – some of whom went so far as to question his allegiance to the United States because of his Chinese ancestry – none questioned his ferocity after going to war with him.

His chance to fight came just a few months after Soviet Union-backed North Korean forces swarmed across the 38th Parallel to invade South Korea on June 25, 1950– 71 years ago today. Communist China soon joined the North Koreans and the conflict – initially termed a “police action” – became without a doubt a war, as anyone who fought there would attest.

Lee and fellow Marines landed at Inchon, South Korea, where they joined United Nations forces to drive the North Koreans back into their own country.

In one battle, Lee called out to the enemy in Mandarin to get them to reveal their positions.

Lee in combat fatigues beside a machine gun in Korea.
Lee in Korea

“He yelled, ‘They’re after me! They’re after me!’” Buchanan said. “He got next to them and started shooting, getting close enough to take them out.” He threw grenades into their machine gun nests, taking a bullet in the leg and another in the shoulder; yet, he kept fighting.

Still need to be convinced about Lee’s heroism? Keep reading.

Told he’d be going to Japan for treatment, Lee and another wounded Marine took a Jeep – unauthorized – and rejoined their platoon. Lee’s arm in a sling, his commander ordered him to lead 500 men to aid 8,000 Marines nearly surrounded by 60,000 Chinese troops during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

Using a hand-held compass and his arm in a sling, he led them through a blizzard and despite the heavy enemy fire, attacked every step of the way. The enemy fled. He was shot again in the right arm. It didn’t stop him. They enabled the imperiled Marines to escape. He was hit again a few days later, this time by machine-gun fire, and his combat days were over.

Lee received the Navy Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart among his numerous medals. He was featured in a documentary produced by the Smithsonian titled, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin.”

Yet, despite his unfathomable bravery and being shot multiple times to save 8,000 Marines, his Navy Cross has never been upgraded to the Medal of Honor even though Asian American groups have asked for a review.

His commander, General Ray Davis, received the Medal of Honor for orchestrating that rescue. Davis called Lee the bravest Marine he ever knew.

Lee went on to serve in combat intelligence during the Vietnam War. He retired as a major and returned to the Sacramento area where members of his family still live.

Lee's Arlington National Cemetery headstone: Major, US Marine Corps, Korea, Vietnam, Jan 21 1926 to Mar 3 2014, Navy Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart
Arlington National Cemetery

While attending a Legion of Valor event in Arizona many years ago, Lee met Buchanan, who lives in Placerville and Buchanan was one of the primary movers and shakers who created the Veterans Monument that now stands at the El Dorado County Administration Building. Lee had fond memories of summers spent there when he was young.

“(Lee) did a lot of hunting and fishing up here,” said Buchanan.

They became friends and Lee joined the board of directors for the Monument. When Lee died at 88 in 2014, Buchanan attended his funeral at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Buchanan, who earned the Navy Cross while in Vietnam and three times has survived cancers caused by Agent Orange exposure, still marvels at Lee’s exploits in Korea.

“What man could do that?” Buchanan wondered. “With a hand-held compass, 20 degrees below zero in the snow, leading 500 men in a blizzard? How do you do that?”

A hero – a real honest-to-goodness hero – did that.

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