BY DUANE VACHON – Colonel Young-Oak Kim was a highly decorated U.S. Army combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He was a member of the U.S. 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a combat leader victorious in many critical battles in Italy and France during World War II.
He was the first ethnic minority to command an Army combat battalion in U.S. history while in Korea.
He was awarded 19 medals, including the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Medal of Military Valor, a Légion d’honneur, a Croix de guerre, and Korean Taeguk Cordon of the Order of Military Merit (posthumously
Kim was born in Los Angeles in 1919. His parents were Soon Kwon Kim and Nora Koh. He had three brothers, two sisters, and one adopted brother, Andy Kil. His father was a member of Daehanin-dongjihwe , which literally translates to “The Great Korean Association,” the group established in Hawaii to help liberate Korea from Japan by Syngman Rhee. This background helped Kim build a strong cultural identity. He grew up in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, California, where his father operated a grocery store at Temple and Figueroa Streets.
Kim graduated from Belmont High School and proceeded to Los Angeles City College. He dropped out after a year, thinking advanced education would not do any good. He tried various jobs, but racial discrimination prevented his staying long at any job.
The U.S. Army refused his enlistment for the same reason. But after the U.S. Congress enacted a law subjecting Asian Americans to conscription, Kim was drafted into the US Army. He entered service on January 31, 1941. This was just three months before his father died.
World War II
After spending half a year in the Army as an engineer, Kim was selected to the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Upon graduation in January 1943, he was assigned to the 100th Infantry Battalion, a unit of Japanese Americans from Hawaii. The battalion commander offered him a transfer, fearing ethnic conflict. (Korea was still under Japanese control.) But he insisted on staying, saying “There is no Japanese nor Korean here. We’re all Americans and we’re fighting for the same cause.”
100th Battalion was sent to North Africa to assist in the war in Europe, but initially the U.S. Army had no plan for its deployment. By its own request, it was sent to the front and joined the war in Italy. There, Kim’s map-reading skills and determination led to success in many battles and some “impossible missions”. His skills started to gain recognition.
An anecdote from the Battle of Anzio is well-known. The Allies needed to determine the locations of German tank units, and Kim volunteered to capture German soldiers to gain intelligence. On 16 May 1944, with Private First Class Irving Akahoshi, he crawled into German territory near Cisterna, Italy.
They captured two German soldiers in the daytime, while the enemy rested for the evening watch. The information they gathered from the prisoners helped determine that there was not a tank unit in the path they were considering to break through. The Allies broke the Gustav Line and liberated Rome.
He also led elements of the 100th Battalion in battles at Belvedere and Pisa, which helped break the Gothic Line. The Allies were able to occupy Pisa without casualties.
In France, Kim was the battalion’s operations officer. He fought in battles that liberated the towns of Bruyères and Biffontaine. He sustained severe wounds from enemy fire in Biffontaine, and later spent a six month leave in Los Angeles in late 1944. Germany surrendered shortly before he was to return to the European Theater of Operations.
Kim left the Army after World War II. However, there were not many opportunities for a young Korean man. He started a “launderette” (a semi self-service laundry), which was quite rare at the time. The business was very successful, but in two years, war broke out in Korea. Kim abandoned the business and re-enlisted.
The Army let all Korean-heritage soldiers, and anyone who could speak at least a word in Korean, work in the Army Security Agency. Kim was no exception, but he wanted to fight. At his request, he was sent to East Asia, and by pretending not to know any Korean and with the help of people he had known from World War II, he was able to join the infantry. This was the first time he had ever been to Korea.
He was assigned to the 31st Infantry of the 7th Infantry Division in April, 1951 as the Chief Intelligence Officer, under William J. McCaffrey, who scouted him. Kim worked not only as an intelligence officer, but also virtually as an operations officer, by the request of McCaffrey. Kim rescued many U.S. and Korean Army troops in several battles.
The battalion was previously known to be incompetent, but after Kim’s arrival won nearly every battle it participated in, including the battles of Kuman-mountain, Tabgol, Keumbyung-mountain, and Suahn-mountain. The 31st Infantry played a major role in stopping Chinese troops, and pushing them back above the 38th parallel. Kim’s unit was the very first to cross that line.
The 7th Infantry Division redrew the situation map every day, but recorded the locations regiments or larger military units. However, the map from May 31, 1951 included the location of Kim’s battalion. Kim played a major role in shaping the current border between the Koreas.
During Operation Pile driver in August, after a battle in which his unit proceeded to the north of Kimhwa, his unit was mistakenly bombarded by the 555th Field Artillery Battalion because it seemed too far north to be friendly.
Kim was seriously injured in the friendly fire incident. He was lucky enough to be saved by doctors from Johns Hopkins University who were in Tokyo. He made it back to Korea after two months.
Upon his return, McCaffrey put him in command of the regiment’s 1st Battalion, making him the first ethnic minority to command an Army combat battalion. After fighting for nearly a year, Kim left Korea in September 1952. Major Kim also organized his unit’s sponsorship of an orphanage in Seoul.
After serving in the Army for 30 years, he retired in 1972. He then actively participated in Asian American community affairs. He helped found the Go For Broke Monument, Go For Broke Educational Foundation, the Japanese American National Museum, the Korean Health, Education, Information and Research Center, the Korean American Coalition, the Korean American Museum, the Korean Youth and Cultural Center, and the Center for Pacific Asian Families.
Kim died from cancer on December 29, 2005, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was survived by three stepsons, as well as one sister and two brothers.
Colonel Kim now lies at rest in Court 9 niche 458 at the National Memorial Cemetery Of The Pacific.
Duane A Vachon PhD works at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. He is the author of “Gems From The Antipodes: 12 Collections of Faith-Focusing Insights” He also writes a weekly column “in The Big Island Reporter” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org