On October 17, 1944, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, the invasion of the Philippines began. This operation, code-named King Two, began the aggressive liberation of the Philippine islands. Since they were overrun by the Japanese two years earlier, the Philippine islands were a very strategic archipelago. Their recapture was vital to the overall plan to defeat the Japanese and end the conflict that had been raging in the region for more than a decade.
Captain Francis Wai of Honolulu, Hawaii, had enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard in 1940. A graduate of UCLA, he received his commission as an officer the same year as the attack on Pearl Harbor in his hometown. This officer commission was no small feat as very few Asian Americans were allowed leadership positions in the U.S. Military at this time. Assigned as a Captain with the 24th Division (Schofield Barracks), his was one of two units attached to X Corps for the invasion Leyte in 1944.
As they had before, the Japanese allowed the 1st wave to land, providing very little resistance. Their strategy was to lure a larger force into the kill zone of their prepared defensive positions. Once the 2nd wave began, the Japanese opened up with concentrated and effective mortar and machine gun fire, decimating the landing force and causing great confusion as much of the leadership was killed or wounded.
Captain Wai survived the initial assault and seeing the disorganization, he took charge and began issuing clear and concise orders to the men who were pinned down by the Japanese counter attack. Once a plan was outlined, Captain Wai, with complete disregard for his own life and safety, moved inland through intense fire to the rice paddies without any cover. This show of courage inspired the men to follow his lead and they rose to follow him.
During these advances, Captain Wai would rise up to draw Japanese fire in order to provide the locations for his men to engage. He was “deliberately exposing himself to draw their fire,” according to his Medal of Honor citation. At the last defensive pillbox, Captain Wai was killed during his efforts to neutralize it.
Originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Captain Wai’s case was put under review in 1996. During this year, Congress directed the Secretary of the Army to conduct a full military review, largely due to certain allegations posed in regards to some cases of prejudice with combat and military honors during World War II. In 2000, Captain Francis B. Wai was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courageous actions on that beach 56 years prior.
Captain Wai served his nation in spite of its flaws, and he gave his life because of his love for this nation that still had yet to find its way. Even now, America is flawed and has much further to go to live up to the great expectations of Jefferson’s divinely inspired words, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As it said in his citation, “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.”
Each of us has much to learn from Captain Francis B. Lai’s example. However, may we never have to give as much as he but may we find such a willingness within ourselves.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.