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YOUNG OAK KIM (1919 – 2005) First Ethnic Minority to Command a U.S. Army Combat Battalion

In American History, Biography, History, Korean Americans, Korean War, Trivia, U.S. Army, World War II on June 7, 2010 at 9:32 PM

Young Oak Kim

Young-Oak Kim was born in 1919, the same year as Liberace, Eva Peron and Jackie Robinson.  Those gained fame by being in the public eye.  Kim’s recognition came from more sacrificial pursuits.

Kim’s parents immigrated to America, and his father owned a grocery store in Los Angeles. That was lucky since Kim had six siblings and there were a lot of mouths to feed.  Kim’s father belonged to “The Great Korean Association,” keeping ties to their homeland strong. 

After high school, Kim decided the future would be more profitable if he worked rather than continue his education.  He dropped out of junior college after one year but had trouble finding jobs because of racial discrimination.  His next option was to enlist in the military, but he was refused by the U.S. Army, again because of racial discrimination.  The outbreak of World War II changed everything, and the U.S. Congress passed a law including Asian Americans in conscription, thereby giving Kim his wish.  He was drafted into the Army in January, 1941, three months before his father died.

A TRUE PATRIOT                                   Kim started his military career as an engineer before admission to Officer Candidate School at age 24.  He was assigned to the 100th Infantry Battalion, a unit of all Japanese American soldiers. Kim believed his superiors didn’t know the difference between Koreans, Japanese and Chinese.  Since Korea was occupied by Japan at the time, when he reported for duty Kim was offered a transfer, but his national pride was greater than his ethic loyalty.  He refused the transfer saying, “There is no Japanese nor Korean here. We’re all Americans and we’re fighting for the same cause.”  His youth, ethnicity and exuberance were three strikes against him at the beginning, but eventually he won the respect of enlisted men and officers with his cool head and courageous leadership.

A REAL HERO                                            The 100th Battalion was originally sent to North Africa, but Kim and his troops wanted more action.  They were reassigned to Italy where Kim’s leadership skills were evident, especially in the Battle of Anzio.  Before they could proceed, the Allies needed to know the locations of German tanks.  First Lieutenant Kim and Private First Class Irving Akahoshi volunteered to infiltrate German territory to get the information.  The two soldiers crawled to an area near Cisterna, Italy, captured two German soldiers in broad daylight and snuck them past enemy outposts back to camp.  The information obtained from these prisoners led to the liberation of Rome and earned Kim the Distinguished Service Cross.

Not one to rest on his laurels, now Captain Kim also led his battalion in battles at Belvedere and Pisa, which helped the Allies occupy Pisa without any casualties.  In France, he helped liberate Bruyères and Biffontaine.  Kim spent six months in Los Angeles in late 1944 on leave to recover from wounds sustained in fighting at Biffontaine.  By the time he had recovered, Germany had surrendered, and Kim decided to trade the action of military for the relative calm of civilian life.

Kim opened one of the first semi-self-serve “launderettes” on Los Angeles.  Many of the skills that made him a great military leader also made him a successful businessman.  That sustained him for two years until the Korean War started.  He realized that it was action that he wanted and abandoned his business and reenlisted in the Army.

VISITING HIS HOMELAND               All Koreans or Korean speakers were assigned to the Army Security Agency. They were responsible for interpreting enemy communication.  But a desk job didn’t excite Kim as much as being on the front lines.  He denied knowing any Korean, cashed in a favor and was allowed to join the infantry.  He landed in Korea, and was undoubtedly thankful he actually did know the language.    

Then Colonel William J. McCaffrey had to figure out how to make the largely incompetent 31st Infantry of the 7th Infantry Division successful.  By McCaffrey’s special request, Major Kim joined the battalion as the Chief Intelligence Officer and a de facto operations officer.  Colonel McCaffrey’s trust in Kim was well rewarded.   The 31st Infantry subsequently won almost every battle and played a major role in pushing Chinese troops back over the 38th parallel and establishing the current border between North and South Korea.

WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR                   This success had an unfortunate flip side.  During the operation, Kim’s unit made it farther north than seemed possible.  The 555th Field Artillery Battalion, thinking they were enemy troops, erroneously bombarded Kim’s battalion, and Kim was seriously injured by the friendly fire. Kim was saved by doctors from Johns Hopkins University who were in Tokyo, and went back to Korea two months later.

Colonel McCaffrey didn’t want to waste Kim’s talent, so he put him in command of the 1st Battalion.  This distinguished Kim as the first ethnic minority to command an Army combat battalion in U.S. history. In September 1952, Kim returned to the states after almost one year in this position. 

Kim extended his tenure in the Army for another 20 years serving in the U.S., Europe and again in South Korea.  He retired in 1965 as a Colonel.  His exemplary and sacrificial service was rewarded by two Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts, a French Croix de la Guerre and an Italian Cross of Valor.  In 2005, Kim was also given France’s highest award, the Legion of Valor and South Korea’s highest military honor, the Taeguk Order of Military Merit.

LIFE GOES ON                                             After settling again in California, Kim finally pursued his education.  He graduated with a degree in history in 1972 and worked as the CEO of Fine Particle Technology.   He was married and divorced twice.  

Kim was a humanitarian as well as a soldier.  While in Korea, his compassion persuaded his battalion to adopt an orphanage ensuring that more than 500 war orphans would receive supplies and monetary aid.  His was the only United Nations military unit serving on the frontline to adopt an orphanage during wartime. After his retirement from the military, Kim served on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations including the Japanese American National Museum, the Korean American Coalition and the Go For Broke Educational Foundation which he co-founded.

Kim’s life was ended by cancer at the age of 86.  He’s buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl) in Honolulu, HI.

QUESTION:  How could you reach out and make peace between you and someone you don’t like?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved