Korean-American War Vet Awarded Korea’s Highest Military Honor

Author: Daisy Nguyen
Associated Press, November 2005
Puka Puka Parades, November 2005, #05/10

Story of Col. Young Oak Kim receiving the Taeguk Order of Military Merit from S. Korea. It also mentions all the awards he won during his time in World War II.


LOS ANGELES – A veteran of two wars, retired U.S. Army Col. Young Oak Kim has received more than a dozen medals. But he doesn’t display them like a proud warrior. They’re all stowed in a box somewhere in his garage.

During World War II, Kim played a key role in helping the Allies capture Rome and liberate several French towns. In the Korean War, he led a combat unit that pushed enemy forces back from the 38th parallel, creating a strategic wrinkle in the line that divides North and South Korea.

Kim will soon add one more medal to his box. South Korean President Roh Moon-hyun recently approved giving him the Taeguk Order of Military Merit, the highest military honor in South Korea.

The move marks a rare exception to a decades-old policy against awarding any more medals involving the Korean War.

Political observers see the move as an effort by the South Korean government to maintain friendly relations with the United States during a wave of anti-Americanism in that country and amid tense negotiations over North Korea’s rogue nuclear program.

A hundred members of the South Korean National Assembly signed a letter of support for giving the medal to Kim.

But it’s unlikely he will make the trip across the Pacific to accept the honor. The 86-year-old is frail as he undergoes cancer treatments in a hospital.

He hopes the honor reflects a spirit of cooperation between the two countries as they work to resolve the North Korean nuclear issues and perhaps someday reunify the Korean Peninsula.

“It’s not going to happen in my lifetime,” Kim said from his bed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “But most Koreans, including myself, deeply wish for that.

Those who know Kim say he’d be embarrassed about the fuss if he did attend the ceremony.

“I don’t care about leaving a legacy,” Kim said. “I don’t think much about my contributions to the world. I just did what I could with my life while I’m still living.”

Kim had lost track of how many medals he had received in his 30-year military career until asked by Korean journalist Woo-Sung Han, who has written a book about him. The soldier took Han to his garage and opened a dust-covered box.

“It was full of decorations,” Han recalled.

In all, Kim has about 20 medals, including a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, three Purple Hearts, a French Legion of Honor and Italian Military Valor Cross.

“He’s a very modest man,” Han said. “This guy would rather work behind the scenes than take center stage.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1919, Kim was drafted by the U.S. Army after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He fought with a battalion mostly made up of Japanese-American soldiers who fought discrimination to join the Army.

Kim went on to become captain of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

He is credited with leading a daring daylight mission in Anzio, Italy, where he and another soldier crawled across a wheat field to capture German soldiers. They secured intelligence information that was credited with helping the Allies capture Rome. Later, his unit helped liberate several French towns.

Five years after World War II ended, Kim re-enlisted when the Korean War broke out

“Initially, the U.S. Army wanted him to remain behind the lines because they needed a translator,” said Edward Chang, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside.

“He refused. He wanted to go to the frontline, and he did,” Chang said.

In Korea, Kim persuaded unit members to provide financial support to an orphanage in Seoul that housed hundreds of war orphans.

When he returned to Southern California, he helped found community organizations that aided Asian immigrants and civic foundations, including the Japanese American National Museum, the Korean American Museum and Go For Broke, a nonprofit that preserves the history of Asian-American soldiers who served in World War II.

“There aren’t many war heroes like him, regardless of race and ethnicity,” Chang said. “He’s a truly compassionate and humanitarian person who dedicated his entire life to helping the underprivileged.”

For years, activists have petitioned the U.S. government to give Kim a Medal of Honor, this nation’s highest military award. In the late 1990s, Congress directed the Army to review the cases of dozens of Asian-American World War II veterans to determine if racial prejudice during wartime had kept them from receiving the Medal of Honor.

As a result, 22 veterans belatedly received the award from President Clinton in June 2000. Activists believe the U.S. government did not give the medal to Kim because of a lack of documentation of his acts.

“It’s a shame,” said Chang, noting that Kim has received the highest military awards from France, Italy and South Korea but not from his own country.

“His award would mean a lot to the next generation of Korean-Americans,” Chang said. “His story should be taught and passed on down.”