I came into the tent one afternoon on the second or third day we had been there and Mike was busy writing a letter. I casually asked who he was writing and he said, “Bobby Kennedy.” “As in Senator RFK?” I asked “Yes.” I said I didn’t think we had been here long enough to complain to our Senators. He said he was asking for a New York state flag. I stated that it was unfortunate that he came from a state with so many people that his pleas would never be heard. He made some disparaging remarks about the remoteness and backwardness of Arizona and the race was on. He wrote to Sen. Kennedy and I wrote to Sen. Carl Hayden of Arizona.
I had my reply in a mail cycle plus a few days. Nothing from New York. I wrote back to the Senator to thank him for his efforts. He was unable to fill my request through his office, but he pointed me in the direction of the state official who could. In my correspondence with his office, I kept referring to the secretary who was really opening the mail assuming that she was a lovely example of the girl next door. He mentioned her name and after I quit writing the Senator, I started writing her. In the meantime crickets from New York. I wish I had Mike’s later letters to the Senator because they were pretty caustic. Need I mention that my flag arrived before Mike heard from Kennedy? He finally mailed his driver’s license to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and said he would not be returning to New York.
Then the press got a hold of it and flags came to Mike from everywhere. From the selectmen in Schenectady, and, finally, Bobby Kennedy’s office.
It is a silly little story but it was a great diversion and made for a war story that involved no violence. Suddenly it was the big thing in several squadrons – get your state flag and hang it up. There were a lot of them.
There are two interesting footnotes to this story: after the assassination of MLK there was much tension everywhere in Vietnam and the air wing was no exception. It was decreed that all flags would come down rather than removing just the ones that involved a Confederate motif.
The other is my continued correspondence with Ann, the secretary. After extending our tours, Mike and I came home on leave and I found myself in Washington DC and reached out to Ann. Her parents informed me that she was in Chicago at the convention. I finally reached her there (by this time she was Walter Mondale’s secretary) and she said stop by the Hilton, so I did. We got into the convention to hear Mayor Daley let the rest of the Dems know how it is done in Chicago. Had the joy of sharing tear gas with the hippies being pounded on by Chicago’s finest in Grant Park. Wined and dined on the finest the Hilton could send up paid for by the DNC. Livin’ large. Twenty or so very exciting hours in my life.
One other note – Mike never did go back to New York as promised. Instead, he married a Flagstaff girl and stayed.
The citation which Mike received stated that his actions took place “deep within enemy-controlled territory.” While this is factually correct, it is also misleading. Staff Sgt. Fred Zabitosky received a Medal of Honor with the same notation (DA GO 69-27). After some time and, I believe, court intervention, the awards was reissued with a change reading “within enemy-controlled territory in Laos” (DA GO 91-23). Why is this important?
In 1962, Averell Harriman, Ambassador at Large in the Kennedy Administration, negotiated an agreement meant to establish the neutralization of Laos. The United States withdrew the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group in Laos 666 military advisors from Laos in accordance with this agreement. The North Vietnamese ceremonially withdrew 25 personnel, leaving well over 10,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos. The United States failed to respond strongly to this total negation of the agreement and, for many years, pretended to accept the myth of North Vietnamese withdrawal. When it was required to act out of due diligence against those forces, it established elaborate ruses to do so; Project 404 (sheep-dipped military personnel acting as Assistant Military Attaches) and CIA-led Hmong and other elements in Laos, and cross-border operations by MACV-SOG from Vietnam. The consequences of this facade were well-documented in Norman B. Hannah’s “The Key to Failure: Laos & the Vietnam War” (Madison Books, 1987).
GI’s in Vietnam usually attributed it to an effort by the State Department to preserve Harriman’s historical legacy, dubbing the Ho Chi Minh Trail as “The Averell Harriman Memorial Highway.” The U.S. denied it had any military forces in Laos, when, in fact, the small numbers of military personnel engaged in Laos were there solely because of a much larger, and also denied North Vietnamese presence. Thus, in 1969, Fred Zabitosky’s Medal of Honor and other awards to SOG personnel engaged in cross-border operations were written up with the phrase “deep within enemy-controlled territory.”
In 1970, when the Government of Cambodia permitted U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to enter its country and engage the North Vietnamese forces that were occupying vast tracts of Cambodia, they also closed the port of Sihanoukville to the transshipment of supplies to those North Vietnamese forces. It became evident that the bulk of the Communist material was coming through Cambodia. The North Vietnamese recognized this and determined to expand and secure their supply route through Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of the actions they took, in September 1970, was to attack Laotian and CIA forces on the Bolevens Plateau in order to expand their control westward. MACSOG personnel conducted Operation Tailwind at the request of the ambassador in Laos, to distract the North Vietnamese and relieve the pressure on units on the Bolevens. Mike Rose received his award for actions in Tailwind that received attention because of the totally bogus story aired by CNN in 1998.
By denying an American presence in Laos, the historical record has been misconstrued, beyond the operational aspects that affected the outcome of the war. In the recent Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, episode 2 (1961-1963) states that “Kennedy sent the Green Berets to the Central Highlands of Vietnam to organize mountain tribes to fight the Viet Cong to undertake covert [emphasis added] missions to sabotage their supply bases in Laos and Cambodia,” as though this was an illegitimate action undertaken by the U.S. Ken Burns accepts the presence of Communist sanctuaries in those countries without questioning the self-imposed restraints by the U.S. Later, in discussing the failed ARVN Operation Lam Son 719 in Episode 9 (May 1970-March 1973), he points out that “by the end of 1970, both houses of Congress had barred all U.S. ground personnel, even advisors, and special forces, from crossing the border,” but he fails to chastise Congress for its one-sided proscription.
In the time frame of the Vietnam War, it may have been useful to designate operations as being “deep within enemy-held territory,” under a flawed diplomatic policy. But in the context of history written post-war, that terminology is not only inappropriate, but it perpetuates misperceptions that color the public understanding of that history. It might be useful to find out who and why this terminology was used in Mike Rose’s award citation, but it would be even more useful to correct the record. No one was shy about talking about Laos in the award ceremony, only in the award itself.
Stephen Sherman served with 5th Special Forces Group (ABN) in Vietnam. He is presently the editor of a series of books on the Second Indochina War and a principal contributor to a website devoted to correcting the Burns/PBS documentary of the Vietnam War, which can be found at http://wiki.vvfh.org
An interview with Stephen Sherman can be found at https://www.sofmag.com/special-forces-and-special-operations-activities-in-southeast-asia-from-1954-1976/
When it comes to submarine action during World War II, there are a number of standouts, and among them is the submarine USS Barb (SS 220). But what makes Barb unique? No other submarine can boast a train on its battle flag.
There can’t be a story about USS Barb without mentioning one of the submarine’s main characters: commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Eugene B. Fluckey. The Washington, D.C.-native was to Barb as chocolate is to peanut butter.
While there are many fascinating tales about Barb during World War II, this one, in particular, is during the sub’s 12th and final war patrol that began in June 1945. The sub, crew and her skipper were still basking in the glow of Barb’s 11th war patrol that earned Fluckey the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Unit Citation for the crew of the submarine. He had previously earned four Navy Crosses.
But Fluckey wasn’t about to rest on his or the sub’s laurels after bargaining a fifth war patrol from Adm. Charles A. Lockwood, Commanding Officer of Submarine Force Pacific Fleet. The Gato-class, diesel-powered submarine was soon sinking Japanese supply transports off the northern coast of Japan in the Sea of Okhotsk. The submarine also fired the first sub-launched ballistic missiles onto Japanese soil, thanks to a request by Fluckey to add that weapon system during the submarine’s overhaul.
Fluckey had observed trains bringing supplies and materials to enemy ships on the northern Japanese island of Karafuto. They were already successful in stopping supplies getting to the fleet by transport ships. Why not keep the supplies from even getting to the transport ships, he thought.
The crew began to ponder how to take out the train. Placing charges under the tracks and detonating them as the train went by was too dangerous, Fluckey determined, because it put the shore crew at risk.
But Barb’s crew had taken to heart Fluckey’s mantra: If there is a problem, find the solution.
According to Fluckey’s book “Thunder Below!” Engineman 3rd Class Billy Hatfield offered that solution. The Ohio native recalled as a young boy placing nuts between the railroad ties. When the rails sagged as the trains rolled over them, the shells cracked. They could devise a micro-switch, tie it between two ties and the train would detonate its own bomb, just like cracking shells on a nut. Hatfield asked to lead the shore party.
There was no shortage of volunteers, including a Japanese POW onboard the Barb, Fluckey recalled in his book. First, they had to meet Fluckey’s criteria: The remaining seven volunteers had to be unmarried, a fair mix of regular Navy and reserve, represent all departments, and at least half were former Boy Scouts. Why Boy Scouts? As a former Scout, Fluckey knew they had been trained for medical emergencies and what to do if they got lost.
Four days later, the weather provided enough cloud cover to darken the moon and Barb inched to within 950 yards of the shore.
At just after midnight on July 23, 1945, Fluckey’s commandoes slipped into their small boats. Fluckey advised the crew what to do if things went wrong, according to a passage in his book: “Boys, if you get stuck, head for Siberia, 130 miles north, following the mountain ranges. Good luck.”
Less than a half-hour later, Navy Sailors were the first American combatants to set foot on one of Japan’s homeland islands:
Chief Gunners Mate Paul G. Saunders, USN
Engineman 3rd Class Billy Hatfield, USNR
Signalman 2nd Class Francis Neal Sever, USNR
Ship’s Cook 1st Class Lawrence W. Newland, USN
Torpedoman’s Mate 3rd Class Edward W. Klingesmith, USNR
Motor Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class James E. Richard, USN
Motor Machinist’s Mate 1st Class John Markuson, USN
Lt. William M. Walker, USNR
As with most missions, this one had its fair share of unplanned moments. The men were off on their bearings and landed near the backyard of a Japanese home. Although dog prints on the beach had the crew on high alert, luckily both human and canine occupants remained asleep.
The eight men plowed through rustling waist-high bulrushes crossed a highway and with their path obscured by darkness, took a tumble or two down unexpected drainage ditches. Upon reaching the tracks, three men set up guard stations. Markuson climbed a water tower to assess the landscape only to discover it was a lookout post. He silently crept back down, never waking the sleeping guard.
Alerted to the snoozing sentry above, the train crew worked quietly to dig the holes for the 55-pound explosive charge and detonator switch. Before they finished, however, an express train bore down the tracks, forcing the crew to scatter into the brush until it rumbled by.
Finally, all that was left was the most dangerous part of the mission – setting up the detonator switch. Fluckey ordered only Hatfield to be on the tracks during that procedure, but all seven crewmembers disobeyed as they nervously peered over the engineman-s shoulder as he connected the pressure switch.
Ninety minutes from when they left, the shore crew signaled they were headed back. Fluckey had eased Barb to within 600 yards of shore. Fifteen minutes later, with the crew halfway to safety, another train thundered down the track toward its final destiny. The need for stealth evaporated.
“Paddle like the devil!” Fluckey bellowed through a megaphone to his men. At 1:47 a.m., the 16-car train hit the detonator. The explosion sent pieces of the engine into the sky like a fireworks display. Five minutes later, all of the men were back on Barb. Upon reaching deeper water, Fluckey ordered all non-essential hands on deck to witness their achievement – “sinking” a train on Japanese soil.
Barb’s final patrol ended Aug. 2, 1945, at Midway. A few days later, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II.
The submarine’s battle flag reflected Barb’s remarkable accomplishments: 12 war patrols, five in the European Theater and seven in the Pacific; six Navy Crosses, 23 Silver Stars, 23 Bronze Stars and a Medal of Honor earned by members of the crew; a Presidential Unit Citation, a Navy Unit Commendation, and eight battle stars; 34 merchant ships damaged or sunk; five Japanese warships damaged or sunk, including the 22,500-ton escort carrier Unyo; rocket and gun symbols to denote shore bombardments, and ever so improbably, a train to commemorate Barb’s final war patrol.
Yet if you asked Fluckey which of the awards and recognitions represented on Barb’s battle flag he was most proud of, he would say it was the one medal not on the flag “the Purple Heart. Despite sinking the third most tonnage during World War II. ” 17 enemy vessels, 96,628 tons and a 16-car train – not a single Sailor’s life was lost or wounded on USS Barb.
A remarkable feat that earned the submarine, skipper and her Sailors their share of World War II fame.
To read more about Admiral Fluckey, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/02/us/02fluckey.html
Humans have been leaving mementos on and within the final resting places of loved ones almost from the beginning of the species. Excavations of even the earliest graves uncover goods meant to serve the deceased in the next world, such as pottery, weapons, and beads.
The earliest known coins date to the late seventh century B.C., and as societies began embracing such monetary systems, the practice leaving of coins in the graves of citizens began yet another way of equipping the dear departed for the afterlife.
Mythologies within certain cultures added specific purpose for coins being left with the dead. In Greek mythology, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, required payment for his services. A coin was therefore placed in the mouth of the dear departed to ensure he would ferry the deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron and into the world of the dead rather than leave him to wander the shore for a hundred years. In England and the U.S., pennies were routinely placed on the closed eyes of the dead, yet the purpose of that practice was not clear – some say it was to keep the eyes of the corpse from flying open (even though the eyes, once shut by the person laying out the body, do not reopen).
In these more recent days, coins and other small items are sometimes discovered on grave markers, be they plaques resting atop the sod or tombstones erected at the head of the burial plot. These small tokens are left by visitors for no greater purpose than to indicate that someone has visited that grave. It has long been a tradition among Jews, for example, to leave a small stone or pebble atop a headstone just to show that someone who cared had stopped by. Coins, especially pennies, are favored by others who wish to demonstrate that the deceased has not been forgotten and that his loved ones still visit him.
Sometimes these small remembrances convey meaning specific to the person buried in that plot. For more than twenty years, every month someone has been leaving one Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and a pocketful of change on the plain black granite tombstone that marks the grave of Andy Warhol. The soup can is easy to explain, given Warhol’s iconic use of that commodity in his art, but the handful of change remains a bit of a mystery. In a similar vein, visitors often leave pebbles, coins and maple leaf pins at the grave of Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the man who replaced Canada’s Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf flag.
While visiting some cemeteries you may notice that headstones marking certain graves have coins on them, left by previous visitors to the grave.
A coin left on a headstone or at the grave site is meant as a message to the deceased’s family that someone else has visited the grave to pay respect.
For Military, leaving coins of different denominations denote their relationship with the deceased. Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that you visited. A nickel indicates that you and the deceased trained at boot camp together, while a dime means you served with him in some capacity. Leaving a quarter means you were there with them when they took their last breath.
The earliest reference to this practice we’ve found so far dates only to June 2009, when it appeared as a website post. A version now commonly circulated an e-mail appears to have been drawn from it, albeit some changes have slipped in, such as, “A buddy who served in the same outfit, or was with the deceased when he died, might leave a quarter”, becoming “By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the Fallen when he/she was killed”.
According to tradition, the money left at graves in national cemeteries and state veterans cemeteries is eventually collected, and the funds are put toward maintaining the cemetery or paying burial costs for indigent veterans.
In the U.S., this practice became common during the Vietnam War, due to the political divide in the country over the war; leaving a coin was a more practical way to communicate that you had visited the grave than contacting the Soldier’s family, which could devolve into an uncomfortable argument over politics relating to the war.
Some Vietnam veterans would leave coins as a “down payment” to buy their fallen comrades a beer or play a hand of cards when they would finally be reunited.
Today, military folk do sometimes leave very special remembrances at the graves of deceased servicemen: challenge coins. These tokens identify their bearers as members of units and are prized and cherished by those to whom they have been given; thus, any challenge coins found at gravesites were almost certainly left there by comrades-in-arms of the deceased.
Next time you visit a cemetery, leave a coin. And now you know.
Vincent Hichiro Okamoto – featured in the PBS film ‘The Vietnam War’ by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – was born November 22, 1943, in Poston, Arizona, War Relocation Center, where his family was interned during World War II. He was the youngest of the ten children of Henry and Yone Okamoto.
Following the family’s release in 1945 at the end of the war, they moved to South Chicago, where his parents ran a small grocery store. The family later moved to Gardena, California, when he was twelve years old. He attended Gardena High School, where he served as senior class president. He was a three-year letterman in track and football and belonged to the Men’s Honor Society.
Okamoto attended El Camino College from 1962 to 1965. From 1965 to 1967 he attended the University of Southern California receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations in 1967. He enrolled in Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and was the first non-UCLA student to be commissioned through the UCLA ROTC program. He earned his commission as a U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant.
Serving in the military was an Okamoto family tradition: All six of Okamoto’s older brothers served in the military. Two fought in Europe during World War II with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and another brother served with the First Marine Division during the Korean War. This family trend of serving in the armed forces would later influence Okamoto’s decision to volunteer to go to Vietnam in the late 1960s.
After receiving his commission in the infantry, Okamoto went through fourteen months of intensive combat training – including parachute and Army Ranger training at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
In 1968, he went to Vietnam, where he served in various capacities as an airborne ranger, infantry platoon leader, rifle company commander, and battalion intelligence officer, before he came back to the United States in 1970.
His first assignment was the intelligence-liaison officer for two months for the Phoenix Program while attached to Company B of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry 25th Infantry Division – based at Cu Chi Chi, some 14 miles northwest of Saigon, an area honeycombed with miles of Vietcong tunnels. Following his two months with the Phoenix Program, he was assigned as a platoon leader in B Company.
During the conduct of a village search, his platoon didn’t find any weapons or communist literature. Since it was a particularly hot day and his men tired, Okamoto ordered a prolonged lunch break and then moved his RTO, platoon medic and interpreter into a particular house. There were three women inside and a babe in arms, including a kid about four years old. In one corner, an elderly woman was cooking rice. Okamoto’s attention was drawn to the hot, steaming rice – something he had not eaten for months – wanted some. He got his interpreter to ask the grandma that they will give her a pack of cigarettes, a can of C-Ration turkey loaf, and a can of peaches for some of that steamed rice and fish and vegetables. When asking for seconds, Okamoto’s RTO said, “Damn, ain’t these people poor enough without you eating their food?” Okamoto responded, “They’ve got enough rice here to feed a dozen men” And then it dawned on him: they did have enough rice to feed a dozen men. He hurriedly asked his interpreter to find out why so much rice. The interpreter turned to the old women, demanding to know ‘Who is all this rice for? And she said, ‘no biet, no biet, no biet – I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.’ That was enough for the Americans to look around more carefully. The search uncovered a tunnel entrance hidden beneath straw matting.
Okamoto threw a phosphorous grenade into the tunnel. After the smoke cleared, seven or eight bodies were pulled from the tunnel and thrown out into the town square. The bodies were so charred they couldn’t be identified. The women that lived in that house with all the rice were squatting down, wailing.
“I think that was the first time I knew that I personally had killed people. I got an ‘Atta boy’ from the company commander. It wasn’t something that had any glory in it, or made me feel a real sense of accomplishment” said Okamoto.
Over that summer, Okamoto was wounded twice and made 22 helicopter combat assaults, four of them as commander of Bravo Company. The success or failure of a given mission was measured by enemy body count. “Field commanders were told very succinctly,” Okamoto recalled. “We needed to rack up as much body count as we could. How many enemy did you kill today? A kill ratio determined whether or not you called a firefight a victory or a loss. If you kill twenty North Vietnamese or Vietcong and lost only two people, they declared it a great victory.”
On the morning of August 23, Okamoto made his 23rd combat assault. 19 helicopters ferried the first and second platoons to a new landing zone (LZ) just 13 miles from the Cambodian border near Dau Tieng district of Binh Duong Province in the Southeast region of Vietnam. Their task was to do again, stay put, and somehow block a battalion of some 800 North Vietnamese troops who were trying to escape back across the border.
Okamoto’s company was reinforced by a platoon of mechanized infantry, three APCs, and a tank, but they were still badly outnumbered. He and the fewer than 150 men under his command spent the rest of that day and all of the next preparing for an attack as best they could – setting Claymore mines and hanging coils of razor wire.
At about 10 o’clock on the night of August 24, Okamoto remembered, “We got hit with a very heavy mortar barrage. Within the first 10 seconds, all three of those armored personnel carriers and tanks were knocked out with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
Trip flares briefly lit up the landscape. Scores of enemy troops were running at the Americans through the elephant grass. Enemy mortar shells blasted two gaps in the razor wire. If Okamoto and his outnumbered men couldn’t plug them, they were sure to be overrun. He and the four men closest to him held their M-16s above their head and fired blindly.
The enemy kept coming. “I had my four people. And through the light of the flares, I yelled, ‘a couple of you guys go in man the machine guns on those APCs.’ The response I got was like ‘screw you, I ain’t going up there.’ That was enough for me to run to the first armored personnel carrier, pull out the dead gunner out of the tournament. I jumped in there, manned the machine gun and fired it until I ran out of ammo.” Okamoto moved to the second disabled APC, then the third, emptying their guns.
“They were still coming at us. I crawled out there, till I was about 10 meters from them. I killed them with hand grenades.” Two enemy grenades fell near him. He managed to throw back both. But a third landed just beyond his reach. Shrapnel fragments peppered his legs and back. “I just knew for sure I was going to die. I thought, ‘Hey Okamoto, you’re not going to make it out of here. Mom’s going to take it hard, but you’re not going to make it out of here.’ That’s liberating. When you know you’re going to die, the fear leaves. At least in my case, I was no longer afraid. I was just mad because here are all these little guys trying to kill me. If that’s the case, then I’m going to make it as tough on them as they possibly can before I go down. I killed a lot of brave men that night. And I rationalize that by telling myself, ‘well, maybe what you did – just maybe – saved the lives of a couple of my men.'”
During the night the enemy slipped over the border into Cambodia, dragging as many of their dead with them as they could. A third of Okamoto’s company had been lost.
For his efforts that day, Vincent Okamoto received the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’ second highest honor. He also received a Silver Star Medal and two Bronze Star Medals for valor and several Purple Heart Medals. By the end of the war, he was the most highly decorated Japanese-American to survive the Vietnam War.
For Okamoto, the real heroes were the men who died – nineteen, 20-year-old high school dropouts. Most were draftees. They didn’t have escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privilege had. They looked upon military service like the weather: you had to go in, and you’d do it. But to see these kids, who had the least to gain – there wasn’t anything to look forward to. They weren’t going to be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet, their incident patients, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself, “How does America produce young men like this?”
Following his discharge from active service in 1970, Okamoto began giving thought of going to law school. “I really did say to myself – and it sounds kind of corny – that if I am fortunate enough to live through this experience, then when I get back to the world – to America – I’d like to go through something that has rules, where people don’t throw grenades at each other and shoot at each other,” Okamoto said. “So I gave law school a shot.”
On the whole, law school proved to be less than enjoyable for Okamoto. But that did not deter him from going on to establish himself as a lawyer and, later, a judge.
“I hated law school,” Okamoto said. “In fact, I still look back and think law school was, other than Vietnam, probably the most unpleasant period of my life.”
For him, law school proved to have its own challenges and shortcomings. Coming back from three years in the U.S. Army – two of which were spent overseas – to law school at USC took some getting used to.
“I certainly didn’t set the legal academic world on fire when I was in law school,” he said. Having never associated with “study-mongers” in a classroom context, he “really had to work his tail off to survive academically.”
There was also the issue of the disparity he felt between himself and his classmates, who were usually several years younger and had never served in the military. “It was hard for me to come back from Vietnam and then listen to some young, twenty-four-year-old prodigy out of Harvard or Yale who’s talking about life experiences,” Okamoto said, recalling that disconnect with his law school peers when it came to lived experiences.
Though there were relatively few trial lawyers who were role models for Japanese Americans in the early 1970s, the few who were around helped the up-and-coming wave of young Japanese American attorneys.
“There were a few, and fortunately, those few worked hard, were well-thought of, so new guys like me were the beneficiaries of their positive appearances,” Okamoto said. “I look back on being a deputy district attorney as some of the better times of my life.”
In the mid-1970s, as a young deputy district attorney, Okamoto took part in the founding of the Japanese American Bar Association (JABA). Speaking to the reasons for his role in the formation of JABA, Okamoto emphasized the need for role models for the younger people in the community.
“At the time, I thought, in the event that more Japanese Americans become attorneys, we’re going to need some kind of organization – some mentoring if you will. And that’s what JABA started out to be,” Okamoto said.
“I think at the first or second installation dinner, we had a total turnout of forty people. And that’s with families and spouses, and all that,” Okamoto said. “You go to the JABA installations now, and multitudes and legions of people come out – some very, very prominent in politics, some in the legal community.”
JABA installation dinners now boast attendance in the hundreds and prominent guests from the legal community. Speaking to the growing ranks of JABA and its accomplishments since its inception, Okamoto lauded the direction of the organization.
Okamoto prosecuted criminal cases under the aegis of the deputy district attorney until 1978, when he started practicing private law with a former law school classmate.
“I wanted to make some money,” Okamoto said, explaining why he eventually decided to start his own practice. “Another former deputy DA that I’d gone to law school with, we left the DA office together, opened up shop and put out a shingle.”
As relatively new and young lawyers with their own practice, they struggled initially to find clients and to establish themselves. Eventually, though, they made a name for themselves as a firm and went on to represent notable clients like the port of San Pedro.
“It was a learning experience, starting down at the bottom rung of the ladder and having to climb up,” Okamoto said. “It took us a couple years before we actually made a profit, so it was tough on us, it was tough on our families, but it’s a rite of passage.”
Okamoto’s military service continues to inform his community involvement. He has served in the past as president of the Japanese American Vietnam War Veterans Memorial Committee. In the late 1980s, he led the committee to establish plans for the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial at what is now the National Japanese American Veterans Memorial Court, located at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. The black granite memorial lists the names of 114 Japanese Americans who were killed in action or are missing in action in Vietnam.
Speaking to the valor of the Japanese Americans who decided to fight for the United States during World War II, Okamoto highlighted the fierce patriotism that led them to fight for a country that had placed nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into inland concentration camps. “Having been denied due process, having been imprisoned behind barbed wire stockades, they still felt a love of country and felt it was their duty to go serve and fight for the very country that had confined them,” Okamoto said. “That’s part of the Japanese American experience in this country. It’s something that’s unparalleled.”
“I consider the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial one of my more noteworthy accomplishments,” Okamoto said. “And once we did that, then the Korean War vets said, hey, we should do the same thing. So two and half years later they put up their monument. Then the World War II guys said, hey, here are these little punks from Vietnam, and our younger brothers from Korea, we should have one for our people.”
With the addition of a memorial for the Japanese Americans who fought in the Korean War and in World War II, the National Japanese American Veterans Memorial Court features the name of all the Japanese Americans who were killed in the conflicts of the United States.
“To me, the significance of that is the Japanese American community, their loved ones, and friends can go there to commune with those that died in the war. But it tells America, and the public at large – hey, all Japanese Americans didn’t go to pharmacy school, or become dentists, or doctors, or engineers,” Okamoto said. “The Japanese Americans paid with their life’s blood to be able to live in mainstream American society, and if you don’t believe me, go on down to the JACCC and look at the names of over twelve hundred Japanese Americans who were killed in America’s wars.”
In 2002, California’s Governor Gray Davis appointed Okamoto to the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench. Okamoto had submitted an application for a judgeship at the encouragement of his mentors, role models, and friends in the Japanese American legal community.
“I was fortunate enough to get an exceptionally well-qualified rating, and then I had to go to Sacramento to be interviewed,” Okamoto said. “I think I just lucked out, or maybe I fooled them. I’m not quite sure. But after about four or five months, it was kind of neat. I get the call from Burt Pines, the appointments secretary, then he says the governor’s on the phone, and bingo, with a stroke of his pen, I’m a judge.”
Davis personally swore Okamoto in as a judge on August 26, 2002, at the Nisei Veterans of Foreign Wars facility in Gardena. Since then, Okamoto has enjoyed his role on the Superior Court bench. “I’m a fan of trial courts, and what I’m doing now as a judge is probably the best job I ever had in the world,” Okamoto said.
Among Okamoto’s other achievement are two books documenting the stories of veterans. The first, ‘Wolfhound Samurai’ (2008), is an autobiographical account of the Vietnam War in novel form to minimize the hurt to actual people, according to Okamoto. The second, ‘Forged in Fire’ (2012), tells the story of Hershey Miyamura, a Japanese American Medal of Honor recipient and distinguished Korean War veteran.
Video on Vincent Okamoto found at:
Okamoto’s DSC award found at http://valor.militarytimes.com/recipient.php?recipientid=5126
Tet Offensive. Siege of the Khe Sanh. Battle of Hue. Fall of Saigon. These are just a few of the names a person might hear when discussing famous battles of the Vietnam War. Less likely to be mentioned is the final high-casualty engagement between units of the U.S. infantry and the North Vietnamese Army. Taking place between March and July 1970, the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord would stay tucked into a hidden chapter of the war’s history for decades.
At the same time, President Richard Nixon was secretly withdrawing troops from Vietnam, leaving only the 101st Airborne Division fully operational which he tasked with regaining initiative of the A Shau Valley, a key strategic focal point for the NVA.
So it was that members of the 187th and 506th Infantry Regiments, along with supporting units under the command of 3rd Brigade, were sent to the abandoned Fire Support Base Ripcord to set the stage for the planned offensive ‘Operation Texas Star.’
The plan was to rebuild the abandoned fire support base set on four hilltops to be used as outposts for the planned offensive by the U.S. Marines to search and destroy the NVA supply lines in the mountains overlooking the valley.
The operation was held with as little press coverage as possible since it was happening during the time of the Cambodian incursion in May and June 1970. This was a series of 13 major missions conducted covertly in neutral Cambodia but Cambodian communists were helping North Vietnam with logistics and other types of support. It was also one year after the media disaster of Hamburger Hill, the battle known for its questionable use of infantry instead of firepower which led to 75 Soldiers losing their lives and another 372 wounded.
The Cambodian campaign was aimed to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh supply trail which spanned outside Vietnam borders, through Laos and Cambodia. The mission was of similar nature as the ‘Texas Star Operation’ and even though the latter was not secret, it was still on the certain level of “Need to Know Basis”.
While the members of the 101st Division were rebuilding the base and preparing the attack on the enemy supply lines, the NVA was secretly gathering intelligence. They also launched sporadic attacks from March 12th and lasted until June 30th. It is estimated that as many as 25,000 NVA troops were positioned in the A Shau Valley area at the time.
After weeks of reconnaissance, on the morning of July 1, 1970, the North Vietnamese started firing mortars at the firebase. The battle for the hilltops raged for days. The 101st was surrounded, outnumbered almost ten to one and running low on supplies. It was only the high ground and the bravery of its defenders that kept the enemy from overrunning the FSB Ripcord.
The heaviest of these attacks took place between July 1st and 23rd. During those 23-days, 75 U.S. Soldiers were killed in action, making the Battle of FSB Ripcord one of the deadliest battles in the Vietnam War for the United States.
Col. Ben Harrison (later Maj. Gen.), the Commander of the 3rd Brigade, claimed the NVA losses at Ripcord were one of the reasons why the North postponed their Easter Offensive that finally happened in 1972 since they had to resupply and reorganize after the attacks on the firebase.
Denny Kirkham was 18 years old at the time. Drafted only one month out of high school, he served in Vietnam as a Spec. 4 Radio Operator for 3rd Brigade’s Tactical Operations Center at Camp Evans. Working in the lines of communication, his MOS was to be picked up and placed where needed. This is how he came to be part of FSB Ripcord history.
“I woke up one night out of my bunk and was thrown into a Huey with a Spec 5 Radio Repairman,” reported Kirkham. “Next thing I know, we’re flying in the dark, jumping off and skidding onto the hillside. That’s how it all started. Tactical operations bunker on Ripcord had been partially hit, and there was some wounded personnel. A couple of those were signalmen, radio operators. We were there to resupply and support communications.”
Though only there for a week and a half, Kirkham was inundated with the siege and all of the pandemonium that went along with it.
“It kind of just dragged on and on,” recalled Kirkham. “I was there for several of the attempts of the NVA to come through the wall. We were surrounded most of the time. It was my first time being under mortar and artillery fire. I witnessed several of the B-52 strikes.”
Kirkham was also there when anti-aircraft fire from enemy forces dealt one of the biggest blows to FSB Ripcord’s supply cache.
“A helicopter was shot down right above the ammo dump,” said Kirkham. “It was like the whole top of the hill was coming off. That hurt us for several days. We had to depend on other bases around Ripcord to really help cover us until we could be resupplied.”
Though young and in awe of his surroundings, Kirkham was aware that, like everyone else, he was placed on the hill to do a job.
“It was a counter-insurgency operation,” he said. “I was a radio operator with secure information. We had classified information coming in. At one time, my radio was the only one that was transmitting. I was able to keep it going, and I was kept busy for a little farm boy from Indiana. I stayed on my toes; leaning up against sandbags to sleep for an hour, then staying up for another 12. I don’t remember a bunk at all. I don’t remember sleeping.”
That feeling was echoed throughout the base, from the grunts in the foxholes working to diminish the strength of the NVA battalions to the “Shake n’ Bake Sergeants” who had risen through the ranks in the blink of an eye to satisfy a growing need for NCOs to lead the way.
As an offensive quickly dissolved into a standoff and a fight for survival, it was decided that defending the base was not going to accomplish anything in the long run. Immediate and swift lifeline withdrawals soon followed.
On July 23, after the helicopters withdrew the survivors under heavy mortar, anti-aircraft and small arms fire. After the evacuation, the U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers were called in for carpet bombing.
“The withdrawals began happening so fast that a specialist and I were put onto a Huey that had body bags on it that were filled. We were getting off that mountain any way we possibly could toward the end. I was glad to get off there, but riding off with the KIAs was hard. I witnessed several of the B-52 strikes” said Kirkham.
“With what was happening back in the states with the anti-war situation, they didn’t want to bring up another Hamburger Hill to throw into the mix,” added Kirkham. “Newspapers and TV back in the States didn’t want to see those body counts.”
When the FSB Ripcord Association emerged in 1985, the American public began to learn more and more about the battle. With the emergence of the story came a surprise for Kirkham: a Bronze Star in honor of his actions.
Following the war, Kirkham returned to the States and lived the civilian life for a few years. In 1975, he rejoined the Army voluntarily, serving until his retirement in 1993. He returned to his hometown of Corydon, IN, in 2005 after the passing of his wife. Though more than 47 years separate his initial connection to the Screaming Eagles, his ties to the community remain strong.
The final death toll of the FSB Ripcord battle from March 12 to July 23, was 138 American Soldiers. There were also 3 men missing in action. Among the men killed in action were the professional football player Bob Kalsu, who played for the Buffalo Bills, before being drafted and Weiland Norris, the brother of Chuck Norris.
Three Medals of Honor and five Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to the men who fought at Ripcord. One of the Medals of Honor was awarded to Lt. Col. Andre Lucas, who died on the last day of the battle after directing the successful retreat of his men.
Lt. Col. Lucas on one occasion during the battle flew in a helicopter at a treetop level above an entrenched enemy directing fire for over 3 hours. He remained in an exposed position as long as he could, and after that swapped his damaged helicopter for another one, and immediately resumed his perilous mission.
On another occasion he attempted to rescue a crewman trapped in a burning helicopter, all by himself, risking his life under heavy fire.
The Battle of FSB Ripcord was not very known to the public, mostly because the Nixon administration wanted to avoid any media coverage of the last major battle in the Vietnam War. The memory of the battle was revived in 1985 when The FSB Ripcord Association was established to honor the fallen and remember the survivors.
“When a free nation sends men and women to war, their sacrifice must be honored and rewarded. Regardless of the outcome, these people deserve our thanks, respect, support and more importantly a place in our memories.”
~Martin Hinton on the Battle of Firebase Ripcord
View the service history of actor:
TM3 Rod Steiger
View his service profile on TogetherWeServed.com
Short Bio: Oscar winning actor Rod Steiger is best known for his portrayal of Chief Gillespie in “In the Heat of the Night”, quit high school in 1942 to join the navy. He served as a Topedoman’s Mate on two destroyers. One suffered such heavy damage by kamikazes that it had to be skuttled.
Of all the Marine Corps bases throughout the world, Camp Pendleton has one of the most intriguing pasts, filled with historical charm and vibrancy. Spanish explorers, colorful politicians, herds of thundering cattle, skillful vaqueros and tough Marines have all contributed to the history of this land.
Sept. 25 marks the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the camp by President Franklin Roosevelt as a Marine Corps installation. What started as a Spanish missionary installation is now one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the world – and a much-needed break between the urban expanse of San Diego and Orange counties.
In 1769, a Spaniard by the name of Capt. Gaspar de Portola led an expeditionary force northward from southern California, seeking to establish Franciscan missions throughout California. On July 20 of that same year, the expedition arrived at a location now known as Camp Pendleton, and as it was the holy day St. Margaret, they baptized the land in the name of Santa Margarita.
During the next 30 years, 21 missions were established, the most productive one being Mission San Luis Rey, just south of the present-day Camp Pendleton. At that time, San Luis Rey Mission had control over the Santa Margarita area.
In 1821, following Mexico’s independence from Spain, the Californios became the new ruling class of California, and many were the first generation descendants of the Portola expedition. The Mexican governor was awarding land grants and ranchos to prominent businessmen, officials, and military leaders. In 1841, two brothers by the name of Pio and Andres Pico became the first private owners of Rancho Santa Margarita. More land was later added to the grant, making the name Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, and that name stayed with the ranch until the Marine Corps acquired it in 1942.
In 1863, a dashing Englishman named John Forster (Pio Pico’s brother-in-law) paid off Pico’s gambling debts in return for the deed to the ranch. During his tenure as owner of the ranch, he expanded the ranch house, which was begun by the Picos in 1841, and developed the rancho into a thriving cattle industry.
Forster’s heirs, however, were forced to sell the ranch in 1882 because of a string of bad luck, which included a series of droughts and a fence law that forced Forster to construct fencing around the extensive rancho lands. It was purchased by wealthy cattleman James Flood and managed by Irishman Richard O’Neill who was eventually rewarded for his faithful service with half ownership. Under the guidance of O’Neill’s son, Jerome, the ranch began to net a profit of nearly half a million dollars annually, and the house was modernized and furnished to its present form.
In the early 1940s, both the Army and the Marine Corps were looking for land for a large training base. The Army lost interest in the project, but in April of 1942 it was announced that the rancho was about to be transformed into the largest Marine Corps base in the country. The Marine Corps paid $4.2 million for the rancho.
On the eve of World War II, the Marine training bases were limited to Quantico, VA, Parris Island, SC, and San Diego. When the expansion of all U.S. armed forces was authorized by President Roosevelt’s proclamation of an unlimited national emergency on May 27, 1941, an immediate need for additional amphibious force training facilities led to the construction of Camp Pendleton.
After five months of construction, the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which included San Onofre, became the West Coast’s largest military camp. The first troops to occupy the new Base were the 9th Marine Regiment with the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, who marched for three days from Camp Elliott in San Diego to Camp Pendleton. President Roosevelt dedicated the Base on Sept. 25, 1942, in honor of World War I Major General Joseph H. Pendleton who had long advocated the establishment of a West Coast training base.
By 1943, the first women Marine reservists arrived to help keep base administration running smoothly. The O’Neill’s blacksmith shop became the Ranch House Chapel and opened primarily for their use.
By October 1944, Camp Pendleton was declared a “permanent installation” and by 1946, became the home of the 1st Marine Division.
During the Korean War, $20 million helped expand and upgrade existing facilities, including the construction of Camp Horno. When Camp Pendleton trained the country’s fighting force for the Korean and Vietnam Wars, approximately 200,000 Marines passed through the Base on their way to the Far East.
The Corps broadened its capabilities during the 1980s from “amphibious” to “expeditionary” by combining infantry, armor, supply and air power. Troops and equipment could now be deployed halfway around the world in only days as part of a self-sustaining air-ground team. This successful use of military power has been demonstrated through Marine Corps operations in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti Afghanistan and Iraq.
Camp Pendleton has continued to grow through renovations, replacing its original tent camps with more than 2,600 buildings and 500 miles of roads.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick say their multi-part PBS documentary about the Vietnam War, which concluded at the end of September, was intended to unpack a complex conflict and to embark upon the process of healing and reconciliation. The series has catapulted the Vietnam War back into the national consciousness. But despite thousands of books, articles, and films about this moment in our history, there remain many deeply entrenched myths.
MYTH NO. 1
The Viet Cong was a scrappy guerrilla force fighting a superpower.
“Vastly superior in tools and techniques, and militarily dominant over much of the world,” historian Ronald Aronson wrote about the hegemonic United States and the impudent rebels, “the Goliath sought to impose on David a peace favorable to his vision of the world.” Recode recently compared the Viet Cong to Uber: “young, scrappy and hungry troops break rules and create new norms, shocking the enemy.”
In reality, the Viet Cong, the pro-North force in South Vietnam, was armed by both North Vietnam – which planned, controlled and directed Viet Cong campaigns in the South – and the Soviet Union. According to the CIA, from 1954 to 1968, communist nations (primarily the Soviet Union and China) provided the North with $3.2 billion in military and economic aid, mostly coming after 1964 as the war accelerated. Other sources suggest the number was more than double that figure.
The Viet Cong had powerful and modern AK-47s, a Soviet-made automatic rifle that was the equivalent of the M-16 used by American troops. Its fighters were also equipped with submachine guns, grenades, rocket launchers and an array of other weapons. By contrast, the U.S. military gave the South Vietnamese armed forces old World War II-era castoffs, such as M-1 rifles, until the late 1970s.
MYTH NO. 2
The Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States represented the elite.
As the Immigration Policy Center’s Alicia Campi has put it, the 130,000 Vietnamese who came to the United States at the end of the conflict “were generally high-skilled and well-educated” people. Sociologist Carl Bankston described this group as “the elite of South Vietnam.”
Although the group that fled in 1975, referred to as the first wave, was more educated and middle-class, many who arrived through the U.S.-sponsored evacuation efforts were also people with close ties to the Americans in Vietnam whom Washington had promised to rescue. They were not necessarily “elite.” These included ordinary soldiers of South Vietnam as well as people who had worked as clerks or secretaries in the U.S. Embassy.
The second wave of refugees who left Vietnam after 1975 numbered approximately 2 million. They came from rural areas and were often less educated. Most escaped on rickety wooden boats and became known as “boat people”; they deluged neighboring countries of “first asylum” – Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Indonesia – at a rate of 2,000 to 50,000 per month. More than 400,000 were admitted into the United States.
The third wave of refugees, of which an estimated 159,000 came to the United States beginning in 1989, were offspring of American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, as well as political prisoners and those who had been put in “reeducation camps.”
MYTH NO. 3
The American fighting force in Vietnam relied on the draft.
Popular culture is rife with examples of poor and minority soldiers arriving in Vietnam via the draft and then dying. The idea runs through the heart of Robert Zemeckis’s “Forrest Gump,” Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter,” among other movies and books. Vietnam was “the most blatant class war since the Civil War,” as James Fallows put it in his 1989 book “More Like Us.”
The facts show otherwise. Findings from the Report of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force in February 1970 show that 78 percent of active-duty troops in 1965 were volunteers. Nor did the military rely primarily on disadvantaged citizens or African Americans. According to the commission’s report, African Americans “constituted only 12.7 percent of nearly 1.7 million enlisted men serving voluntarily in 1969.” Seventy-nine percent of troops had at least a high school education (compared with 63 percent of Korean War veterans and 45 percent of World War II veterans). And according to VFW Magazine, 50 percent were from middle-income backgrounds, and 88 percent were white (representing 86 percent of the deaths).
MYTH NO. 4
Communist forces breached the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
One of the most pivotal events of the Vietnam War was the attack by the Viet Cong on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1968. Retired ambassador David F. Lambertson, who served as a political officer there, said in one account that “it was a shock to American and world opinion. The attack on the Embassy, the single most powerful symbol of U.S. presence signaled that something was badly wrong in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive broke the back of American public opinion.” Early reports by the Associated Press said the Viet Cong had occupied the building. UPI claimed that the fighters had taken over five floors.
In fact, communist forces had blasted a hole through an outer wall of the compound and hunkered down in a six-hour battle against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The embassy was never occupied, and the Viet Cong attackers were killed. The Tet Offensive’s other coordinated attacks by 60,000 enemy troops against South Vietnamese targets were repelled. Don Oberdorfer, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, observed that Tet was a military disaster for the North, yet it was “a battlefield defeat that ultimately yielded victory” for the enemy.
In part, that was because the erroneous reports about the embassy assault were searing and humiliating to Americans, and no subsequent military victories during Tet could dislodge the powerful notion that the war effort was doomed.
MYTH NO. 5
South Vietnamese soldiers were unwilling and unable to fight.
Some contend that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the South’s army, was not up to the job. Andy Walpole, formerly of Liverpool John Moores University, wrote that “they were unwilling to engage in combat with their guerrilla counterparts and were more interested in surviving than winning.” Harry F. Noyes, who served in Vietnam, complained about this widespread belief: “Everybody ‘knows’ they were incompetent, treacherous and cowardly.”
But those who fought alongside the ARVN tell a different story. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, an adviser to the South Vietnamese Airborne Division, bemoaned that “the sacrifice and valor and commitment of the South Vietnamese Army largely disappeared from the American political and media consciousness.” He wrote of the tenacious fighting spirit of those troops, particularly at the Battle of Dong Ha, where they were charged with supporting American Marine units. “In combat, the South Vietnamese refused to leave their own dead or wounded troopers on the field or abandon a weapon,” he recalled.
South Vietnamese forces also fought off the surprise communist assaults on Saigon and elsewhere during the Tet Offensive of 1968. In August and September of that year, according to Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. military operations from 1968 to 1972, “the ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined, and suffered more KIA, both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action,” because it received less air and other tactical support than U.S. forces. In March 1972, during the Easter Offensive, South Vietnamese forces, with American air support, also prevailed against a conventional enemy invasion consisting of 20 divisions. And in April 1975, the 18th Division defending Xuan Loc “held off massive attacks by an entire North Vietnamese Army corps,” according to one report. In the end, those soldiers had even more at stake than the Americans did.
Source: Lan Cao
Kurt Chew-Een Lee is believed to have been the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps, rising through the ranks beginning his career from World War II to the Vietnam War.
Lee was born in 1926 in San Francisco and grew up in Sacramento, California. Lee’s father was M. Young Lee, born in Guangzhou (Canton), emigrating in the 1920s to the Territory of Hawaii and then California. Once established in America, M. Young Lee returned to China to honor an arranged marriage. He brought his bride to California and worked as a distributor of fruits and vegetable to hotels and restaurants. Two of his brothers, Chew-Fan and Chew-Mon, became Army officers who also served in the Korean War. Chew-Mon received the Distinguished Service Cross and Chew-Fan the Bronze Star.
Eager to fight in World War II, Kurt Chew-Een Lee joined the U.S. Marine in 1944. Instead, he was based at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego as a language instructor.
From October 1945 to April 1946, Lee was enrolled in The Basic School, newly reactivated for USMC officer training. Second Lieutenant Lee graduated to become the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war
He was the only person of Asian ancestry many of his fellow Marines had ever met. Behind his back, some called him a “Chinese laundry man” and questioned whether he was ready to kill Chinese soldiers. Some even questioned his loyalty as U.S. forces were battling Chinese forces, which had joined the conflict on the side of North Koreans
But as his unit faced the intense enemy fire, rugged territory, and brutal weather, he won his men’s loyalty as he repeatedly put himself at risk to protect his unit and others.
When the North Koreans attacked across the DMZ in June 1950, Lee’s unit was shipped out to Korea on September 1, 1950. For two weeks he drilled his machine-gun platoon day and night on the deck of the ship, enduring derision from the other platoon leaders.
After arriving in Japan for final battle preparations, Lee’s superiors tried to reassign him as staff officer handling translation duties. Lee insisted that he was only there to “fight communists,” and allowed to retain command of his machine gun platoon.
The 1st Battalion 7th Marines, including Lee, landed at Inchon on September 21, 1950, to attack the North Koreans and force them to retreat northwards. The People’s Republic of China sent troops to stiffen the North Korean fighting response. On the night of November 2 – 3 in the Sudong Gorge, Lee conducted a sole reconnaissance mission in heavy snow, moving well ahead of his unit. He fired rounds and threw grenades to make it sound like the Marines were advancing.
When Lee reached the outpost where the Chinese forces were hiding, he employed a ruse no one in his unit could’ve done. “Don’t shoot!” he yelled. “I’m Chinese.”
Hearing Chinese confused them and the temporary distraction proved crucial as the Marines launched a counterattack.
During the attack, Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Following this, Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy front and attacked their positions one by one to draw their fire and reveal themselves.
His men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted casualties, forcing the enemy to retreat. While advancing, Lee shouted to the enemy in Mandarin Chinese to sow confusion and then attacked with hand grenades and gunfire. Lee was wounded in the knee and in the morning light was shot in the right elbow by a sniper, shattering the bones. He was evacuated to an army field hospital outside of Hamhung. For bravely attacking the enemy and saving his men, Lee was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest honor given for combat bravery.
“Despite serious wounds sustained as he pushed forward,” the citation read, “First Lieutenant Lee charged directly into the face of the enemy fire and, by his dauntless fighting spirit and resourcefulness, served to inspire other members of his platoon to heroic efforts in pressing a determined counterattack and driving the hostile forces from the sector.”
Some who either served with Maj. Lee or knew of him said they believed he was deserving of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Less than a month later, while Lee was recovering in a field hospital from a gunshot wound to an arm, tens of thousands of Chinese forces surged into the region, overwhelming 8,000 American troops fighting as United Nations forces.
His arm was still in a sling when he and a sergeant left the hospital against orders, commandeered an Army jeep and returned to the front. Over the next two weeks, Lee helped lead his unit of several hundred Marines across snowy mountain passes at night, using only a compass to find and reinforce smaller groups that had been surrounded.
Late on December 2nd after several days of exhausting combat during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Lee’s platoon was given the task of spearheading a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces to relieve the outnumbered Fox Company of 2nd Battalion 7th Marines trapped on Fox Hill, part of Toktong Pass and strategic to controlling the Chosin Reservoir road. Lee’s relief force was given heavier loads to carry through the snow, up and down lightly wooded hills, through the extreme cold (-20 F, -29 C), and under the very limited visibility of snow blizzard and darkness. Lt. Col. Ray Davis, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, had no instructions for Lee on how to accomplish the mission except to stay off the roads with their heavily reinforced roadblocks.
As point man of 2nd Rifle Platoon in Baker Company, Lee used only his compass to guide his way, leading 1st Battalion in single file. Suddenly pinned down by heavy enemy fire coming from a rocky hill, Lee refused to be delayed in his mission. He directed the men to attack the hill with “marching fire”, a stratagem used by General George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply just enough suppressive fire to keep the enemy’s heads down. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and the battalion charged, attacking enemy soldiers in their foxholes. Lee, with his right arm still in a cast, shot two enemy soldiers on his way to the top. When he reached the top, he noticed that the other side of the hill was covered with enemy foxholes facing the other way in expectation of an attack from the road, but the foxholes were now empty and the enemy soldiers were over 400 yards (370 m) away in rout because of the fearfully sudden 1st Battalion attack from their rear.
Following this success, communication was established with nearby Fox Company on Fox Hill. 1st Battalion directed mortar fire against the enemy and called in an airstrike, then Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack which forced a path to Fox Company. During this attack, a Chinese machine gunner targeted Lee, wounding him seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Regrouping his men, the badly wounded Lee led Baker Company in more firefights against pockets of enemy soldiers in the Toktong Pass area, securing the road. Lieutenant Colonel Davis received the Medal of Honor for commanding the relief of Fox Company. For this action, Lee was awarded the Silver Star.
“First Lieutenant Lee’s platoon was pinned down by intense hostile fire while attacking south on the main service road from Koto-Ri,” the citation said. “Observing that the heavy fire was inflicting numerous casualties, he exposed himself to the deadly fire to move among his troops, shouting words of encouragement and directing a withdrawal to covered positions. Assured that the last of his wounded was undercover, he was seeking shelter for himself when he was struck down and severely wounded by a burst of enemy machine-gun fire.”
In addition to the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, Maj. Lee received many other military honors, including a Purple Heart. While serving in the Vietnam War, he received his second Purple Heart. He also received the Legion of Merit.
Slight of build at 5 feet 6 inches tall and 130 pounds, he brought outsize determination to the battlefield, and his heroics have been recounted in books and a documentary film, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin,” shown on the Smithsonian Channel in 2010.Among books written featuring his exploits is “Colder the Hell: A Marine Rifle Company at Chosin Reservoir” (1996) by Joseph R. Owen.
Lee retired from military service at the rank of major in 1968 and worked a civilian job with New York Life Insurance Company for seven years. During this period, Lee’s mother died in Sacramento, and Lee’s brother Chew-Mon Lee died at the rank of colonel in the US Army while serving as an attache in Taiwan. His brother Chew-Fan Lee advanced in his career as a hospital pharmacist. In 1975, Lee began working as a regulatory compliance coordinator for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; a position he held for almost two decades.
His first wife, Linda Rivera, died. His second marriage, to Helga Schneider Lee, ended in divorce. Neither marriage produced children. He had a step-daughter from his second marriage.
Kurt Chew-Een Lee died on March 3, 2014, at the age of 88.
Survivors include a stepdaughter, Nicole Ashley; and three sisters: Faustina Lee, Betty Mar and Juliet Yokoe and his brother Chew-Fan.