The Ballad of Francis Wai
UCLA quarterback Francis Wai only started one game in his college football career, the 1939 Poi Bowl against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. The Bruins won 32-7, with Wai leading the way for star halfback Kenny Washington, delivering crushing blocks in Coach Warren Spaulding’s single-wing offense (where the quarterback was a blocking back and the halfback did the running and passing) and playing linebacker on defense, for this was the age of leather helmets and two-way iron men.
Wai also started in an exhibition against a team of local Honolulu all-stars, many of them friends from his time as a local high-school star. UCLA would be even better the next year, with Jackie Robinson joining Washington in the backfield, but by then Wai had run out of eligibility and finished his degree in Economics.
Wai’s father Kim had immigrated to Hawaii from China in the early years of the 20th century and married a mixed-race Hawaiian girl named Rosina Lambert. Together they had Francis in 1917 followed by three more boys and a girl. Francis excelled at everything he touched: football, boxing, track (as a champion javelin thrower), baseball and basketball. He surfed with Duke Kahanamoku, the father of surfing, and paddled for the legendary Hui Nalu Canoe Club.
Wai started at quarterback for two years at Sacramento Junior College in California, and won his division in the state’s junior college boxing tournament. Spaulding had followed a 1935 conference championship at UCLA with a 6-3-1 record in 1937, and determined to break through to a championship level by recruiting non-white players. Wai would be the school’s first Asian-American football player; his brother Conkling followed a year later and another brother, Robert, a year after that. The Wai boys were popular with their UCLA teammates, and Francis played rugby and basketball for the Bruins as well as football.
“Beating SC is not a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that.”
Francis Wai (#49, lower left) has just delivered a hit on a USC ball carrier in the Crosstown Rivalry, 24 November 1938.
After graduation, Wai returned home to work in his father’s real estate business and joined the Hawaii Territorial Guard. The Guard sent him to Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Wai was commissioned in September 1941 and returned to the islands as one of the U.S. Army’s very few Asian-American infantry officers.
The United States Army didn’t establish segregated units for Chinese-Americans, but did tend to concentrate them in a handful of units including the Chinese-American 14th Air Service Group and 987th Signal Company. Most of the 20,000 Chinese-Americans who served did so in “white” units. About 40 percent of them were not U.S. citizens; the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in December 1943 and Chinese nationals living in the United States (including service members) were allowed to become naturalized citizens; in addition, 105 (yes, one hundred and five) Chinese nationals were allowed to immigrate to the United States each year.
The newly-commissioned Lt. Wai.
Francis Wai was at Schofield Barracks when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, and Japanese planes strafed his barracks. When Japanese-American Hawaii Guardsmen were transferred to the 100th Infantry Battalion, Wai transferred to the 24th Infantry Division’s 34th Infantry Regiment as an intelligence officer. As an Asian-American, Wai could have requested duty elsewhere, but he wanted to fight the Japanese.
The 24th Infantry Division shipped out for Australia in May 1943 but it appears that Wai was on leave and married his wife, Louise, in July. In September 1943 the division, including Wai, began an intensive training program in jungle warfare and amphibious operations. Wai saw combat in New Guinea throughout the summer of 1944. In October, the 24th Infantry Division sailed from Hollandia on New Guinea’s northern coast to assault the island of Leyte in the Philippines.
The 34th Infantry Regiment hit the beaches on the morning of 20 October. Wai came ashore with the fifth wave, and found much of the regiment’s 3rd Battalion pinned down. The company commander had been killed, and Wai - who may have been already wounded on the beach, according to Capt. Paul Austin of Company F - picked up a Browning Automatic Rifle and led the disorganized troops off the sands and against the pillboxes pouring fire into them.
Private Hanford “Han” Rants knew Wai from before the war - he’d played basketball for Washington State and faced off with Wai’s UCLA squad - and served under him in the 34th Infantry’s Headquarters Company. They played together on the division’s exhibition basketball team.
“At that time I was a telephone lineman, who laid lines from headquarters to the front, so I had a ringside seat,” Rants wrote later, “Captain Wai was a favorite of enlisted men as well as officers. He was an admired and respected officer because he led in a manner that men would go through a wall for him.
“We knew he had come to this battle to die,” Rants went on. “Before we left Hollandia he had received word his wife had just had a baby although he’d been away for twelve months. This shook him and we knew he was going to fight with everything he had even if he got killed in the process. 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 in the fortresses. At about the fifth one they got him, laced him with fire and he was hit ten times through the chest. He was the one who really broke the spell enough for our people to start moving in.”
“He wasn’t even supposed to be there,” Bob Wai remembered his brother, “but those men would not follow anyone else into battle. He was the kind of leader that did what he said. If he told them to go, he went too. He was trusted and a true leader, that’s what my brother was, and that’s why his men loved him.”
Col. Aubrey “Red” Newman of the 34th Infantry Regiment recommended Wai for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the War Department reduced this to the Distinguished Service Cross - minority soldiers and sailors were allowed to fight and die for their country, but did not receive the Medal of Honor during the Second World War. Wai’s award was upgraded in 2000 to the Medal of Honor.
Louise Wai re-married as soon as word came of her husband’s death. She declined to accept his body after the war, which Kim Wai buried in the National Memorial of the Pacific in Honolulu. When he died, Francis Wai wore his UCLA class ring and a wedding ring inscribed “Francis-Louise 7-3-43.”
Francis Wai remains the only Chinese-American soldier to ever receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. At least one recent book (Nathan Prefer’s Leyte 1944) repeatedly calls him Japanese-American.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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