Sunday, February 28, 2016

Remembering Kim Young Oak


Around the corner from my home in LA’s Koreatown is the “Kim Young Oak Academy”.  I had assumed it was a private cram school serving the local ethnic Korean kids, maybe with a punny name along the lines of “once an acorn, in the future a mighty oak” aspirations.


Not true.


KYO Academy is a LAUSD outfit serving a predominantly Hispanic (85% or so) student body.  Notably, it is an experiment in “single-sex education” trying to raise achievement by teaching boys and girls in separate classes instead of co-ed environments.  This approach, it must be said, is apparently not yielding spectacular results judging from KYO’s lower quintile rankings in the state test scores.  Interested readers can go here for an analysis of the rather equivocal outcomes in same-sex programs across the country.


The school, it turns out, is named for one of the most remarkable figures in Asian-American history, Kim Young Oak, who grew up in Los Angeles.


I had the good fortune to come across a biography of Kim, Unsung Hero: The Story of Colonel Young Oak Kim, authored by Woo Sung Han in Korean based on five years of research, and translated into English by Edward Chang, who runs the aptly named Kim Young Oak Center for Korean American Studies at UC Riverside.


The book devotes a lot of space to Kim’s military exploits in World War II and the Korean War.  Kim was apparently a supremely talented military commander, with an instinctive grasp of terrain and infantry and artillery tactics, a brilliant and thorough operations officer, and cool and clear-headed as a combat leader.  He was highly decorated, to put it mildly.



Kim earned at least 19 medals, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and the French Croix de Guerre, the National Order of the Legion of Honor from France, the Bronze Medal of Military Valor from Italy, and the ROK’s highest military honor, the Taegeuk Cordon of the Order of Military Merit.  The fact that Kim never received a US Medal of Honor is a sore point for his supporters and ascribed to shortcomings of documentation by his superiors.


More to the point, officers and enlisted men wanted to serve under him, and his superiors turned to him when a task demanded careful and creative planning, determined execution, and inspiring and effective leadership in the field.  One notable patron was William McCaffrey (who was Kim’s superior as a colonel in Korea and ultimately rose to become a Lieutenant General;  he was the father of Gen. Barry McCaffrey of Rumaila Causeway massacre and drug czar notoriety).  


Being a “fair haired boy” had some genuine life-saving advantages.  Kim was seriously wounded both in the World War II and the Korean War and in both cases his commanders made special efforts to take care of him.  In World War II he received a treatment of penicillin (at that time both a rare privilege for connected patients and an agonizing program of four shots a day for ten days in the arms and buttocks):


The repeated doses hardened the injection sites and by the time Young Oak had received twenty shots, his arms had turned into rocks.  They could hardly find a soft spot to put the needle in, as it would bend the metal tips…[Unsung Hero, pp. 140-141]


In the Korean War, when Kim was wounded on an exposed hillside, his commander overrode the objections of the helicopter crew to order a risky high altitude front line evacuation.


Despite the favor shown to Kim by his superiors, an unavoidable subtext of Kim’s story is his experience of racial discrimination.  He started serving in a segregated unit and was the first Asian-American commander of a battalion in the history of the US Army.  


Reflecting on his experience, near the end of his life Kim told an interviewer:


"America is unique and special, and true democracy is only really successful here in America. We're a beacon for the rest of the world, but we have a long way to go. We have to continue to educate people not to be prejudiced and not to hate others. People today are less biased than people 25 years ago - that shows progress - and progress is hard to make. But I have great hopes for young people, and I am pleased with the young people I've met."


In light of his military abilities, his service, and the esteem in which he was held by members of the top brass, Kim probably deserved to become a general officer.  That he did not is in part attributable to the fact that the US Army was a white old boy’s network that took care of its own first.


In his discussions with his biographer, Kim was forthright in discussing and naming officers he didn’t particularly care for, one of whom was William Westmoreland.  


Westmoreland was allegedly on President Eisenhower’s “rocket list” of ten or so officers he had tagged for rapid promotion.  At the time of the Korean War, Westmoreland had no combat experience—a prerequisite for promotion to general officer in the US Army—so he was given command of a front line battalion for two months during a prolonged, relatively fighting-free stalemate late in the war.


Kim served in the neighboring battalion and worked out a suitable disposition for the two forces to cover their section of the front in a formation that was reasonable for both.  But Westmoreland vetoed it and Kim’s superior backed down:


In Young Oak’s eyes, Westmoreland was an officer who actually knew nothing about the infantry, which was different from his reputation, or he was simply an officer who cared about his own record and not the safety of the soldiers…The new [contact point between Kim’s & Westmoreland’s battalions] suggested by Westmoreland would have made his regiment impregnable, but would have easily exposed Young Oak’s battalion to the Chinese.  Fortunately, the enemy didn’t attack.  After this experience, Young Oak assumed Westmoreland would become a general someday.  Young Oak also thought Westmoreland was someone who would sacrifice his men at any moment for his own glory. [Unsung Hero, pp.344-345]


Perhaps since the book was originally written for a Korean audience, the treatment and naming and shaming of US officers who, in Kim’s view, didn’t measure up, is quite unvarnished.


However, I think it would be incorrect to treat Kim’s criticisms as sour-graping by a retired military guy who felt he didn’t receive his due.


Kim’s biography offers some interesting insights into the workings of the US Army in the 1940s and 1950s.


Judging from his recollections, it was staffed by good, bad, and indifferent managers just like any other business.  Only difference was, instead of making you work late on Christmas Eve, a bad officer could, through incompetence, callousness, or malice, get you killed.


I’m assuming that thirty years of continual warfare by a volunteer military has ironed out some of the bumps since then, but it is remarkable in Kim’s time how many bad officers there were and, for that matter, how many officers realized they didn’t have what it took to lead in combat and happily turned over their duties to Kim.


Kim’s career fresh out of Officer’s Candidate School sees him refusing orders he saw as stupid.  Even when he follows orders, there’s a lot of “I want my objection put on the record”; and quite a few condemnations of murderous command idiocy, particularly during the Korean War.


The bitter coda to Kim’s frontline service was the severe wound he received during the Korean War in August 1951 as the result of a friendly fire incident.  The artillery spotter plane lazily assumed that US forces couldn’t really be occupying a hill intruding so far into enemy territory and the orange identifying placard Kim had put out must be fake.  The hill was plastered with 25 rounds of nasty anti-personnel ordnance that exploded above ground level for maximum shrapnel lethality before the barrage was stopped.  Kim was badly wounded and, as mentioned above, was helicopter evac’d out.


According to his biography, Kim was ordered up there in the first place to distract an impatient corps commander from relieving Colonel McCaffrey on the spot for unacceptably slow progress in taking some other hill.  Apparently Kim’s capture of the dangerously exposed and strategically dubious objective (surrounded on three sides by Chinese forces) occasioned enough high-fiving for the corps commander to leave the command post in good humor--and leave Colonel McCaffrey in continued possession of his command (and his career).


Kim’s superiors demanded a court martial for the offending artillery battalion for its friendly fire transgression but the corps commander was apparently not interested, nah uh, and the whole thing got dropped.


It would be interesting to check how the US Army wrote this thing up in its official history of the Korean War.


Anyway, Kim was evacuated to Osaka where only the sustained efforts of a crack medical team from Johns Hopkins managed to save his legs.  But by the time he was able to return to active duty, he had missed his chance to climb the steep pyramid of advancement to general officer and retired a colonel in 1972 on 85% disability.

In 1999,  Kim served on the expert's committee attached to the US investigation of the massacre at No Gun Ri.  On No Gun Ri, it should be said, he supported the US Army's version of events meant to beat back the allegations reported by AP, one that was undercut by a subsequent disclosure of more damning documentation that the DoD had suppressed.  Not his finest hour, perhaps, but at 80 years of age and in poor health, I would suggest Kim was not in a position to independently review and analyze the million pages of documentation the US assembled to shape its narrative of what had happened.


The truest measure of Colonel Kim’s character and stature are perhaps are revealed in his achievements beyond his military record.


Kim grew up in a household steeped in Korean nationalism.  His father had opposed the Japanese occupation of Korea and fled to the United States, where he was extremely active in the Korean diaspora’s mobilization on behalf of Korean independence.  When Syngman Rhee came to Los Angeles to promote his movement, he would stay in the Kim family’s modest home.


Despite this background in anti-Japanese agitation, Kim refused a transfer out of the unit he had been assigned to out of OCS: the 100th Battalion, the “Go For Broke Battalion” of Japanese-Americans which distinguished itself during World War II.  (He had probably been assigned to the segregated unit because his mother’s passport showed her nationality as “Japanese” thanks to Japanese conquest of the Korean peninsula).  Instead, after an initial round of bigoted Korean-baiting, he successfully commanded a platoon, then a company, and rose to the position of battalion operations officer during the Italian campaign.


After the war, he opened a chain of coin-op laundries and employed Japanese-Americans to give them a leg up after the US internment program had destroyed their previous livelihoods.  During the Korean War, as battalion commander he supported an orphanage in Seoul.


After retirement, Kim endured 40 operations that attempted to deal with the continual pain he suffered from the wounds he suffered in Korea.  Nevertheless, he fulfilled a vow, quoted in his biography, to “devote his life to the betterment of the community I belong to.”


That community was not just Korean-Americans.  I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting here:

Kim was the first person to serve on the United Way board for a total of 10 years. He recognized the underserved ethnic communities in Los Angeles and worked to provide them with linguistically and culturally competent services. When Kim joined the board, the Chinatown Service Center was the only United Way Asian Center. Kim added the Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Korean American Centers to United Way. He also diversified the board with three more Asian American members. 


Kim continued to be an active member of the Asian American community and beyond. 

In 1975, he helped found the Korean Youth and Cultural Center, now known as the Koreatown Youth and Community Center. The organization now serves more than 11,000 immigrants from Asia and Latin America each year. It helps youth and families in Los Angeles who are struggling with poverty and language barriers. Kim further served the Korean American community, as a founding member of the Korean American Coalition (KAC) from 1985 to 2005. The KAC has an ongoing goal to promote civic and civil rights interests of the Korean American community, through education, community organization, leadership development, and coalition-building with diverse communities. 

From 1986 to 1988, Kim served as a member of Serving the Family & Friends of the Keiro Homes, part of a non-for-profit healthcare organization that promotes healthy lifestyles for the elderly. Throughout the 1990s he served as Chairman of the Center for Pacific Asian Families, an organization that was founded to help address violence and sexual assault in the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Under his leadership, the Center for Pacific Asian Families became the largest women’s shelter in Southern California. 

In 1986, Kim co-founded the Korean Health, Education, Information, and Research Center to provide new, uninformed immigrants with the health care information and services that they are entitled to receive by law in America. As one of the largest ethnic charity organizations today, it continues to help new immigrants obtain basic health care and offers them bilingual services in English, Spanish, and Korean.


Kim participated in the founding of the Korean American Museum, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Go For Broke Foundation.  He also lent his name to opposition to the Iraq War and to support for comfort women.


Kim Young Oak is worthy of commemoration and emulation, so I wrote this story as an example to myself and also to fellow readers who might be inspired by this account of his achievements.


More information on Kim’s life can be found at the website of UC Riverside’s Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies, and on the website of the Kim Young Oak Academy (including a video of a 50-minute talk by Edward Chung).






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