Francis Brown Wai was born on April 14, 1917 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His father was a Chinese immigrant and his mother a native Hawaiian. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with the class of 1939 where he excelled both at academics and sports.
Wai joined the Hawaii National Guard after his UCLA graduation and was activated for federal service with the United States Army prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was able to break through some of the anti-Asian prejudices of the day, attended Officer Candidates’ School, and was commissioned in 1941.
Not only was his officer’s commission rare, the fact he was sent to war in the Pacific versus the Japanese is even rarer. Wai was assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, formed from the Hawaiian Division after Pearl Harbor, in the 34th Infantry Regiment.
Wai saw his first action during the attack on Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea in April 1944. After that engagement, the 24th Infantry Division prepared for the campaign to retake the Philippines.
October 20, 1944 was “A-Day” – the day American forces made their assault landing on the Philippine island of Leyte. The Philippines were essential to the Japanese and their supply routes and they would defend them tenaciously.
During the first hours of the landings, the 34th Infantry’s soldiers found themselves bogged down both by swampy terrain and the well-dug in Japanese defenders. Many of the leaders had become casualties, and when Wai landed in a follow-on wave, it fell to him to rally the troops and lead them inland.
As he personally led some of his men against the final Japanese strongpoint in his sector, he was killed in action. Wai’s personal courage, leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit was a key factor in the early secure of the beachhead.
*WAI, FRANCIS B.
Citation: Captain Francis B. Wai distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action, on 20 October 1944, in Leyte, Philippine Islands. Captain Wai landed at Red Beach, Leyte, in the face of accurate, concentrated enemy fire from gun positions advantageously located in a palm grove bounded by submerged rice paddies. Finding the first four waves of American soldiers leaderless, disorganized, and pinned down on the open beach, he immediately assumed command. Issuing clear and concise orders, and disregarding heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire, he began to move inland through the rice paddies without cover. The men, inspired by his cool demeanor and heroic example, rose from their positions and followed him. During the advance, Captain Wai repeatedly determined the locations of enemy strong points by deliberately exposing himself to draw their fire. In leading an assault upon the last remaining Japanese pillbox in the area, he was killed by its occupants. Captain Wai’s courageous, aggressive leadership inspired the men, even after his death, to advance and destroy the enemy. 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.
Wai did fall victim to discrimination in having his heroism recognized. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross at the time, and his decoration was upgraded to the Medal of Honor after the 1990’s review of Asian-American World War II service records.
The 24th Infantry Division is presently inactive. Two battalions of the 34th Infantry Regiment are components of the 165th Infantry Brigade at Fort Jackson, South Carolina where they put the Army warriors of tomorrow through Basic Combat Training.