Young O. Kim

Stylist: In War and Peace

Hawaii Herald, 10/18/1985

“I don’t believe in the military,” says Young O. Kim. “Never did.”

So what’s new? After all, many others feel that way, too. But the assertion coming as it does from a career military soldier, a Regular Army officer, one of the gutsiest fighters of the 100th, seems out of kilter, at odds with the image of the guy. But, give a listen .. .

“In the military, you just waste lives,” says Kim. “I wanted to be a surgeon where I’d have a chance to save lives. To me the most important thing in life, the most precious, is life itself.”

Sept. 29 1943. It as the 100th’s first day of combat. The town of Montemarano was behind them, and they had just left the village of Castelvetera. On this morning, the 100th was on the high ground above Chiusano. Naples lay to the west, 25 miles away as the crow flies.

After a night of pouring rain, the morning was beginning to clear. Moving out, the men stayed close to the roadside embankments for protective cover along the road snaking its way into the low hills. Moving up from the bottom of the hill, Lt. Young O. Kim took his platoon to the head of the advance. As they rounded the lower curve, enemy machine guns and fire from tanks opened up and, in the exchange, Sgt. Joe Takata became the first KIA (killed in action) of the 100th.

Told to take his platoon and pursue the enemy, the young lieutenant, in an unexpected breach of military discipline, resisted the order. He told his superiors that the open road was suicide; the enemy could blast them, as they had just done, from other hidden positions around other bends in the road. Difficult as it would be, he would rather lead his men down and across the gully and try to circle around the enemy, or hit him from a flanking position. When his superior turned down his counter-proposal and again ordered him to go down the road, Kim refused. “Court-martial me if you have to. But I don’t want my men to get killed needlessly when there is a better way to get at the enemy,” he said.

Bravery and stupidity often go hand-in-hand in combat and, unfortunately, the history of warfare is filled with such examples. It is a fact of war that men are often driven into enemy fire through ill-conceived perceptions and unfulfilled dreams of glory. Perhaps this is part of what Kim has in mind when he says that he doesn’t believe in the military.

Born in Los Angeles, Kim had to struggle his way out of the L.A. ghetto. Smiling, he says, “I was one of the rare Koreans around the place.” Drafted into the Army before Pearl Harbor, he was first assigned to the 7th Division. Sent to officer training school at Ft. Benning, he graduated in January 1943 and was immediately assigned to the 100th, Company B. Only a handful of haole officers and few boys of Hawaiian ancestry were in the ranks of the 100th then. Kim was the first of Korean descent.

As the 25-year-old lieutenant held his ground, the company commander had no recourse but to seek assistance and guidance from battalion headquarters. On this very first day of combat, no one was in any mood to exact disciplinary action against another, even for disregard of orders. But now, with the battalion commander and his staff gathered around him, the young officer, like it or not, felt the full weight of orders pressing upon him.

“Okay. I’ll attack down the road. But the blood of casualties will be on your hands.” Under the circumstance, the biting contemptuousness was overlooked. With that, Kim led his men into the teeth of direct enemy fire. And just as he had forewarned, the platoon took a beating – another killed seven others wounded. Nevertheless, the men’s exemplary performance opened the way for the battalion to keep moving forward.

There were other instances where the courage of his particular convictions got him into trouble. The southern gateway to Rome ran through Cassino. The place was heavily defended by the Germans. To unhinge the enemy’s hold there, the Allies, in January 1944, made an end-around play with a beachhead landing at Anzio, that ancient Roman town on the Tyrrhenian Sea. But then, as things would have it, the Allies became bogged down at both places.

Whereas Cassino was mountainous, Anzio was flat. “At the outposts, opposing trenches were sometimes no more than 25 yard away from each other. At night both sides would withdraw from their set positions and patrols would go out to probe for weaknesses in the other’s lines. And this is the way it went on for months, with very little movement during the day. Few prisoners were being taken. Therefore, for lack of information about the enemy and, worse yet, because Army intelligence had lost track of a Panzer (tank) division for months, 5th Army was hesitant about where to mount its offensive.” The lack of movement was getting on everybody’s nerves.

“I offered to go out and try to get some prisoners. Since both sides pulled back their forces at night, I proposed to sneak myself into and become a part of the enemy’s withdrawal at night. Once I got past their frontlines, I felt that I should be able to capture a prisoner or two during daylight hours – because they wouldn’t be looking for me then. And I wasn’t after the frontlines soldier. I’d go for someone in the rear echelon because the people there are easier to capture.

“The plan was rejected as being suicidal. For one, I could be killed, of course. But I persisted, argued for its adoption for a week. Reluctantly the proposal was sent to regimental headquarters. From there, it made slow progress up the line, meeting resistance everywhere. But after a long wait, approval came from 5th Army headquarters itself.

“So one night, after midnight, with four others we crept along a drainage ditch and worked our way past the enemy’s forward outposts. In enemy territory now, we stood fast till daybreak. Then, with Pfc. Irving Akahoshi accompanying me while the others posted themselves as guards, we cut and crawled our way through briar, then through a field of grain to reach a point 800 yards beyond the frontlines opposite what appeared to be a likely enemy stronghold. We came upon two guards in a lit trench sleeping, poked our Thompson submachine gun into their mouths. The startled guard awoke, raised their hand, and crawled out. The four of us then crawled our way back to the American lines. It was late at night when we turned our prisoners over to higher headquarters. The key information gleaned from the prisoners was that there was no Panzer division around.”

That night, in a highly unusual move, Gen. Mark Clark, 5th Army commander, called the 100th to personally award Kim and Akahoshi the Distinguished Service Cross.

A week later, the 5th Army launched its “Buffalo Plan,” designed to break itself out of the beachhead perimeter. On June 5, Rome fell to the 5th Army, the first army in 15 centuries to have captured the Eternal City from the south.

Matter of factly, Kim says that he felt “extremely comfortable in combat.” No posturing, rather, simply an affirmation of his abiding concern for the safety of the men under his charge: Always leading, he never asked or ordered his men to face situations he himself would or could not confront.

His decorations, too, seem to speak to that. Between his years of service with the 100th and his recall to duty in the Korean War, his awards include the Distinguished Service Cross (for his Anzio exploit), two Silver Stars, two Legion of Merits, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, and Italian and French government medals.

But perhaps his superiors in the 7th Division in Korea said it best when they paid Kim the warrior’s supreme accolade: “The best damn battalion commander in Korea.”

Prior to his retirement from the Army in 1972 for physical disability, Col. Kim spent a year with the U.S. Army at Schofield Barracks as chief of public relations.

Since retirement, Kim has occupied himself with a whole range of volunteer services with civic organizations. But his consuming interest is the Japanese American National Museum project, an undertaking to restore and revitalize the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (constructed in 1925 but vacant in recent years) for the purpose of converting it into a national museum to house, preserve and display the story of Japanese Americans. The restoration is part of the revitalization of the Los Angeles Little Tokyo district. The temple project costs will total nearly $2 million by the time of its completion. Much of that has already been pledged by the city of Los Angeles. Both Hawaii senators, Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, are on the honorary board of the foundation.