BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. Francis Brown Wai was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1917. His father was Chinese, his mother was Hawaiian. Like many young people of his generation who grew up in Hawaii, Wai was a keen surfer and often shared waves with Duke Kahanamoku, one of Hawaii’s great surf legends. Another one of his surfing friends was Buster Crabbe who became a famous actor.
Wai graduated from Punahou School in Honolulu where he earned athletic letters in track, football and baseball. He went to college at the Sacramento Junior College. After a short time, Wai transferred to UCLA. At UCLA, he was a four sport athlete and graduated in 1939 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Banking and Finance. Wai’s original intention was to work with his father in real estate and banking. However, World War Two broke out and Wai’s plans were changed, as it turned out for ever.
Wai joined the Hawaii National Guard after graduating and was called into active duty before the United States’ entrance into World War II. He received a commission as an officer and completed Officer Candidate School in 1941. This was at a time when very few Asian-Americans were allowed to serve in leadership roles in combat . Wai was eventually assigned to the 34th Infantry Regiment (United States) of the 24th Infantry Division with the rank of Captain. The 24th Division, based at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, was among the first American units to be involved in the Pacific Theater, exchanging fire with Japanese aircraft during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
In May 1943, Captain Wai deployed to Australia with the 24th Infantry Division and by September 19, 1943, the unit was at Camp Caves, near Rockhampton Queensland, on the eastern coast of Australia. Wai and the rest of the unit began intensive combat training. With training completed, the division moved to Goodenough Island on January 31, 1944, to prepare for Operation Reckless, the amphibious invasion of Hollandia, Netherlands New Guinea (now Jayapura, in the Papua province of Indonesia).
The 24th landed at Tanahmerah Bay on April 22, 1944 and seized the Hollandia Airdrome despite torrential rain and marshy terrain. Shortly after the Hollandia landing, the division’s 34th Infantry Regiment moved to Biak to reinforce the 41st Infantry Division. Wai’s regiment captured the Sorido and Borokoe airdromes before returning to the division on Hollandia in July. In two months, Wai and his unit had crossed New Guinea and recaptured three airdromes from the Japanese.
After occupying the Hollandia area, Wai was assigned to X Corps of the Sixth United States Army in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines. On October 20, 1944, his division was paired with the 1st Cavalry Division within X Corps, and the two divisions made an assault landing at Leyte When Captain Wai landed at Red Beach, the Japanese forces stationed on the island concentrated their fire on the waves of incoming troops from gun positions located in a palm grove bounded by submerged rice paddies. When Wai arrived on the beach in the fifth wave, he found the soldiers there to be leaderless, disorganized, and pinned down on the open beach. Assuming command, he moved through the rice paddies, without cover. His demeanor and example inspired the other men to follow him. With deliberate disregard of his own personal safety, he advanced without cover to draw Japanese machine gun and rifle fire, thus exposing the locations of the entrenched Japanese forces. Systematically, the Japanese positions were assaulted and overcome. Wai was killed leading an assault against the last Japanese pillbox in the area. For his actions during the landing on Leyte, Wai was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. After the war, his remains were interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Captain Francis B. Wai’s grave can be found in section Q, grave 1194.
In 1996, amid allegations of prejudicial treatment of Asian Americans in uniform in World War II, Congress directed Louis Caldera, then Secretary of the Army, to conduct a full review of military records. The review concluded that 22 Asian Americans, including Wai, did not receive full consideration for the Medal of Honor and in 2000, Wai’s Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Of those whose medals were upgraded, Wai was one of only two who did not belong to the predominantly Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team/100th Infantry Battalion; the other being Rudolph B. Davila of the 7th Infantry.
At a White House ceremony June 20, 2000, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian Americans whose Distinguished Service Crosses were upgraded to the Medal of Honor. During the course of his short military career, Wai earned eight awards and decorations.
Medal of Honor citation
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Headquarters, 34th Infantry Place and date: Leyte, Philippine Islands, October 20, 1944 Entered service at: Honolulu, Hawaii Born: Honolulu, Hawaii
“Captain Francis B. Wai distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action, on 20 October 1944, in Leyte, Philippine Islands. Captain Wai landed at Red Beach, Leyte, in the face of accurate, concentrated enemy fire from gun positions advantageously located in a palm grove bounded by submerged rice paddies. Finding the first four waves of American soldiers leaderless, disorganized, and pinned down on the open beach, he immediately assumed command. Issuing clear and concise orders, and disregarding heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire, he began to move inland through the rice paddies without cover. The men, inspired by his cool demeanor and heroic example, rose from their positions and followed him. During the advance, Captain Wai repeatedly determined the locations of enemy strong points by deliberately exposing himself to draw their fire. In leading an assault upon the last remaining Japanese pillbox in the area, he was killed by its occupants. Captain Wai’s courageous, aggressive leadership inspired the men, even after his death, to advance and destroy the enemy. His intrepid and determined efforts were largely responsible for the rapidity with which the initial beachhead was secured. Captain Wai’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.
/s/ William J Clinton President
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.