Sunny Lee, who ensured Utah remembered the Korean War, dies at 67

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sunny Lee at her home in Springdale, Friday May 8, 2015.

Sunny Lee, who from her home in Springdale worked with the South Korean government to celebrate American soldiers who fought in what’s been called The Forgotten War, died Friday at Dixie Regional Medical Center. She was 67.

Her husband, John Lee, said his wife had a meeting in her home Aug. 4 with a representative of the South Korean government to talk about some of her many projects related to Korean War veterans. Later that night, John Lee said, Sunny Lee collapsed in their kitchen.

Doctors determined she suffered a brain hemorrhage. She was removed from life support on Friday.

In the 21 years Lee lived in Utah, the state’s Korean War veterans received more recognition than they had in any of the other decades since the battles ended in 1953. Working through the South Korean Consulate in San Francisco, which would become Lee’s primary contact with her birth country’s leaders, Lee persuaded the South Korean government to contribute $40,000 to a Korean War memorial in Cedar City at a time when organizers were having trouble fundraising. The memorial was dedicated in 2008.

The next year, Lee organized a delegation of 150 Cedar City residents, including veterans, who visited Gapyeong, South Korea, to see the battlefield where the 213th Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the Utah National Guard fought. Later in 2009, the Cedar City and Gapyeong signed pacts becoming sister cities.

The travel to South Korea continued. She persuaded that country’s government to finance trips for American veterans, their spouses, children and grandchildren to visit the country and see what it has become in the decades since the war.

“Without America,” Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2015, “Korea wouldn’t be what country it is.”

Later in 2015, “CBS Sunday Morning” followed Lee to South Korea on a trip for children of American soldiers declared missing in action during the war and whose remains had not yet been recovered. The children — now senior citizens — saw battlefields and memorials and were celebrated with traditional dances, music and meals.

Jorja Reyburn, of Boise, Idaho, and her brother were on the trip. Their father, Army 1st Lt. James Elliott, went missing in Korea in 1950 and has never been found. Reyburn said the 2015 visit and another one she took to South Korea a few years later would not have been possible without Lee’s work.

“It’s probably the most closure that we’ll ever have,” Reyburn said in a phone interview Thursday. “And to be able to stand along the banks of the river where our dad was last seen was extremely emotional for us.”

Lee had an older sister born the same year as Reyburn. Lee’s sister died during the war, Reyburn said, when she contracted the flu and no medicine was available.

Reyburn said she and and Lee struck up a relationship, kept in touch called each other sisters.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Louise Allen of Salt Lake City weeps for her husband Donald Allen, a WWII, Korean and Vietnam veteran who served for 27 years in the armed forces, after accepting the medal meant for her husband. Allen passed away in September 2013. One hundred eighty-one Korean War veterans were presented with a medal from the government of The Republic of Korea and recognized for their service, Sept. 10, 2014 in the Utah Capitol rotunda.

Commemorations continued in Utah, too. Lee was among the Korean immigrants in the state who worked with their old government to present veterans with what’s called the Ambassador For Peace Medal.

The medals have been presented to veterans — often posthumously — at the Utah Capitol, nursing homes and on the state’s Native American reservations in ceremonies that have included South Korean diplomats in their country’s traditional dress. John Cole, a Roy resident who served with First Marine Division during the war and received an Ambassador For Peace Medal in a 2014 ceremony, said for many Korean War veterans, the medals were the first recognition of their service.

Cole on Thursday said the help of Lee and other Korean immigrants in Utah “has been incalculable because they looked at it as a way to say thank you to the Korean War veterans in this state for helping save their country.”

“It’s like if you are in a burning car,” Lee explained to CBS, “Somebody came to save your life, so to feel that they are your hero to pay back for the rest of your life. I feel like that.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sunny Lee works with the South Korean government to bring the families of MIA Korean War veterans to South Korea where they are honored for their family member's service. Lee was photographed at her Springdale home on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

Lee was born Jan. 2, 1953, in Seoul as the second of three children to Sung Chun and Young Hyun Lee. Her birth was about six months before a July 1953 armistice ended the Korean War. One of her early memories was drinking powdered milk that came from the United States.

She married John Lee on Aug. 18, 1976. His sister had married a U.S. soldier. The same year Sunny and John Lee married, they followed John’s sister and immigrated to the United States.

John Lee started a Santa Ana, Calif., company that automated industrial sewing machines. Sunny Lee kept the finances while the couple also reared a son, William Lee, who now lives in Los Angeles, and a daughter, Sarah Lee, who resides in Germany.

Besides her husband and children, Sunny Lee’s survivors include her mother, who now lives in Orange County, Calif.

Sunny and John Lee were able to retire early. They moved to Springdale — a town they discovered during a road trip — in 1999. They built a home with views of the redrock walls of Zion Canyon, the entry to Zion National Park.

Sunny Lee began looking for volunteer opportunities. She donated some of her time to work helping staff and visitors in the national park. Then she heard about Cedar City’s efforts to erect the Korean War memorial.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sunny Lee works with the South Korean government to bring the families of MIA Korean War veterans to South Korea where they are honored for their family member's service. Lee was photographed at her Springdale home on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

In 2017, Lee was suffering from pain in her stomach that was eventually diagnosed as cancer there. Even while undergoing treatment, she pursued an ambitious project.

She set out to track down the families of the approximately 8,150 U.S. service personnel declared missing in action in Korea to offer them a chance to visit that country or find another way to recognize their service member. She started with the families of 40 personnel who were from Utah.

She did what research she could from home and received some help from the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. When she could find families, the conversations didn’t always go as she hoped.

“They thought I was a tour guide trying to make money out of this,” Lee told The Tribune earlier this year.

It’s not clear how many families Lee found. Sarah Lee on Thursday said she doesn’t know who will take over her mother’s work.

“She never looked at this as her project,” Sarah Lee said. “She always looked at herself as the master supporter but never the one reason why this was happening.”

That humility remained after death. Sarah Lee said, in accordance with her mother’s wishes, Sunny Lee was cremated Tuesday; there are no plans for a memorial service.

Lee kept a binder for every family she assisted, complete with photos of the service member, his military record, photos of their spouses, children and grandchildren.

“They never had a closure,” Lee said, “and they are the true forgotten Korean War families.”