Retired Army Col. Young O. Kim, one of the most celebrated heroes of World War II and the Korean War, who later became Los Angeles’ elder statesman and link among Korean, Japanese and other Asian American communities, has died. He was 86.
Kim died Thursday of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Kim was a major co-founder of Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum, Korean American Museum, Korean Health Education Information and Research Center, Korean American Coalition, Korean Youth and Culture Center, and Center for the Pacific Asian Family.
He also led efforts to build the Go for Broke monument in Little Tokyo, completed in 1999, which honors the primarily Japanese American members of World War II’s combined 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The monument and a related Educational Foundation that Kim chaired were named for the book “Go for Broke,” which chronicled the combined units’ exploits in Italy and France.
“He’s a bridge-builder. He’s part of an elite group that has a scope beyond his or her own ethnic community,” Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, told The Times in 1987, when Kim was honored by the Japanese American National Museum board.
“Especially for someone of his generation, that’s fairly unique,” Kwoh said. “His efforts have served ethnic communities beyond the Korean and Japanese American communities. He’s vitally concerned about other Asian groups as well.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1919 to immigrant Koreans, Kim grew up on Bunker Hill, where his parents ran a grocery store at Temple and Figueroa streets. He worked in the store as a boy in the 1920s and ‘30s, an era when Asian groups were not on good terms with one another, particularly Koreans and Japanese because of Japan’s occupation of Korea.
Yet Kim, who saw himself foremost as an American, overcame those ethnic prejudices.
“I welcome the new immigrants of all countries,” Kim told The Times in 1987. “By having that attitude, I think I’m faithful and true to the American dream.... I’m proud of my ethnic roots. I’ve always been proud of my ethnic roots.
“But at the same time, I feel I’m basically American. I fought for America.... I also fought for the Korean people.”
When World War II broke out, Kim was drafted and assigned to the Army’s 100th Infantry Battalion -- one of only two Koreans in the outfit.
He said the assignment occurred because his superiors at officer candidate school in Ft. Benning, Ga., “didn’t know the difference between Korean, Japanese and Chinese.”
When he reported to duty at Camp Shelby in Mississippi as a newly minted second lieutenant, his battalion commander offered him a transfer, saying: “The men here are all Japanese, and Koreans and Japanese don’t get along.”
“But we’re not Japanese and Korean,” Kim replied. “We’re all Americans. And we’re all fighting for the same thing.”
At Camp Shelby, he talked with Japanese American officers from Hawaii about changing many Americans’ negative view of Asians.
“We realized we had to do well in combat. Only by doing well in combat would we be in a position to try to effect some of these changes,” Kim told The Times in 1987.
The units did better than well.
“In hindsight, we were wildly successful,” Kim told The Times. “I’m talking about as a combat unit, and in effecting the changes that we wanted to nationally.”
Kim became the only Korean American to earn the Distinguished Service Cross during World War II.
On June 26, 1944, in Italy, Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark awarded Kim the prestigious medal because of his efforts in obtaining intelligence that helped the Allies break through at Anzio Beach and eventually capture Rome.
As United Press reported when Clark pinned the medal on him, Kim “went behind German lines at Cisterna ... captured two Germans and brought them back past several enemy outposts to obtain information needed by the Allied command.”
He was accompanied on the daring daylight mission by Japanese American soldier Irving Akahoshi.
Some of Kim’s wartime exploits were illustrated in the 1997 documentary about the 100th/442nd and interned Japanese Americans, “Beyond Barbed Wire,” in which he is “the Korean lieutenant.”
Wounded several times, Kim earned so many medals in his two wars that he lost count.
The 20 or so decorations he stored in a box in his garage included two Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts, a French Croix de la Guerre and an Italian Cross of Valor.
Last February, France presented Kim with its highest award, Officer of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, for his efforts to liberate French towns toward the end of World War II.
When Kim returned to Los Angeles on April 9, 1945, The Times headlined the story “Korean Hero of Italy Home.”
During the Korean War, Kim became the first Asian American to command a regular U.S. combat battalion, and led his unit in pushing enemy forces back from the 38th parallel. Their efforts helped create a strategic buffer between North and South Korea.
In October, South Korea authorized awarding Kim its highest military honor, the Taeguk Order of Military Merit.
After Korea, Kim spent another 20 years in the Army, posted in the United States, Europe and South Korea, until 1972, when he retired to Los Angeles. He earned a degree in history from Cal State Dominguez Hills and worked for a time as chief executive of Fine Particle Technology in San Diego.
Married and divorced twice, Kim is survived by three stepsons, Jerry and Tom Surh and Corey Covert; a sister, Willa; and two brothers, Jack and Henry.
Funeral services are scheduled Monday at Santa Monica United Methodist Church, 1008 11th St. Kim will be buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Instead of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Go for Broke Educational Foundation or the Center for Pacific Asian Families.