It is uncommon for a Congressional Medal of Honor to travel. Institutions that are in possessions of Medals of Honor (MOHs) rarely if ever part with them, due to their rarity and the esteem that they are held, and the sale of an MOH is forbidden by federal law. As such, once they part with their recipients, MOHS are often donated to museums and historical societies, to be protected and treated with appropriate respect and rarely, if ever, lent out to other institutions. However, thanks to the persistence and persuasiveness of Dr. Scott White, professor of history and college archivist at Dominican College of Orangeburg, a Rockland County institution was able to prove a rare exception to that rule; throughout the month of April Dominican proudly hosted a temporary exhibit featuring the Congressional Medal of Honor warded to Capt. Willibald Bianchi in 1942, only the third such medal that was awarded during WWII.
The Bianchi MOH is part of the permanent collection of the Brown County Historical Society Museum, New Ulm, Maine. The Bianchi medals were displayed at the College for one day on April 9, during the Commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of the Bataan Death March. Following that, they were displayed in the college’s Sullivan Library for the remainder of the month of April, alongside newspaper excerpts and photos of Capt. Bianchi assembled by the staff of Dominican’s library.
Willibald “Bill” Bianchi was born and raised on a poultry farm in New Ulm, Minnesota. He was the second of four children and only son of Joseph and Caroline Bianchi. At 21, he enrolled at South Dakota Sate University (SDSU) where he majored in animal husbandry and served as an Army ROTC cadet major. Bianchi quickly earned the nickname “Medals” from his friends who commented on how often he would chose to wear the ROTC uniform.
Bianchi was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army’s Officer Reserve Corps on June 3, 1940, and requested foreign service. He became a 1st Lieutenant in April 1941, and was sent to the Philippines where he was assigned to the 45th Infantry Division, the Philippine Scouts. He trained Filipinos to become soldiers, working against time to crate an army that could withstand the Japanese forces. Unfortunately, they did not have enough trained troops, airplanes, and tanks to withstand the Japanese, so they tried their best to delay them. They were forced to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula.
On February 3, 1942, a battle raged at the Tuol River pocket on west Bataan near Bagac. The rifle platoon of another company was ordered to take out two strong enemy machine-gun nests. Bianchi volunteered of his own volition to advance with them and lead part of the men. He was wounded the first time when two bullets passed through his left hand. He discarded his rifle and fired a pistol. He managed to silence a machine-gun nest with grenades before he was wounded a send time, taking two machine-gun bullets to chest muscles. He still continued fighting and climbed to the top of a disabled American tank and manned its antiaircraft machine gun, firing into enemy position until being wounded a third time. He was blown off the tank by either mortar explosion or grenade blast and lost consciousness. One month later he returned to duty and was promoted to the rank of Captain.
American forces surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942 in what was known as the Fall of Bataan. Bianchi was taken captive with approximately 75,000 other American and Filipino soldiers. They were interned for 24-hours with no food or water before starting upon what would become known as the Bataan Death March, traveling 65 miles from Mariveles to San Fernando on foot across rough terrain. Bianchi was known to help his fellow prisoners, walking up and down the line to spur them on and sharing their burdens despite his own sufferings.
Bianchi was being held aboard Enoura Maru, an unmarked prison ship anchored near Takao, Formoso, on the morning of January 9, 1945, when an American plane dropped a 1,000-pound bomb into the hold of the ship, unaware there were prisoners of war aboard. Bianchi, aged 29, was killed instantly. It is believed he was in the hold aiding the sick as he had been known to do.Bianchi was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on June 7, 1945 at Fort Shelley, Minnesota. The award was presented to his mother.
In honor of his heroic service on April 27, the President and Chancellor of Dominican College, Sisters Mary Eileen O’Brien and Kathleen Sullivan, respectively, visited the library to view the exhibition. They were told of Capt. Bianchi heroic actions by local independent historian Jerome Kleiman and Dr. White.