Remembering UCLA athlete and WWII captain Francis Wai

By Diamond Leung, UCLA Daily Bruin


May 2004 – Monday is Memorial Day – a time to remember those who have fought, struggled and fallen. This year in particular, the day has taken on new meaning in the sports world.

Pat Tillman, a former NFL player, died in April serving his country in Afghanistan, after his patrol came under attack. He will undoubtedly have his name etched into the memories of Americans for the rest of their lives.

UCLA also boasts a rich history of athletes who have served in the armed forces, including Jackie Robinson. Robinson was a multi-sport athlete and was in the Army during World War II, before breaking the race barrier in Major League Baseball. April 15 was recently declared Jackie Robinson Day in his honor.

I’m certainly not taking anything away from either of these heroes, but I’ll bet you’ve never heard of the guy who not only played multiple sports at UCLA, but also died fighting in a war on a foreign land.

He happens to be an Asian American named Francis Wai.

Wai, born to a Chinese father and a Hawaiian mother, went to UCLA for two years, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in banking and finance in 1938, just one year before Robinson first set foot in Westwood. He was the quarterback for a fully integrated football team on which his brother, Conkling, also played, and additionally lettered in track.

But his exploits on the battlefield are what should have made him a legend.

The UCLA degree Wai earned allowed him to rise to the rank of captain – rare for an Asian American, or any minority, for that matter.

He served in the 34th Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division under General Douglas MacArthur, and was involved in numerous battles throughout the Pacific theater.

On Oct. 20, 1944, Wai voluntarily led an assault on a beach at Leyte in a campaign to liberate the Philippines.

Heavy machine gun fire cut through the waves of U.S. soldiers, but Wai took charge amid the chaos, issuing orders and continuing the advance through the rice paddies without cover.

Inspired by Wai’s example, his fellow soldiers rose up to follow him, eventually capturing the well-hidden Japanese positions.

Wai was killed, the last remaining pillbox. He was 27.

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Wai was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but not until 2000, after Congress had ordered a review of the war records of Asian American soldiers during WWII.

Robinson and the black community were not the only ones who had to deal with racism in the past.

At the time of Wai’s service, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still being enforced as the first major law restricting the immigration of a specific group of people.

It has been almost 60 years since Wai’s death, and now, being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, let’s celebrate someone for a community that lacks recognizable heroic figures.

Ichiro Suzuki, Dat Nguyen and Yao Ming, the foreign-born faces of the modern Asian American male, have enjoyed lucrative athletic careers in the United States despite having to endure isolated incidents of racism.

Robinson, who certainly heard his share of taunts, has his own section in the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame.

Tillman, who gave his life for his country, is sure to have memorials erected in his name as well.

For Francis Wai, here’s to you on your special day – Memorial Day.


Leung was a football beat writer in 2002. He can be reached at  This article originally appeared in the UCLA Daily Bruin and posted with permission.  Please do not repost without obtaining permission of the copyright holder. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.