Redemption at Leyte: U.S. Army Captain Francis B. Wai
By Dieter Stenger, U.S. Army Center of Military History
Around the same time General Douglas MacArthur waded ashore on October 20, 1944 at Leyte, Philippines, and delivered his famous radio message to the Filipino people, declaring his return "as the voice of freedom" during the "hour of their redemption," Captain Francis B. Wai fought the Japanese with the greatest valor until he was killed in action for the principles of MacArthur’s declaration.
The strategic invasion of Leyte of the Philippines island group began on October 17, 1944, in order to cut the Japanese sea lines of communication and threaten Japan's internal communications within the archipelago. Captain Francis B. Wai, of Honolulu, Hawaii, served with the 34th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Division out of Schofield Barracks, Oahu. He was one of only a few Asian-American officers in the U.S. Army in 1944.
The 24th Division was one of two belonging to X Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Franklin C. Sibert. Together with Maj. Gen. John R. Hodge's XXIV Corps that formed the U.S. Sixth Army under Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, both corps came ashore at Leyte in the face of light Japanese resistance.
The assault beach (Red) assigned to the 24th Division was narrow but consisted of firm sand. Behind the beach the Japanese established a tank obstacle, tunnels and well-concealed pillboxes among thick jungle growth and marshy ground. Open rice paddies fringed Hill 522, the most prominent terrain feature, which dominated the beaches and roads in the surrounding area.
The 34th Infantry led the attack, landing the regiment in battalion columns. The Japanese allowed the first wave to land but unleashed mortar and machine gun fire when the following waves were 2,000-3,000 meters offshore, inflicting heavy casualties. Japanese gunfire from positions located in a palm grove frustrated the assault.
With many senior NCOs and officers either killed or wounded, Captain Wai found the beaches crowded with disorganized and pinned down soldiers. When Company K ran into a series of five defensive pillboxes, Captain Wai took command of the situation and issued orders. Disregarding heavy enemy machine gun fire, Wai moved inland without cover and inspired the men to follow. During the advance, Captain Wai deliberately exposed himself to draw Japanese fire from enemy strong points in order to reveal their locations. The pillboxes were systematically neutralized with BARs and hand grenades. Wai was killed while leading an assault against the last remaining Japanese pillbox.
Harold Rant, a wire technician from the Headquarters Battalion said of Wai, "A hero came forth but we knew he had come to die. He was a big Hawaiian captain, one of the most popular officers." Rant added, "Word passed that he was really ripping and had knocked out three pillboxes. With real luck, he was jumping, running, dodging, and crawling under machine gun fire to get hand-grenades into the fortresses. At about the fifth one they got him, laced him with fire and he was hit ten times through the chest."
Captain Wai was largely responsible for the speed by which the beachhead was secured. For his actions, Captain Wai posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross.
On June 21, 2000, Captain Wai's Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor was donated by the brother, Robert Wai, to the U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii, Fort DeRussy, Hawaii. The medal is part of the U.S. Army Historical Collection.