One hundred years after a worldwide movement began to free Korea from Japanese rule, a patriot who supported the cause from American soil in the early 20th century was returned to his beloved homeland.
Two officials of the Korean government on Friday oversaw the exhumation and cremation of Jai Soo Lee, of Maxwell, and his wife, Jai Sun, so that their ashes could be returned to South Korea to be buried with honors in the Daejeon National Cemetery, near Seoul.
The Korean Prime Minister, Korean dignitaries, and several members of Lee’s family, including grandsons Rick Louie and (Kenneth) David Kim, along with two great-granddaughters attended the ceremony.
“This is very important to the President (Moon Jai-in) that these men be returned and honored,” said Korean Official Kunah Chon, who oversaw Lee’s exhumation. “There were 10 men in all. Mr. Lee is the last to be recovered.”
At the age of 26, Lee immigrated to Hawaii in 1902, before Japan colonized Korea in 1910. He dedicated himself to building a good life, and worked on a sugar plantation before coming to the mainland of America to help lay railroad tracks through Wyoming and Utah.
Lee was a well-respected rice farmer in Maxwell, and he and his wife Jai Sun raised their five children David, Harry, Mabel, Helen, and Mary to love their community and country. He also developed the innovative method of gauging the correct water level for growing rice in the Northern California climate.
Lee and other Korean patriots with financial means, mostly in California and Hawaii, helped support the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, which was established on April 13, 1919, in Shanghai, China, after the domestic resistance to Japan’s occupation was crushed.
“He not only provided financial support but he encouraged other Koreans living in America and around the world to support Korea’s independence movement,” Chon said.
In 1920, Lee helped develop and served as treasurer of the Korean Aviation School, in Willows, which was established to train fighter pilots for the Korean Provisional Government. Although the school was in operation just over one year, it produced a number of combat pilots for Korea and is recognized as the predecessor of the Republic of Korea Air Force.
Lee and other Korean patriots helped finance the armed resistance against the Japanese Imperial Army during the 1920s and 1930s, including the Battle of Chingshanli, in October 1920, and the assault on Japanese military leadership in Shanghai’s Hongkou Park, in April 1932.
“My Korean college friends tell me that my grandfather was like the Jedi-resistance in Star Wars… secretly hiding in America while taking steps to take back their land from the Japanese,” Louie said.
Lee also helped many Koreans who went to him for advice, and aided Philip Ahn, the first Korean actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, by securing money against his crops, and whose father, Dosan Ahn Chang-ho, was an educator and also an activist for Korean independence during the colonial period.
“Philip Ahn is best known for playing a wise monk in the Kung Fu TV series with David Carradine,” Louie said.
Lee’s daughter, Mary Louie, of Maxwell, said little is known about her father’s early life in Korea, or his support for the Korean Independence Movement.
“We really didn’t know anything about it because he didn’t talk about it,” Louie said. “It was always something of a mystery.”
Louie said her family was divided over whether to allow the remains of her father and mother to be relocated to South Korea, but they ultimately agreed that it not only honored her father’s legacy, but that it was something he would want.
Just before his death in 1956, Lee presented to his children a manifesto he had written on Dec. 30, 1949.
After 36 years of oppressive occupation, Korea had finally been liberated from Japan following the empire’s surrender to Allied Forces at the end of World War II.
In his writings, Lee encouraged his family to be loyal to America and to love democracy as the only means to liberty, life, and happiness.
However, he also spoke of Korea undergoing political and economic reconstruction and said if his age and energy had permitted, he would liked to have returned to Korea to contribute all that he had discovered in his life.
He asked that they, too, contribute in some way to the reconstruction of his homeland.
“It is my plea to you,” Lee wrote. “For the better world project, as a citizen of this country, that you will someday volunteer to go over to my motherland and help build the new, true democratic nation of Korea. To be a new form of missionary – science, engineering, and humanity – will be highly honored by all Koreans as well as by any true American.”
And 117 years after leaving Korea, Lee has returned home, and his family have honored his plea by allowing his remains, along with their beloved mother and grandmother, to be laid permanently to rest in a cemetery typically reserved for Korean veterans, including those who died in the Korean independence movement.
The facilities at the Daejeon National Cemetery include the Patriotic Spirit Exhibition Center, which carries out various educational programs designed to encourage patriot spirit in the Korean people and commemorate the loyalty and great accomplishments of Korea’s patriotic heroes.
A presentation about the Korean festivities honoring Lee will be held in May at the Baptist Church in Maxwell. ■