By Katie Lange,
Defense Media Activity
This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Today we’re honoring a man who suffered as much as he led during World War II and earned his Medal of Honor on this day 73 years ago.
As much as Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur is famous for his return to the Philippines during its World War II liberation from the Japanese, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright is just as lauded for defending the islands when they were initially overtaken. In fact, he earned the distinction as the “hero of Bataan,” even though he considered himself a failure.
Wainwright was born in 1883 in Walla Walla, Washington, and came from a long line of military officers. He followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Army, graduating from West Point in 1906.
More than 30 years later, Wainwright was the 4th Army’s commander in the Philippines at the dawn of U.S. entry into World War II. After the Pearl Harbor attacks, MacArthur – who was in charge of Pacific forces at the time – was forced to flee the Philippine capital of Manila ahead of a Japanese invasion. So, early in 1942, Wainwright became senior field commander of U.S. and Philippine forces and was tasked with continuing the defense of the islands.
The battle was hard-fought and spanned several months, despite U.S. troops facing starvation, disease and rough jungle conditions, as they had been cut off from supplies. Wainwright was authorized to continue the fight from the Bataan Peninsula, despite being advised to leave. Instead, he fought alongside his men, often visiting the front lines of battle.
The Philippines officially fell to the Japanese on April 9, 1942, but Wainwright and thousands of others survived and escaped to Corregidor – the last Allied stronghold in the island chain – where they hid and dodged air bombardments for another month.
Wainwright finally had to surrender the island to the enemy on May 6, 1942. He and the remaining Allied troops were forced to join Bataan Death March survivors at prison camps in the Philippines and on other Japanese-held islands.
Wainwright spent more than two years in a prisoner of war camp before it was liberated by Russian troops in August 1945. He was aboard the USS Missouri in September 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the Americans. He then went back to the Philippines to be a witness to the surrender of the local Japanese commander.
For his leadership during such a tumultuous time, Wainwright was given the Medal of Honor on May 7, 1945. According to the citation, “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. … His courage and resolution were vitally needed inspiration.”
Wainwright was also promoted to general, and he received a hero’s welcome when he returned to the United States.
After the war, Wainwright took command of the 4th Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, before retiring from active duty in August 1947. He died in 1953 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was 70 years old.
On Jan. 1, 1961, Ladd Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska – which initially was an Army base during World War II – was returned to Army control and renamed Fort Wainwright in the general’s honor.
Thank you, General Wainwright, for your leadership and devotion to the cause!
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