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50 states, 50 heroes: Fighting back at Bataan

Born March 12, 1915, in New Ulm, Minnesota, Willibald Charles Bianchi grew up on a poultry farm. Known as “Bill,” Bianchi dropped out of high school to take over the farm after his father died in an accident. Bianchi was eventually able to finish his high school studies at the University of Minnesota farm school and then enrolled at South Dakota State University.

While at SDSU, he participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, earning the nickname “Medals” because he wore his uniform frequently. In 1940, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army.

In April 1941, Bianchi was sent to the Philippines and assigned to the 45th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts. At the time, tension was growing in the Pacific as the Japanese Empire rapidly expanded. The U.S. controlled the Philippines, but lacked an adequate military presence to repel a major Japanese invasion. Bianchi was tasked with training natives to become jungle fighters in the event such an attack should come.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese invaded Batan Island, north of the Philippines. Two days later, the Japanese landed forces on the northern and southern parts of the island of Luzon and began their drive toward Manila. On Dec. 24, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered forces to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula. The Filipino government joined about 80,000 troops and 26,000 refugees in the Bataan Peninsula.

As the Japanese pushed against Bataan and its defenses, the combined American and Filipino forces fought a desperate battle to hold them off. Gradually, the Japanese gained ground and the men of the 45th Infantry Regiment found themselves in the Bagac Municipality, located on the southwest section of the Bataan Peninsula.

On Feb. 3, 1942, a rifle platoon from another company of the 45th received orders to destroy two well-defended Japanese machine gun nests. Bianchi, by this point a first lieutenant, volunteered to assist and led a portion of the men in the attack.

As they approached the first machine gun nest, two bullets struck Bianchi in the left hand. Unable to carry his rifle, Bianchi dropped it. Refusing first aid, Bianchi drew his pistol and attacked the Japanese position. Upon locating one machine gun nest, Bianchi destroyed it with grenades. He was then struck twice in the chest by the bullets of another Japanese machine gun. Undeterred, he climbed to the top of a nearby American tank, mounted its anti-aircraft machine gun, and began firing into the Japanese defenses. He continued to do so until an explosion, possibly from a grenade or a mortar, threw him off the back of the tank, severely wounding him.

His actions were credited with weakening the Japanese position, allowing it to be captured by the Americans.

For his courage, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor. The recommendation was approved on March 5, 1942, but Bianchi would not live to receive it.

Bianchi recovered from his injuries, was promoted to captain, and returned to combat one month later. On April 9, 1942, Bianchi was one of the roughly 75,000 American and Filipino troops captured by the Japanese after they were forced to surrender. In what was later dubbed the Bataan Death March, prisoners were forced to march 65 miles with little to no food or water while enduring physical abuse and random killings from the Japanese forces. During the march, Bianchi moved up and down the line spurring on his men and helping those that were lagging (otherwise they would have been killed).

From 1942 to 1944, Bianchi was moved around to various prisoner of war camps, enduring starvation, abuse and unsanitary conditions. But Bianchi found ways to barter with the Japanese, getting food from their mess hall that he then fairly distributed among his fellow prisoners. He also bartered for extra medicine.

Allied forces under MacArthur invaded the Philippines on Oct. 20, 1944. As the Americans fought to regain the Philippines, the Japanese began moving prisoners to prevent their rescue. On Jan. 9, 1945, Bianchi was on board an unmarked prisoner ship that was anchored off the coast of Formosa (Taiwan) when an American aircraft, unaware the ship contained American prisoners, dropped a 1,000-pound bomb into the hold. Bianchi and an unknown number of Americans were killed, their bodies lost at sea.

Bianchi’s Medal of Honor was presented to his mother, Carrie Bianchi, on June 7, 1945, during a ceremony at Fort Snelling. After the war, Carrie received numerous letters from soldiers that were imprisoned with Bianchi. Many spoke highly of him as a caregiver to the other prisoners and credited him with their survival. She also received a letter dated Oct. 25, 1945, from MacArthur, who wrote, “In your son’s death I have lost a gallant comrade and mourn with you.”

A marker bearing Bianchi’s name is located at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. His name is also listed on the Wall of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.

Bianchi Street and Seifert-Bianchi American Legion Post 132 in New Ulm are named in his honor. In 1998, SDSU dedicated the Bianchi Memorial in the University Student Union and established a scholarship in his honor for ROTC students and New Ulm students attending SDSU.