First Lt. Young Oak Kim was given the Silver Star for action in Italy in April 1944. (University of Southern California Libraries)

WASHINGTON — Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) on May 17 held a press conference calling on President Obama to nominate the late Col. Young Oak Kim for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Earlier this year, CAPAC sent a letter to the White House supporting the nomination. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), chair of CAPAC, released the following statement:

Young Oak Kim receiving the French Legion of Honor in Little Tokyo in 2005. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“As chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, I am working closely with the Korean American community to support the nomination of Col. Young Oak Kim for the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Col. Kim bravely served our country during World War II and the Korean War, becoming the first minority officer in U.S. history to command an Army battalion on the battlefield.

“After retiring from military service, he returned to Southern California and worked to empower Asian American communities both in Los Angeles and across the country. Throughout his lifetime of service, he truly embodied what it means to advance the common good.

“I urge President Obama to honor Young Oak Kim’s distinguished service to our nation by posthumously awarding him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

According to Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), “Col. Young Oak Kim devoted his life to service, from leading Hawaii’s own 100th Battalion during World War II to dedicating his career to giving back to others in the military and civilian arenas. Our American heroes come from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and that’s why I’m proud to support the effort to award Col. Kim the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

From left: Reps. Maxine Waters, Judy Chu, Mark Takano and Charles Rangel spoke at a press conference calling on President Obama to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Col. Young Oak Kim.

A total of 26 members of the House and Senate from both parties submitted letters of support, including Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Al Green (D-Texas), Mike Honda (D-San Jose), Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), Ted Lieu (D-Manhattan Beach), Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), Edward Royce (R-Brea), Linda Sánchez (D-Norwalk), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Mark Takai (D-Hawaii), Mark Takano (D-Riverside), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), and Rob Woodall (R-Ga.).

Other supporters include senior diplomatic and military officials as well as major civic organizations.

The Council of Korean Americans (CKA) is leading the efforts, which include diverse civic, political, and military leaders from across the U.S. and South Korea, for the posthumous recognition of Kim for the nation’s highest civilian award.

Col. Young Oak Kim in 1961 (GFBNEC)

“Young Oak Kim is a true American hero in every sense of the word,” said Sam Yoon, executive director of CKA. “His valor in the face of overwhelming odds in some of the most dangerous battlefields of World War II and the Korean War are impressive, but what he did after leaving the Army is even more extraordinary.

“Taking the lessons, skills, and experiences he had as a military leader, Young Oak Kim dedicated the rest of his life after military service to pioneer major Asian American institutions in California. Kim’s legacy represents the building blocks for generations of Asian American leaders who have come after him.”

Born in 1919 in Los Angeles, Kim was a decorated U.S. Army officer whose career included serving with Japanese Americans in the famed 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II and becoming the first minority in U.S. Army history to command a battalion on the battlefield during the Korean War.

According to the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center, when 2nd Lt. Kim reported for duty at Camp Shelby in Mississippi in February 1943, the commander of the 100th Battalion (Separate), Lt. Col. Farrant Turner, offered him an immediate transfer because “Koreans and Japanese don’t always get along.”

Kim refused, saying, “You’re wrong. They’re Americans, I’m American, and we’re going to fight for America.”

Having grown up among Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, and Jewish immigrants, Kim knew his opportunities for advancement would be limited in a “white man’s Army.” “If I wasn’t with the 100th,” Kim recalled many years later, “I would be a PR [Public Relations] officer or have some insignificant duty someplace else, because nobody was going to let me, as an Asian, command regular troops.”

He retired in 1972 and committed the remainder of his life to humanitarianism and public service, including launching numerous civic organizations serving and representing the interests of Southern California’s marginalized communities. His leadership was instrumental to organizations such as the Center for Pacific Asian Families; Korean Health, Education, Information, and Research Center; the Go For Broke National Education Foundation; and the Japanese American National Museum.

Kim passed away from cancer in 2005 at the age of 86. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a decorated veteran of the 100th/442nd, said at the time that 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.”

Kim has been honored with the naming of Young Oak Kim Academy, a middle school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at UC Riverside.

If selected for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kim would be the first Korean American to be recognized since the award was established in 1960. Past recipients include Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, and Gen. Colin Powell. Asian American recipients are Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, who challenged the unconstitutional treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II; Norman Mineta, former U.S. secretary of transportation; and Sen. Inouye.

Over the next three years, CKA will launch a national campaign to commemorate Kim’s legacy and inspire the next generation of Korean Americans to make positive contributions toward American society. CKA’s efforts will culminate in 2019 with a national event to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim’s birth.

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