Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Captain Francis Brown Wai was born on April 14th, 1917 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was the son of a Chinese immigrant and a Native Hawaiian, and was an avid sportsman, playing football, baseball, and surfing.
Originally, Wai wanted to work with his father in real estate, but in October 1940, he enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard. He served as an intelligence officer for the 34th Infantry. On December 7th, 1941, the 34th Infantry became one of the first American units to fight in World War II by firing at Japanese planes during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1943, Wai and his division deployed to Australia for additional training. The next year, the 24th Division launched Operation Reckless, an amphibious assault to seize the city of Hollandia on Dutch New Guinea (now in modern-day Indonesia). After the successful seizure, Wai’s division was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s X Corps, which was preparing to invade the Japanese-occupied Philippines.
On October 20th, 1944, the 34th Infantry launched an amphibious assault on the island of Leyte. By the time Wai arrived on the beach, the assault force was pinned down by enemy machine guns hidden by palm groves and rice paddies. Wai took command of a rifle company whose commander had been killed and rallied his soldiers to assault through the Japanese positions. In doing so, he exposed himself to draw the enemy’s fire so his soldiers could locate and assault them. Wai was killed leading the assault on the final enemy position. Because of Wai’s leadership and disregard for his own safety, the 34th was able to secure the beach.
In 1944, Wai’s commander at the 34th Infantry, Colonel Newman, recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but the award was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. In 2000, Wai’s award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor after a congressionally-directed review found numerous Asian Americans did not receive full consideration for the award at the time. On June 21st, 2001, Wai’s brother, Robert, accepted the award on his behalf. Wai’s other awards include the Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, and Philippine Liberation Medal.
Wai is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. To this day, Wai is the only Chinese American soldier to receive the Medal of Honor and one of the first Asian American recipients.
The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Nathan Corson is our producer and engineer, León Pescador is our associate producer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.