PARTING SHOTS: A Native Angelino’s Gift: The Young Oak Kim Academy in Los Angeles

A native Angelino who came home a hero with crippling wounds from two wars to stir hopes among the struggling newcomers has returned “home” from the Big Sky, this time as a living legacy to the inner-city children of tomorrow.

Young Oak Kim photo courtesy of Go For Broke Educational Foundation

In September of 2008, the newly built middle school at Sixth Street and Shatto Place started the fall term under an iconic name in honor of the legendary Col. Young Oak Kim — a four-time wounded warrior in wars and a marathon community builder/healer for the underdogs in peacetime.

It’s official: The Young Oak Kim Academy.

The most decorated Korean American soldier, who grew up with Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Jewish kids in the gritty downtown neighborhood, died at age 86 in 2006.

Apparently, cosmic telepathy was at work between the Los Angeles Unified School District board and the pan-Asian American coalition’s petitioners, as Friends of Col. Young Oak Kim, led by community lawyers Alex Cha and William Min, sought the renaming of the old Central Los Angeles Middle School No. 3 last July.

The seven-member board’s historic decision was unanimous, drawing fervent applause from more than 100 supporters, including 10 surviving members of Kim’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated combat unit in World War II.

Thus, the American-born son of Korean patriots/exiles who labored as farm hands and domestic helpers have followed in the footsteps of Korean diaspora pioneers Dosan (pen name Island Mountain) Ahn Chang Ho and Charles Ho (Nobody) Kim, whose names in recent years have become the landmarks of key locations and institutions in the City of Angels.

Also on hand to thank the board and the 442nd comrades was Ralph Ahn, the lone surviving son of Dosan. “We had grown up with Young in the same small neighborhood on a hill top at First and Figueroa at a time when hardly anyone in the U.S. knew what a Korean or Korean American was,” Ahn said, tinged with visible emotion.

“Young was known for his modest and gentle manner yet was an outstanding warrior,” Ahn recalled, citing but a couple acts of daring valor as the lone Korean American in the all-Japanese American outfit:

“When he went behind enemy lines to capture German soldiers for intelligence, and when he crawled away from his squad to a distance so that he could draw fire from the enemy machine gun nest so that his squad could proceed without being fired upon.”

Dosan, since his 1902 arrival in America, has organized the migrant workers up and down the farming belt of California with branches of the grassroots Korean National Association (KNA) and spread its network into the remote Yucatan Territory in Mexico and Siberia. He also established the Hungsa Dan (Youth Korean Academy) toward developing an elite cadre of future leaders to fight for a free modern Korea.

Here in Los Angeles, a post office station, a freeway interchange, a hospital hall and a city square have been named in Dosan’s honor.

KNA leader Kim Ho of Reedley, Calif. — called the Peach King among the agribusiness industry — donated the bulk of his multi-million-dollar wealth to build a community center and a leadership training foundation in the emerging L.A. Koreatown.

Earlier last year, the LAUSD board voted to name in his honor the first neighborhood school designed and built for students of all colors in the heart of L.A. Koreatown — The Charles H. Kim Elementary School.

Dosan and Nobody, upon arrival for American education a century ago, gave up their dream to devote their lives as freedom fighters for their conquered homeland as well as community builders for their fellow migrant and domestic workers in the apartheid West.

Young Oak also gave up college. As he told me years ago, “What’s the use of going to college when most Asian college graduates ended up working in menial jobs?” Instead, he got “college education” through his 30-year military career, rising to the position of a 442nd executive officer, a faculty member at the Command and General Staff College and war plans chief for the U.S. Forces European Command and the first minority officer to command a combat battalion during the Korean War. In 1972, however, the pain of his battle wounds forced Kim to retire from active duty.

These three luminous figures in our Korean American century share one common trait: to them, education was a lifelong learning journey.

What mattered to them were deeds, not degrees nor titles, in stark contrast with today’s Korean and Korean American obsession with short cut to success through dogged pursuit of Ivy League degrees.

For three decades as a chronicler and editor I’ve shadowed the peripatetic wounded warrior on numerous occasions, but he has never turned down a request from young Koreans to share his life and experience at summer camps or retreats or classes or conferences, big or small.

My humbling memory of the colonel goes back to 1979, when the wizened warrior with a cane would often trudge to my cramped Koreatown Weekly newsroom housed in a rusty former hostel near the humming downtown L.A. expressway.

He’d just sit at the office corner like a hovering mother hen and watch over the willing slaves at work. Solicitously, he would inquire about any help he could offer for the lone “English voice” for the second-wave newcomers from Korea.

But never would he dwell on his war wounds that would dog him for the rest of his life or his past two marriages during his heroic military service covering two wars. Kim was wounded four times in Italy and Korea.

The worst, I learned much later, was the shrapnel that punctured his ankle and severed a major nerve, requiring more than 20 operations. Thanks to a miraculous medical experiment at UCLA, his 30-year torment seemed to fade in the late 1980s.

Yet this pain-racked old soldier has never complained of his enduring wartime affliction while he was instrumental to the establishment of almost every major nonprofit community service organization for the emerging Korean community in Southern California.

Such is the mark of nobility for this native Angelino who never forgot where he came from.

K. W. (short for Kyung Won) Lee worked 40 years as a reporter, an editor, and a publisher in both mainstream and ethnic journalism, and is best known for authoring an investigative series on the 1974 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder conviction of immigrant Chol Soo Lee. His five-year-long coverage with more than 120 articles led to a new trial and an eventual acquittal and release of the prisoner from San Quentin’s Death Row. In 1979, Lee founded the first national English-language Korean American newspaper, Koreatown Weekly. In 1990, at a time of rising African America-Korean tensions in Los Angeles and other inner cities, he launched and edited the Korea Times English Edition based in Los Angeles, along with an internship program for both Asian Americans and other minorities.

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