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.
"A lot of them have waited years to tell the story of Chew-Een Lee," Royle said. "And many believe he should have been awarded the Medal of Honor."
Instead, Lee received the Navy Cross, the second highest medal awarded to Marines for combat bravery. Then as now, the Medal of Honor selection process is shrouded in mystery; Owen believes that Lee may not have been selected because the company commander was killed before he could nominate him.
Lee said he was motivated by a Chinese tradition that says the only truly honorable death for a warrior is in battle. Wounded a second time, he had to be evacuated — but not before his Marines had fought their way to their objective.
Lee retired from the Marine Corps as a major in 1968 and went on to work as a training supervisor for an insurance company and then as a compliance officer for an electricity cooperative.
He remains proud of what he accomplished at Chosin and prouder still of the Marines under him, who may not have liked their taskmaster but who respected him.
"They were outstanding — they were my Marines," he said.