Through the eyes of a 唐人埠 native
This is the story of John Nordeen, a veteran of the Vietnam War, and his steadfast search for his wartime friend and medic, Kay Lee, that has lasted for the past 15 years. Mr. Lee is originally a native of Hong Kong but lived in San Francisco Chinatown before the draft.
“Hi, may I speak with K. Lee?”
I paused for moment, trying to decide whether I was going to a) play along to waste his time (and inevitably my own), or b) ask yet again to be placed on the ‘Do Not Call’ list, or c) use this as an opportunity to vent my current frustrations. Those are, after all, our three options when confronted with a telemarketer, are they not? But I wasn’t really much angry about anything that morning, and the voice on the other line sounded different, almost sincere. “Why are you calling?” I asked, with little effort to conceal my annoyance. The unexpected conversation that ensued, along with several more conversations and my own fact-checking, left me not only with a heavy heart but a sense of duty to help.
In 1967, Kai and John became unlikely friends. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which reversed decades of restrictive immigration policies against Asians, had just passed two years prior, and anti-Chinese sentiment was still relatively rampant in the States. But during this revolutionary time when Asian-American students were finally finding their collective identity and conducting sit-ins and protests on Bay Area campuses, a young man named Kay Lee, only twenty-something at the time, was quietly packing his bags in San Francisco Chinatown and bidding farewell to his family. He was on his way to Vietnam to serve as a combat medic. In the less-than-favorable conditions of the Kon Tum Province, Vietnam, he found a friend in then-20-year-old John Nordeen.
Kai and John were assigned to the 1st platoon of C Company 3rd Battalion of the 12th Infantry, which was a part of the 4th Infantry Division. Their initial time may have been as smooth as could be expected, but the events that took place that fall soon became a fixed part of their memories. On November 3, 1967, the Battle of Đắk Tô began. 3,500 troops from the 4th Infantry Division were sent to reinforce the 1,000 U.S. troops at the North/South border. Kay and John, still young men at the time, were thrown into a three-week, violent battle against the 6,000 People’s Army of Vietnam (“PAVN” – North Vietnamese) soldiers. The border fights, as the Đắk Tô battles were called, took place in a jungle, in an almost rainforest-like setting, where helicopters could not even land. In the darkness of each night, lives from both sides were taken by ambushes, snipers attacking and then disappearing into the trees, and even friendly fire. Following 19 days and nights of bloody, sustained combat (what Mr. Nordeen deems as the “fiercest fighting of the war”), the U.S. lost an estimate of 285 troops. Another 18 soldiers were missing, and 985 were wounded. On the North Vietnam front, 1,455 lives were lost. After forcing the PAVN to retreat at Hill 875 and with a lesser fatality count, this was counted as a victory.
Though the conclusion of the Battle of Đắk Tô gave our country an illusory glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel, things took a much bleaker turn at the start of 1968. The Tet Offensive, which left the U.S. with the highest casualty count, was about to begin. Taking advantage of South Vietnam’s declaration of truce during the country’s New Year’s Celebrations, North Vietnam, armed with 85,000 of their own troops as well as from their Southern allies, the Viet Cong, launched over 100 surprise attacks on South Vietnamese cities and villages and U.S. military bases. Not having fully recovered from the border battles, John and Kay found themselves in another intensive month-long battle. The death toll was sobering: 3,895 U.S. troops, 4,954 South Vietnamese troops, over 32,000 enemy soldiers and thousands of civilians. Approximately 12,000 U.S. troops were left wounded, some permanently. Our country today still feels the impact of what took place here during this short period of time.
One can only imagine the trust, bond and mutual care developed under these harsh wartime conditions, as the soldiers fought together in the trenches, had each other’s backs, and remained wholly reliant upon one another. John describes Kay as “compassionate and brave.” “He treated me after the battles and for jungle rot,” John recalls. “We banded together as brothers. In this hostile jungle environment, we only had the help of each other to stay alive. We became one family.” John witnessed Kay “saving many wounded men and tending to the needs of his platoons in the hostile environment.”
“We banded together as brothers. In this hostile jungle environment, we only had the help of each other to stay alive. We became one family.”
In between battles, Kay and John swapped stories about their backgrounds. Kay said some of his family was still in Hong Kong, but he had been living in San Francisco Chinatown. Both young men believed they were going to make it out. “I’m going to be a pharmacist when I get home,” Kay declared. “Watch – My replacement is coming from the North,” he joked, as China lies on the northern border of North Vietnam.
According to John Nordeen, Mr. Kay Lee should be approximately 70 years old now. Mr. Nordeen has been searching for him since their battalion started having reunions in or about 2000. Armed with only a name (and we aren’t sure if the spelling is accurate) and approximate location, he has been reaching out to all the K. Lee’s in San Francisco that he could find, cold-calling and having conversations that took him nowhere. I was probably his thousandth call. Moved by his efforts, I promised to help. “If you can locate him,” he said in a voice slightly more frail than I imagine was in 1967, “my wife will be eternally grateful for an end to this madness.” But what she perceives as madness (and understandably so), I viewed as a demonstration of humanity and friendship. After so many decades, Mr. Nordeen never forgot his friend.
It is also interesting for me to hear about Asian Americans in the military. Despite a recent sino-phobic atmosphere in San Francisco in part due to stories of corruption on the part of Senator Yee and other prominent members of the Chinatown community, this story hopefully can remind our society of the positive roles that Chinese-Americans played and continue to play in this country. Contrary to the oft-unspoken, underlying belief that Chinese-Americans are perpetual foreigners, we have, in fact, risked our lives to serve and protect this country as early as the War of 1812, the Civil War and World War I. I only hope that Mr. Lee has received the honor and respect that he deserves upon his return to San Francisco Chinatown after the war.
Having heard firsthand about Mr. Nordeen’s and Mr. Lee’s experiences in the Battle of Đắk Tô and the Tet Offensive, I am both humbled by their bravery and service to our country and saddened by what these two young men endured and had to take home. I’ll end this with a short quote from my grandfather, Sek Wah Lee, a military strategist in the Phillippines who aided American soldiers in World War II:
“Human history is filled with war and peace cycles. To preserve peace, whether to avert war or to rehabilitate after war, a solution that contemplates the improvement of living conditions for both hostile sides is essential. A solution without this consideration is of no help to stop war and will breed another war. Social progression rests on the peaceful settlement of crisis.”
Perhaps this is a philosophy we can apply to our current dealings with other countries as well as to daily conflicts we may face at home. As exemplified in the story of John and Kay, perhaps humanity, mutual care and friendship is the answer to a peaceful future.
If you are in contact with Mr. Kay Lee, are a relative, or otherwise know of his whereabouts, please feel free to contact us at (415) 371-9786. We will gladly put him in touch with Mr. Nordeen. For everyone else, please help us get the word out by using the share buttons below. Other descriptors: Approximate height: 5’4″. Weight (in the photo): 130 lbs. Native of: Hong Kong, and then San Francisco Chinatown. Sense of humor: dry.
[8/21/15 UPDATE: Mr. Lee and his family have been in touch with us, and we are in the process of reuniting the two friends. Mr. Lee is 70 years old, healthy and has continued to live an inspirational life right here in the Bay Area. His name is spelled “Kay” so we have gone ahead and made the edits. In less than a week’s time, we have managed to reunite two long-lost friends. All of the credit goes to the many who shared this but in particular: the amazing Redditors, especially the Military Subreddit, who passed this article to thousands of readers just overnight, the APA Veterans Facebook Group, the We Grew Up In SF Chinatown Facebook Group, all the followers of Lowdown on Chinatown and my own friends and family.]
[9/27/15 Reunion Update: See here!]