Francis Brown Wai was the first-born son of a Native Hawaiian mother and a Chinese father. Growing up, he often surfed with Duke Kahanamoku, regarded as the father of surfing, and Buster Crabbe, who later became an actor. He attended Punahou School in Honolulu where he earned athletic letters in track, football, and baseball. Following graduation in 1935, he attended Sacramento Junior College, then transferred to UCLA in 1937. At UCLA, he was a four-sport athlete and graduated in 1939 with a Bachelor’s degree in Banking and Finance
After graduation, Wai enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard. The National Guard was federalized in 1940-41. Upon completion of Officer Candidate School in 1941, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. His commission was rare at a time when few Asian-Americans were allowed to serve in combat leadership roles. He was assigned to of the 24th Infantry Division’s 34th Infantry Regiment. The 24th Infantry, based at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, was among the first American units to be involved in the Pacific war, its soldiers exchanging fire with Japanese aircraft during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Promoted to captain, in May 1943, Wai deployed to Australia with the 24th Infantry. After completion of intensive combat training, the division left for Goodenough Island, Dutch New Guinea, on January 31, 1944, to prepare for Operation Reckless, the amphibious invasion of Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea. The division landed at Tanahmerah Bay on April 19, 1944, and seized the Hollandia airfield. Shortly after the Hollandia landing, Wai and the 34th Infantry Regiment moved to the island of Biak to reinforce the 41st Infantry Division. Wai’s regiment captured the Sorido and Borokoe airfields before rejoining to the division on Hollandia in July.
After occupying the Hollandia area, the 24th Infantry Division was assigned to X Corps of the Sixth United States Army in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines. On October 20, 1944, the X Corps, comprised of the 24th Infantry and the 1st Cavalry Divisions, made an assault landing at Leyte. The 24th Division landed at Red Beach while the 1st Cavalry landed at White Beach, some 1,500 yards to the north. At Red Beach, Japanese forces were initially surprised, but soon recovered to concentrate their mortar and machine gun fire on the waves of incoming troops.
When CPT Wai arrived on Red Beach in the fifth wave, he found the soldiers in the immediate area to be leaderless, disorganized, and pinned down on the open beach. Assuming command of the soldiers around him, he moved through the rice paddies. His demeanor and example inspired the other men to follow him. With deliberate disregard for his own personal safety, he repeatedly 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. CPT Wai was killed leading an assault against the last Japanese pillbox in the area. For his actions during the landing on Leyte, CPT 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. His grave can be found in section Q, grave 1194.
In 2000, his Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor, which was presented by President Bill Clinton to members of his family. The Medal was donated by his family to the Hawaii Army Museum.
Submitted by Wen Chung Lin at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Hawaii.