About » Young Oak Kim

Young Oak Kim



The Korean War is full of many combat heroes from many nationalities that fought to protect the freedom of the South Korean people from aggressive communist expansionism. However, there are few American veterans that fought in Korea that the people they fought to protect from aggressive communist expansionism was in fact their own people. In the aftermath of the North Korean attack on South Korea many Korean-Americans signed up to fight in the country that was their historical home land when the US government made the decision to intervene in the Korean War. The US government was eager to attain the services of these Korean-Americans due to the lack of interpreters and cultural expertise in the US military. Out of all these Korean-American service members one rises in prominence above all others, and that man is the incredible Young-Oak Kim.


Young-oak Kim was born in 1919 in Los Angeles California to two Korean immigrants. Kim grew up in a modest household with his three brothers and two sisters. During his childhood he was raised with a strong sense of Korean nationalism because his dad was a member of the Hawaii based Dahanin-dongjihwe or the Great Korean Association headed by South Korean exile Syngman Rhee. The association advocated for the independence of South Korea from the nation’s Japanese occupiers. Kim’s father’s beliefs instituted at a young age a strong sense of Korean unity with Young-oak Kim despite the fact he had never ever set foot in the country he identified with Korea.

Interestingly as a young man, Kim was also friends with another legend of the Korean-American community Dr. Sammy Lee. Lee would become the first Asian-American to win an Olympic Gold Medal when in the 1948 Olympic games he won the Gold Medal in platform diving. He would go on to defend his first place finish by once again winning another Gold Medal in platform diving in the 1952. This also made him the first person ever to win back to back Gold Medals in diving in the Olympic Games.

This is what Dr. Lee had to say about his friendship with Young Oak Kim:

“Colonel Kim and I have been friends for 80 years, maybe even longer,” said Lee, who grew up with Kim in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles. “I was too damn young to remember when we first met. I don’t think we were housebroken at the time. Our fathers were followers of Syngman Rhee, and they fought for the independence of Korea against the imperial government of Japan. While other kids were playing cops and robbers, Young Kim and I were Koreans chasing the Japanese.”

After high school Kim enrolled in college in Los Angeles and would eventually drop out in order to pursue work before World War II broke out. Kim immediately tried to enlist in the military was turned away due to his racial background. It wasn’t until a bill was drafted by Congress allowing Asian-Americans to serve was Kim allowed to enter the military.

Kim was initially enlisted as a engineer before being selected for Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS). Upon graduation from OCS in 1943, Kim was then assigned with the newly formed 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team that was composed of mostly Japanese-Americans from Hawaii. Kim despite his strong Korean nationalist background had no problems serving with Japanese-Americans in the 442nd RCT because he considered them and himself all Americans fighting for a common cause.

Kim would go on to fight with the 442nd RCT in North Africa and Italy where he participated in the Battle of Anzio and the liberation of Rome. His heroic combat actions during these battles earned Kim the moniker, “The Crazy Korean”. This Crazy Korean would then next move from Italy to fight the Germans in France where he was critically wounded by a gunshot wound and he was forced to return to Los Angeles to recover. Kim actions during his service in Europe led to him receiving much acclaim and numerous awards for valor as the 442nd RCT went on to become the mostly highly decorated combat unit in World War II.

This is how fellow 442nd RCT veteran and Medal of Honor winner, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye remembered Kim’s service during World War II:

Inouye recalled when he was going through basic training “there was one name that always commanded attention and respect: Capt. Kim’s. He was a bona fide hero of the 100th Infantry Battalion.”

Inouye said that he knew of Kim’s heroism and leadership abilities before he met him on the battlefields in Europe. “When I got to meet him after I entered combat, my respect and admiration of him grew because he was such a fearless leader who, through his deeds, inspired his men.”

Unfortunately after being wounded this would be the last of the heroism and leadership the men of the 442nd RCT would see from Captain Young-oak Kim. It took over six months for Kim to recover from his wound and by that time the war in Europe was over.


With the end of World War II, Kim left the service and decided to open his own private business. Kim opened a self service laundromat in Los Angeles which was a new concept at the time. Kim had some moderate success with his business and was actually making much more money with the business then when he was a Captain in the military. That was until 1950 when war broke out in Korea.

In response to the communist aggression in Korea, Kim decided to sell his laundromat and once again join the US military to fight in Korea. Here was his rationale for doing so:

“As a Korean, the most direct way to help my father’s country even a little, and as a U.S. citizen, the most direct way to repay even a little the debt owed to Korea by the U.S. was to go to Korea, pick up a gun and fight,” he explains today. But he also believed the U.S. owed Korea for excluding the South from its defense perimeter in East Asia with the so-called Acheson Line, and that this was the cause for North Korea’s invasion of the South.

Kim’s return to service had one problem, his Korean heritage could actually be an imperative to him being able to fight because military intelligence was looking for Korean-Americans that could speak Korean to translate for them. Young-oak Kim did not want to be interpreter; he wanted back in the infantry leading soldiers and thus pretended to not speak Korean. Then with the help of some of his former infantry connections from World War II Kim was able to secure a spot as an intelligence officer in the 31st Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division.

Korean War Service

Serving as an intelligence officer with the 31st Infantry Regiment Kim was used to do more then just intelligence work. Due to his prior combat experience Kim was also used as an operation officer and personally led many combat missions that rescued trapped allied troops. A few months later Kim was used to command a group of South Korean guerrillas. Kim was awarded both a Silver and Bronze Stars for his actions leading this guerrilla group. However, it was during this time leading this guerrilla unit that Kim suffered his most serious injuries from the war. Due to their position well north of allied lines, Kim’s group was mistaken for enemy soldiers and artillery was called on their position.

During the Korean War, Kim led the first American unit to cross the 38th Parallel. “We were close to five miles in front of the units on our right and our left when I got wounded. But it wasn’t the enemy artillery. It was our own artillery. They had a big investigation, but I don’t want to get involved in that.

“They shouldn’t have fired but they did, and they hit me along with several other people. They thought they were shooting at the enemy because we were so far ahead of the unit on our right and the left. They couldn’t believe that an American unit could be that far ahead. It had to be a Chinese [unit], they thought.

“They were several thousand feet above us in a light airplane and all they saw was a battalion. We had just taken a hill, which is five miles ahead of the unit on our right and on our left. We were actually four miles further forward than anybody had any idea we were. So all the airplane would see was like little ants running around.”

He suffered serious injuries and was flown to Tokyo to receive emergency medical treatment. After two months of recovery Kim was ready for combat action again.

During this time Kim was promoted to Major and after his recovered he was appointed as the first Asian-American to command a combat battalion in the US military. Kim commanded the 1-31 Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division for the remainder of his time in Korea. Kim would finish his service in Korea in September of 1952 but this would not be the last time he would see Korea. Kim returned in the 1960’s as a US military advisor and was able to see first hand the incredible economic development that occurred in the country at this time.


Kim retired from the military in 1972. During his long career he had earned 19 medals. Most notably he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and the French Croix de Guerre, among other medals, for his service in WWII. On February 4, 2005, Col. Kim was presented with the National Order of the Legion of Honor award from the government of France. This award is the highest bestowed to its citizens and foreign nationals.

During his retirement became very active in Asian American community affairs. He helped found the Go For Broke Educational Foundation, 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. Some people may be surprised by this considering Kim’s Korean background, but he also helped found the Japanese American National Museum. Despite Kim’s close ties to the Japanese-American community he was also a strong advocate of Congressman Mike Honda’s non-binding Congressional Resolution demanding an apology and compensation from the current Japanese government over the comfort women issue.

Young-oak Kim passed away December 28, 2005 at the age of 86 in California, leaving behind a military career and community activism record that few Asian-Americans have been able to match. Young-oak Kim is more then just a hero of both World War II and the Korean War, but he is also a hero to thousands of Asian-Americans impacted by his community activism work in California.

Since COL Kim’s death there has been petitions to have his Distinguished Service Cross from World War II upgraded to the Medal Honor like other veterans of the 442nd have since had happen. Leading the effort has been fellow 442nd Veteran and Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye:

The surviving recipients, including Sen. Inouye, and community activists have since petitioned Congress in a campaign effort to award Kim the Medal of Honor.

“Captain Kim is a great American — still is,” Inouye said. “I was hoping that when the government of the United States decided to upgrade certain Distinguished Service Crosses to Medals of Honor, he would be on the top of the list. Somehow, something happened and he was not selected.”

COL Kim may not have been awarded the Medal of Honor but his incredible life story has been made into one independent film, Forgotten Valor which was shown primarily in the Asian-American community, but really like other Korean War heroes I have pointed out, his story should be the subject of a larger film. Kim’s life story isn’t just one that Asian-Americans should be proud of, but one that all Americans should be proud of and that is why he is a hero of the Korean War.

By GI Korea on November 11th, 2008 at 9:04 am
Heroes of the Korean War: COL Young-oak Kim
by GI Korea in: Korean War