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Compassion, courage and a true leader

New Ulm native earned Medal of Honor

From the boy who grew up on a farm near New Ulm to the jungles of the Philippines in WWII, Willibald Bianchi’s sense of duty, ability to lead, courage and compassion for others earned him the nation’s highest award for U.S. military service when he received the Medal of Honor for his actions on the bloody battlefields of Bataan in 1942.

He became part of a select group of only 46 Medals of Honor accredited to Minnesotans out of more than 3,452 awarded to military heroes since the Civil War. In all, there were 464 Medal of Honor recipients in WWII, 266 of them posthumous. Bianchi, an Army officer with the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts Division, was one of three men awarded the Medal of Honor for achievements prior to the fall of the Philippines to Japan.

Bianchi was born on March 12, 1915, and assumed responsibility at a young age growing up on the family farm, helping with the 30 head of cows and taking care of 1,000 turkeys that were raised each year.

He attended elementary schools and enjoyed the outdoors hunting deer, pheasants and rabbits. But one day when he discovered his father Joseph dead from a hunting accident,  after he fell near a fence with a loaded shotgun, Willibald had to drop out of New Ulm High School his senior year to help out on the farm.

Later, he completed his studies at the University of Minnesota School of Agriculture in St. Paul before entering college at South Dakota State. His strong work ethic found him working his way through college, doing janitorial jobs for his room and board. He cooked his meals in a basement room and did yard work to earn money.

While at college he was on the poultry judging team, went out for boxing and played football for two years. He became a cadet major in the ROTC and was jokingly nicknamed “medals” by his closest friends because he always wore them with pride on his uniform.

He graduated with an animal husbandry degree in 1939 and in 1940 was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. He requested foreign duty, and the 26-year-old was assigned to the Philippines to help train native Filipino jungle fighters in April 1941.

Medal of Honor Attached to the 1st Battalion of the 45th Infantry, 1st Lt. Bianchi was awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts of heroism and bravery in the Feb. 3, 1942, battle of Toul Pocket on the west Bataan Peninsula.

Bianchi and his comrades were in a defensive position at the southern end of Bataan when, early in the firefight, he volunteered to lead the rifle platoon of another company in the battalion that was ordered to attack two Japanese machine gun nests.

When Bianchi suffered two bullet wounds to his left hand and was unable to handle his rifle, he discarded the weapon, refused medical aid and moved forward firing only his pistol. He located the Japanese gun position and personally destroyed it with hand grenades.

After being wounded a second time by two bullets tearing through muscles in his chest that left him unable to walk, he climbed to the top of a nearby disabled American tank, manned its machine gun and fired into strongly held enemy positions.

Once again Bianchi was hit by Japanese fire and was knocked completely off the tank by a grenade blast. But his efforts had weakened the enemy’s position allowing fellow soldiers to capture it.

After a month in the hospital recuperating from his wounds, Bianchi went back into action. Gen. Douglas MacArthur praised him “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty.” Another report called Bianchi “probably the most outstanding American soldier on Bataan.”

But for Bianchi and others of the self-proclaimed “Battling Bastards of Bataan,” the long ordeal of captivity by the Japanese was about to begin.

Bataan Death March The Philippines fell to the Japanese when some 76,000 Americans and Filipinos of the Bataan Field Force were forced to surrender on April 9, 1942.

What followed was the infamous three-day, 65 mile-long Bataan Death March from Mariveles at the southern tip of the Peninsula to San Fernando.

During the grueling march, Bianchi was credited by many soldiers who said they owed their lives to him. Newspaper clippings told about Bianchi moving up and down the line of wounded and exhausted men, urging them on as everyone was suffering from pain, hunger and thirst.

For those who survived the horrendous march, prison conditions were even worse at Camp O’Donnell, Cabanataun and Bilibid over the next 32 months.

Arriving at Camp O’Donnell on April 15, 1942, prisoners found there was little food, no medical supplies or clean clothes, no bandages or sanitary facilities.

They slept on mud-floored huts, soaked by rains. Many developed body sores, skin infections, malaria and pneumonia. Over 2,000 prisoners died in the first two weeks while many others developed dysentery and diarrhea.

On June 1, 1942, Bianchi was moved with others to the Cabanatuan prison camp where conditions were just as miserable. While a prisoner there Bianchi, used his farming background to scrounge up a little more food for starving soldiers with the vegetables he managed to plant and harvest from a small garden. Those who lived told stories of how Bianchi bartered with his captors for extra food and medicine which helped reduce some of the suffering of his fellow prisoners.

Last Letter Home After more than two years at Cabanataun, Bianchi was transferred on Oct. 16, 1944, to Bilibid prison on Luzon. In his last letter home to his mother, Carrie, dated that same day he wrote:

“We the American prisoners here at Cabanatuan will leave for Japan in a day or so; if we ever get there remains in God’s hands. I am going to confession and communion just in case.

“We sure had a rugged time so far, and we all expect it to get worse before the end. Nearly all of us have become fatalists after going through what we have, but we are not complaining.

“You have to excuse this writing, but for two years I couldn’t write at all. I was wounded in my right arm among other places — my ulnar nerve was severed — it’s coming back slowly.

“The food here has been scarce- very little meat, most of the time none at all. No flour, grease, or medicine. Thousands have died. I used to be in charge of a burial detail, we buried as high as forty a day.

“I am nearly out of ink, so will close hoping this letter will find you healthy and happy.

“You can use my back pay and insurance to make yourself happy and secure in your old age – in case I don’t return.” Your son, Willibald Bianchi.

Two months after arriving at Bilibid, Bianchi and his companions boarded the Japanese ship, Orokyo Maru. The ship was sunk off Subic Bay on Dec. 15, but he survived the bombing. However, a few days later he was put aboard another unmarked prison ship anchored at Takao Harbor off Formosa.

On Jan. 9, 1945, Bianchi was instantly killed in the cargo hold of the ship when an American fighter plane, unaware the target was filled with American prisoners, dropped a 1,000-pound bomb.

Some who were topside were saved, but Bianchi was not among them. It was typical, survivors told his family, that he had gone into the cargo hold to aid the sick. Of the 600 men on board, the bomb killed 250 men outright and fatally wounded 250 more.

Bianchi was 29 years old when he died. He is buried at the Punch Bowl in Hawaii’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. A bronze plaque for Bianchi is in the New Ulm Cemetery Soldiers Rest Area by the flag pole.

A year and half after he died the government presented Bianchi’s mother with his Congressional Medal of Honor at ceremonies held at Ft. Snelling in St. Paul. In 1955, a new residential street in New Ulm was named Bianchi Drive.

In 1990, the New Ulm American Legion Post changed its name from the Ben J. Seifert Post to the new name of Seifert-Bianchi Post 132. Seifert also was killed in WW II.

Today, visitors to the Brown County Historical Museum in New Ulm are able to see Bianchi’s Medal of Honor, Purple Heart and other medals in a framed glass display case.

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