Monday, May 31, 2010

Documentary Honors All Fighting Men Who Served Their Country

When Chew-Een Lee was growing up in western Sacramento during World War II, he was eager to enlist in the military to fight for his country. He joined the ROTC in high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps as soon as he graduated.

"I wanted to dispel the notion about the Chinese being meek and obsequious," said Lee, whose father was a farmer and prominent figure in the Chinese community in Northern California.

But to Lee's disappointment, he was given a job in a language school rather than a combat billet. He stayed in the Marine Corps after the war and in 1950, as an infantry platoon leader, he got his long-awaited chance for combat as Marines from Camp Pendleton were deployed to Korea. His bravery at the battle of the Chosin Reservoir — a Chinese American officer battling Chinese army troops who had surrounded the American forces — is part of Marine Corps lore.

And now it is the subject of a documentary, "Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin," set for broadcast on Memorial Day on the Smithsonian Channel.

"His fighting style was ferocious and his leadership was inspirational," Joe Owen, who fought beside Lee and is now 85 and retired in upstate New York, said in a telephone interview. He said Lee "was always up with the assault squad."

The weather was frigid; the mountainous terrain was rugged; weaponry was often unreliable at subzero temperatures. The Marines were mostly untested in battle, but Lee had driven them hard during training to make them sharp.

The Chinese regulars, disciplined and numerous, assaulted in waves. Fighting was close in and fierce, including with bayonets. Lee, a lieutenant, was assigned to lead several hundred troops to reinforce a Marine company holding a position that was key to allowing thousands of Marines to move southward and escape the Chinese encirclement.

"I would have kicked ass and done whatever was necessary," said Lee, 84, retired and living in Washington, D.C. "To me, it didn't matter whether those were Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, whatever — they were the enemy."

Wounded, he refused to be evacuated and, after getting medical attention, stole a jeep to get back to the front. While other officers shed all insignia to avoid being targets for snipers, Lee donned an orange vest so that his men could see him in the blinding white of the snow.

David Royle, Smithsonian Channel executive vice president for programming and producing, said he was drawn to Lee's story as emblematic of the courage and loyalty that is central to Marine Corps culture. The documentary makers rounded up former Marines who served with Lee and whose memories of the battle remain sharp.

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