12th January 1942: First Medal of Honor won by a soldier in World War II
While British forces were falling back on Malaya, United States troops found themselves in similarly desperate straits in the Philippines. Here too there was a defence campaign with a strategy that appeared to be hopelessly inadequate to meet the Japanese onslaught. Here too there were outstanding examples of individual courage by men determined to confront the enemy whatever the cost.
The Unites States Medal of Honor is not precisely equivalent to the British Victoria Cross. It is the country’s highest military decoration and it is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry”. Yet it awarded to a broader group of individuals than the Victoria Cross. For example General MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in the defence of the Philippines, an award he accepted because “this award was intended not so much for me personally as it is a recognition of the indomitable courage of the gallant army which it was my honor to command”. The British would never have contemplated awarding a Victoria Cross to General Percival who was in an equivalent position in charge of the defence of Malaya and Singapore.
Yet other instances of exceptional gallantry by those who have been awarded [or ‘won’ – see comments below] the Medal of Honor are without doubt equivalent to the acts of courage that would merit a Victoria Cross. On the 12th January 1942 Alexander R. Nininger Jr. a Second Lieutenant of the Philippine Scouts won the first Medal of Honor won by a soldier in World War II. Fifteen such medals had been awarded to Naval personnel for actions at Pearl Harbour.
The actions of 23 year old ‘Sandy Nininger’ are described in his Citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy near Abucay, Bataan, Philippine Islands, on 12 January 1942. This officer, though assigned to another company not then engaged in combat, voluntarily attached himself to Company K, same regiment, while that unit was being attacked by enemy force superior in firepower.
Enemy snipers in trees and foxholes had stopped a counterattack to regain part of position. In hand-to-hand fighting which followed, 2d Lt. Nininger repeatedly forced his way to and into the hostile position. Though exposed to heavy enemy fire, he continued to attack with rifle and hand grenades and succeeded in destroying several enemy groups in foxholes and enemy snipers.
Although wounded 3 times, he continued his attacks until he was killed after pushing alone far within the enemy position. When his body was found after recapture of the position, 1 enemy officer and 2 enemy soldiers lay dead around him.
Nininger remains honoured and remembered in the United States to this day, not just for these actions but as an exceptional individual.