UCLA honors and expresses its gratitude to all those who currently serve and have previously served this country with valor. At the Rose Bowl on Friday, Nov. 15, at UCLA's Veterans and Armed Forces Appreciation Day, UCLA also celebrates the spirit of football and the players who battle on the field, providing entertainment and competition every week during the Fall.
One former UCLA football player who epitomizes both the courage of the sport’s physical contact and its teamwork, as well as the heroism of the military battlefield is the late Francis Brown Wai, who earned varsity letters for the Bruins from 1937-38, and who served valiantly in World War II. To date, Wai, who attained the rank of Captain in the U.S. Army, is the first and only person of Chinese American descent to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his act of heroism at Red Beach in the beginning of the Battle at Leyte. He is also the only UCLA student-athlete ever awarded this country’s highest military honor.
Francis Wai was born to Kim Wai and Rosina Lambert Wai in Honolulu, Hawaii on April 14, 1917. Francis’ father immigrated to Hawaii from China at an early age, and his mother was of Native Hawaiian and Caucasian ancestry. He was the oldest sibling (followed by brothers Conkling, Robert, Lambert, and sister Rosina); and graduated from Punahou High School in 1935. Francis was an outstanding natural athlete growing up, and played a wide variety of sports including baseball, boxing, track and field, basketball, and football. He also paddled for the Hui Nalu Canoe Club, a group co-founded by fellow member Duke Kahanamoku, the great Hawaiian Olympic swimmer and surfing legend.
Francis spent two years at Sacramento Junior College playing football, where he was hailed as their star quarterback; and also became the State light heavyweight boxing champion. Francis then transferred to UCLA in 1937. Brothers Conkling and Robert also played football for the Bruins; Conkling playing with Francis in 1938 and Robert played in 1939 with UCLA legends Kenny Washington, Woody Strode and Jackie Robinson.
Playing at the university level of competition was a new challenge, but Francis held his own, joining a team of many strong players, the strongest star at the time being All-American Kenny Washington. Francis made a good impression on his teammates, and even on Coach Spaulding who noted Wai’s great blocking ability in a quote to Frank Finch of the LA Times in 1938.
Robert “Bob” Wai, who is now 94 and resides in Honolulu, remembers his brother’s football legacy as well: “He was a good leader, all the players respected him. They treated him well. He was a good, respected person on and off the field.”
|Francis and Conkling Wai with Coach Spaulding|
Wai’s statistics as a quarterback have been lost to time, but, according to newspaper accounts, he started two games at the end of the 1938 season. In Wai’s final football season at UCLA, Coach Spaulding took the team to Hawai’i for a pair of games. The Bruins defeated the Honolulu Town team 46-0 the day after Christmas in 1938, then beat the University of Hawai’i 32-7 in the inaugural Pineapple Bowl on Jan. 2, 1939. UCLA finished with a 7-4-1 overall record, and Wai was considered one of team’s most popular players (especially on the Islands), along with teammates Woody Strode and Washington.
Francis not only lettered in football at UCLA, but also participated in rugby, basketball, and track and field. (Lettermen’s lists for those sports do not exist from the 1930s.) His love for competition and contact sports would come to play a great role in his future leadership abilities. He graduated from UCLA on January 31, 1940 with a degree in Economics.
After returning home to Honolulu, where he continued to play football in the senior league for the Healani Club squad, Francis became a member of the Hawaiian National Guard in October 1940. His intelligence, education, athletic ability, and leadership qualities were noted immediately by his commanding officers. After acceptance to Office Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, he received a commission on September 27, 1941, and became a rarity in the U.S. Army at the time: an Asian American infantry officer.
Wai eventually attained the rank of Captain, and his National Guard Unit became the 34th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division, a unit that was to see an incredible amount of action in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The 24th Infantry Regiment was stationed at Schofield Barracks near Pearl Harbor when the infamous attack occurred on December 7, 1941, and the group one of the first units to see combat in World War II within the U.S. Army.
In May of 1943, the units moved to Australia to begin training for the “island hopping” campaign that was designed to have Japan as its final objective. Starting at Camp Caves in Rockhampton, Australia, the 24th would begin a series of movements to places which are now obscure and known mostly to just military historians: Goodenough Island, Tanahmerah Bay, New Guinea, Humboldt Bay, Hollandia, Biak Island, Boroke and Soroke airdromes, and, most significnatly, the Philippines (Palo, Pawing, Leyte Valley, Carigara, and other locations).
The 24th Infantry Division encountered some of the fiercest battles of the entire war at Leyte, Breakneck Ridge, Kilray Ridge, and, in one of the bloodiest encounters ever fought, the Battle of Zig Zag Pass. Besides constant fighting and ever-present snipers, survival in the jungle with hazards that ranged from disease to typhoons was an accomplishment in itself. The statistics in the official history of the 24th Infantry Division were startling and sad: 1,374 Killed in Action, 5,621 Wounded in Action, and 315 Died of Wounds.
The 24th’s decorations included an arrowhead, which indicates it led amphibious assaults during the campaign. These were battle-hardened men who would go on to spend hundreds of days in combat, often involving hand-to-hand fighting or amphibious assaults in the face of concentrated machine gun and mortar fire. These men faced incredible danger together and had to work together as a team to survive. Francis, a former quarterback, was no stranger to teamwork, and excelled as a leader within his infantry regiment, just as he did in sports.
Hanford Rants (May 16, 1923 – January 28, 2002), an enlisted man who served with Captain Wai, was a courageous solider who, like Francis, was also very athletic. “Han” Rants had played basketball at Washington State University, and during the war had a very dangerous job.
“At that time I was a telephone lineman [Private], who laid lines from headquarters to the front,” recalled Rants in his unpublished memoir, “so I had a ringside seat [to the action].”
Private Rants had more than a “ringside seat.” His duties required him to be in the midst of the action, and, perhaps, sometimes behind enemy lines, all the while carrying a roll of wire rather than a rifle. Anyone who could earn the respect of a soldier like Han would have to be extraordinary, and Francis Wai lived up to the mark.
“[Wai was] a favorite of enlisted men as well as officers,” said Rants. “He was an admired and respected officer because he led in a manner that men would go through a wall for him.”
Han got to know Francis through their mutual participation on an exhibition basketball team, formed to help pass the time during the early training periods. Mr. Rants also led teams of enlisted men in athletic competitions with the officers. Rants wrote that the enlisted men would have dominated the officers in these contests, except that the officers had a great equalizer: Captain Wai. Han remembers in particular that Francis was dominant in volleyball, the popular sport at the time, another testament to Wai’s all-around athletic and leadership abilities.
Han Rants and his comrades all remembered the “Big Hawaiian” officer as a natural-born leader. Captain Wai used his athletic skills and courage to an incredible extent during the war. On October 20, 1944, at Red Beach on the Island of Leyte, Francis earned the utmost respect from his comrades, and eventually from his country, by making the ultimate sacrifice. The official description of his landing on the island is given as a U.S Army 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.”
Mr. Rants wrote of that fateful day:
“It should be told that he [Captain Wai] had no responsibility to lead the charge that day in Leyte. He had an assignment that would have kept him on the beach but he chose to organize the troops who knew of him and willingly followed him.”
Francis Wai took charge and led when a leaderless unit needed him, and when his country called upon him. The leadership skills he developed through sports gave him the strength and courage to take action in a crucial “game changing” moment.
Bob Wai recalled how his brother’s leadership allowed him gain the respect of those around him carried on to his military career.
“He wasn’t even supposed to be there…. 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.”
Alan “Al” Hoisch, who is now 90 years old and lives in Beverly Hills, CA, was a UCLA halfback from 1946-1947. Hoisch also fought in World War II, and remembered how his experiences in sports gave him the skills to succeed in war:
“I was a competitive athlete growing up,” recalled Hoisch. “Athletics is part of the picture [of war]. You were able to handle fear properly. It helped me to compete with others I was flying with, and I became a very good pilot.”
Al had the extremely dangerous job of flying C-46 planes in Burma to supply the British. For his bravery and skill as a pilot he received four Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals, and a medal from the Chinese government as well. His career in sports was also accomplished. Originally a football player for Stanford in 1942, after the war ended he returned to school like many soldiers, but opted to attend UCLA where he flourished as their starting halfback. In the 1946 Rose Bowl game against Illinois, Hoisch returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown, a Rose Bowl record that still stands today.
Captain Wai was originally granted the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945, but due to an act of Congress in 1996, sponsored by Senator Daniel Akaka (D – Hawaii, 1990 - 2013), Captain Wai posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Clinton in May 2000.
Editor’s note: Meredith Lee first wrote this story in 2003 as part of a class essay at UCLA. She now lives in Honolulu and owns her own gift business, The Rare Orchid. Quotes attributed to Hanford Rants were either taken from his unpublished memoir or in conversations with him more than 10 years ago.
Special thanks to Robert “Bob” Wai for his recollections of his brother Francis, and to Al Hoisch for his contribution to this story. Bob Wai was a member of the 1939 and 1940 UCLA football teams. Al Hoisch flew dozens of supply missions “over the hump” of the Himalayas to Burma during WW II and is one of UCLA’s most decorated military veterans.