When President Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur to Australia to take over command of the Allies South West Pacific Area on March 12, 1942, Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright inherited command of the US and Filipino forces on the Philippines.
After the surrender of the American and Filipino forces in the Philippines in May of 1942, the POWs were spread around the Japanese Empire. As the war moved to a close, the Americans feared the POWs were ripe for murder as the Japanese had done to Americans in the Philippines. So the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the forerunner to the CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces was tasked to rescue Wainwright in Manchuria before that could happen.
American Defeat in 1942: A third generation cavalry officer, Wainwright’s father had been killed in the Philippines in 1902, his grandfather died during the Civil War. He had the unenviable job of trying to hold Manila Bay from the Japanese with no relief force coming to his aid.
Less than a month later, on April 9, Major General Edward King, unbeknownst to Wainwright surrendered the 70,000 troops on Bataan. On May 5, the Japanese attacked Corregidor and were advancing on a tunnel where 1000 wounded American and Filipino troops were hospitalized.
Fearing a slaughter, Wainwright considered the unthinkable. He’d surrender the troops on Corregidor, but he hoped to spare the rest of the troops under MG William Sharp on Mindanao that so that they could fight on. The Japanese, when hearing this stormed out of the meeting. Either all of the Americans would surrender or none at all. Wainwright gave in and then it was Sharp who was placed in a bad spot. Had his troops continued fighting, he was worried that the prisoners would be murdered.
Sharp surrendered as well and the Americans with Wainwright as the senior American POW. Many of Sharp’s men, the majority of them Filipino joined the guerrillas. The POWs suffered terribly under the brutal treatment of the Japanese who considered surrender as unmanly. Wainwright was not spared any mistreatment and suffered along with his fellow POWs.
They were kept in Luzon, Formosa and finally in Manchuria where they were in 1945. The war had turned and the Japanese were in full retreat. And America was worried about her POWs.
The OSS Steps In: In 1945, the OSS had set up specially constructed teams to infiltrate ahead of the allied advance and assist with the freeing of Allied POW camps. They had already used them in Germany but for China, the logistics were much, more difficult in terms of the distances that needed to be covered.
OSS named these six-man teams, “Mercy Missions” and assembled nine teams to insert into China and Manchuria in the hunt for the POW camps. Of these teams, the one code-named “Cardinal” would be the key. Cardinal would parachute into Manchuria, 900 miles from the base in Chunking.
The two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan on August 6 and August 9 and the collapse of Japanese resistance seemed imminent. The Russians, eager to gobble up as much land as possible, invaded Manchuria on August 8. No one knew how the Japanese army in Manchuria, still over a million men strong, would react.
The team was commanded by Major Robert F. Hennessy. Major Robert F. Lamar, a physician, was second in command. With four other OSS operatives, the men inserted into Manchuria in August 1945 near the POW camp at Hoten. The camp commandant advised Hennessy that Wainwright was not at this camp but at another in Sian, 100 miles farther north.
Hennessy sent Lamar and Sgt Harold Leith an OSS operative fluent in both Russian and Chinese to Sian to locate Wainwright. After a long trek to Sian, the two OSS men arrived on August 19. The then had a confrontational meeting with the camp commandant. But eventually, Wainwright was brought before them.
The general stood before the stunned OSS men, emaciated and in tattered clothing. “Are you really Americans?” he asked. “General, you are no longer a prisoner of war. You’re going back to the States,” Lamar said.
Wainwright’s nightmare was far from over, now he was conflicted believing his country thinking the worst of him for surrendering his troops. He didn’t know at the time that he was recommended for the Medal of Honor earlier in the U.S. but the man who left him behind, MacArthur was vigorously against it, claiming Corregidor should have been held and it was squashed.
Wainwright thought he’d return to the United States in disgrace. He asked a bit hesitantly, “what do the people in the states think of me?” The OSS men tried to explain to the General that he was considered a hero at home, but the general was unconvinced.
Lamar was in a quandary. His radio wasn’t working and the Russians had cut the telephone lines. Worried that the general would be kidnapped by Japanese troops still everywhere, he decided that he’d leave Leith with Wainwright and he’d return by train to the camp at Hoten and try to arrange vehicles to escort all of the POWs from Sian to Hoten for exfiltration to Chunking.
Lamar arrived in Mukden, outside of Hoten, but the Russians had arrived and were in a drunken rampage. They were not interested in helping the Americans at all. Three days passed. Leith and Wainwright believed Lamar was killed before he could report the site of the POWs which included LTG Arthur Percival, the British commander at Singapore.
It was then that a Russian convoy driving American Lend-Lease trucks appeared at the camp. Using Leith as an interpreter, Wainwright explained the dilemma to the Russian Commander. The Russian explained that he was on his to link up with Russian troops in Mukden and Wainwright and the POWs were welcome to accompany them, …if they provided their own transportation.
Wainwright quickly converted from emaciated POW to a General Officer. He ordered the camp commandant to furnish the POWs with the needed vehicles. Enroute the trucks were stuck in the mud. The Russian commander stopped a train and ordered it to take the POWs to Mukden. He also promised to send more support as soon as they reached their comrades.
The train broke down and the men were stuck once again. But the Russian train did arrive and the Russians escorted the men to Mukden, arriving on August 27 at 1:30 a.m. after taking three days.
The OSS men had two aircraft waiting to whisk Wainwright, Percival and a few others immediately to Chunking. There he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal as tears flowed down his cheeks. He was not in disgrace but revered by his country.
He flew to Tokyo where he had an emotional reunion with MacArthur. The two men embraced and shared a whispered moment.
But Wainwright’s story doesn’t end there. On September 2, 1945, with 250 American warships at anchor in Tokyo Bay, Wainwright and Percival stood onboard the battleship USS Missouri. MacArthur stood by a small table with Wainwright and Percival in positions of honor right behind him. MacArthur directed the representatives of the Japanese Empire to sign the formal articles of surrender.
When they had finished, MacArthur sat down and signed the document. He gestured to Wainwright to come forward and accept the pen. A second pen was handed to Percival.
Wainwright then traveled to the Philippines where he was a witness to the Japanese surrender of the brutal commander LTG Tomoyuki Yamashita. His vindication was now complete.
Congress eventually righted another wrong and awarded Wainwright the Medal of Honor. It was dated September 19, 1945.
Distinguished himself by intrepid and determined leadership against greatly superior enemy forces. At the repeated risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in his position, he frequented the firing line of his troops where his presence provided the example and incentive that helped make the gallant efforts of these men possible.
The final stand on beleaguered Corregidor, for which he was in an important measure personally responsible, commanded the admiration of the Nation’s allies. It reflected the high morale of American arms in the face of overwhelming odds.
His courage and resolution were a vitally needed inspiration to the then sorely pressed freedom-loving peoples of the world.
Wainwright passed away in 1953 in San Antonio, TX from a stroke and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
(For further reading, search the OSS website and read an excellent take on the operation in World War II magazine)
Photos: US Archives