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- Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin -- Film Review - The Hollywood ReporterUncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin -- Film Review As the title of this Memorial Day-related documentary suggests, "Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin" is the story of a bold, brave and gutsy Marine who saved hundreds of lives during the Korean War.27 May 2010
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The action was heroic enough to provide the makings of a great story, but there's an additional twist: The Marine lieutenant leader was Chew-Een Lee, the first Chinese-American officer in Marine history. Considering the rampant racism of the time, that's another fascinating story.
In some ways, Lee's military career is the more intriguing of the two tales, made all the more so by the dearth of actual video of what occurred. Narrator Greg Stebner calls the military breakout "a mission unprecedented in Marine Corps history" and "one of the great triumphs in American military history," but all footage of this military maneuver is either generic or re-enactments.
On the other hand, the story of Lee's ethnic breakout is backed by vintage photos and the accounts of family members, fellow officers and Lee himself.
Regardless, the careful and strategic retreat requires no more than a half-hour for the retelling, during which writer-producer Ted Poole summons all the visuals he can muster, including helpful computer-generated topographical graphics.
That leaves more than enough time for Lee's biography, including an explanation of why this less-than-imposing figure decided on a career in such an inhospitable environment. There's even time for some abbreviated history lessons, such as President Truman's order to integrate the armed forces and Gen. MacArthur's tactical failures, because of arrogance and ego, to comprehend the danger to his troops posed by the entrance of the Chinese into the conflict.
The documentary also marks the start of a not-so-subtle effort to recognize Lee's brave actions with a Medal of Honor. At one point, the narrator notes that "some" think Lee's command at Chosin should be acknowledged in that way.
Wounded a second time in battle, Lee spent many of his subsequent years devising strategy and training Marines for battle in Vietnam, contributing further to this uncommon story about an uncommon individual.
Airdate: 8-9 p.m. Monday, May 31 (Smithsonian Channel)
Production: KPI Television
Narrator: Greg Stebner
Executive producers: Bill Hunt, Vincent Kralyevich, Kristine Sabat
Producer-writer: Ted Poole
Line producer: Patricia Nugent
Director of photography: Tom Donatelli
Editor: Michael Hanna
Preview: Smithsonian's Uncommon Courage: Breakout At Chosin
Sneak Peak of Uncommon Courage: Breakout At Chosin - Debuts Monday 31st on the Smithsonian Channel
On Memorial Day the Smithsonian Channel will offer “Uncommon Courage: Breakout At Chosin,” a one hour look at the Korean War. It focuses particularly on the military maneuvers that took place in getting troops out of the Chosin Reservoir area in North Korea. This trek through the mountains at night in a virtual blizzard was one of the most exciting and heroic efforts during this war and is a testament to the bravery and skill of a Marine Unit led by Lt Chew-Een Lee.
Lee was a first generation Chinese-American. He entered the military immediately upon his graduation from high school. He became the first commissioned U S Marine regular officer of Chinese descent. When he was assigned to duty in Korea his knowledge of the Chinese language stood him in good stead. During the Korean War the enemy was the North Koreans but eventually the Chinese entered the fight.
I asked my Dad what he was doing on Memorial Day, and he said that he was attending a Memorial Day commemoration for Veterans. I wasn’t surprised, as he was a 20 year Navy Veteran. One thing I’d like to do on Memorial Day is see Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin. This documentary, debuting on the Smithsonian Channel on this Memorial Day, features Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the first Chinese-American commissioned as a US Marine. Lee, in addition to battling prejudice, led 500 Marines through hilly country in a blizzard to enable the breakout of 8,000 surrounded U.S. and U.N. troops. While he won a Navy Cross for his efforts and saved the 8,000 troops from certain capture or death, the documentary says his greatest accomplishment may have been changing attitudes toward Asian-Americans.
Lee was put in the position of being a Chinese-American fighting against Chinese troops. In the trailer, Lee acknowledges that soldiers had issues with his ethnicity, but in this Washington Post interview, Lee downplays this. Lee accomplished his march in 30 degrees below zero weather, at night, and with a broken arm. “He was ferocious,” says Lt. Joseph R. Owen who served alongside Lee. “Certainly, I was never afraid,” Lee says. “Perhaps the Chinese are all fatalists. I never expected to survive the war. So I was adamant that my death be honorable, be spectacular.”
Lee enlisted to counter the stereotype of the “meek, obsequious, bland Asian.” His one regret was telling his mother that he enlisted only on the day before he was to leave. “She did not say anything when I told her. Not a single word. But I could tell by her face she was totally crushed.”
This documentary sounds fascinating, but I won’t be able to see this on Memorial Day as my cable company doesn’t carry the Smithsonian Channel. If you do see it, let us know what you think.