NEW ULM - A serviceman once teared up while viewing the rare, authentic artifacts - an actual World War II Congressional Medal of Honor, a Purple Heart, other medals, diligently preserved in a simple, old-fashioned gilded frame, a museum worker remembers.
"It means a lot to veterans, to actually be able to see a Congressional Medal of Honor...," says Brown County Historical Society Museum Research Librarian Darla Gebhard.
To her knowledge, the honor has been earned by only one Brown County native: New Ulm's World War II hero Willibald Bianchi.
Photo courtesy of the Brown County Historical Society, New Ulm, Minn.
Carrie Bianchi, widowed mother of Willibald Bianchi, speaks during the presentation of her son’s Congressional Medal of Honor in June 1946, after her son’s death aboard a prisoner ship. Pictured to her left, in the front row, are Minnesota Gov. Edward J. Thye and Col. Harry J. Keeley, Commandant of Ft. Snelling.
(Another, Civil War, recipient of the medal, Canadian-born Alonzo Pickle, relocated to this area after having earned it, according to Veterans Service Officer Greg Peterson. Only 46 Medals of Honor, including Bianchi's and Pickle's, have been accredited to Minnesotans.)
Many don't even realize that, courtesy of the Bianchi family, Bianchi's medals, with the original accompanying documentation and interesting historic photos, were left in the museum's care, thus being made available to many generations of viewers.
The public will have a chance to view them - and be reminded of the extraordinary story of the man behind it - at an event sponsored by the Junior Pioneers of New Ulm and Vicinity, on Feb. 26.
The guest speaker, Bianchi's niece Susan Marti, a lifetime member of the Philippine Scouts who now lives in Forest City, Iowa, will tell about Willibald Bianchi's life and subsequent death by friendly fire. The Seifert Bianchi Post 132 will post the colors, and Mayor Bob Beussman, himself a veteran, will provide opening remarks.
The event is Saturday, Feb. 26, at Turner Hall. The social hour starts at 6 p.m. and a meal will be served at 7 p.m. The program starts at 8 p.m.
Banquet requests need to be returned by Monday, Feb. 21. Banquet tickets are $17 each. With questions, call Gebhard at 354-6618.
The Junior Pioneers is a group of direct descendants of early settlers. It is dedicated to preserving settlers' history through educational programs and markers. The organization, set up in 1912, is open to people whose ancestors had settled in this area by 1870. But its programs are often aimed at a wider audience.
United States Army Forces, Pacific
Office of the Commander-in-Chief
25 October 1945
Dear Mrs. Bianchi:
My deepest sympathy goes to you in the death of your son, Captain Willibald C. Bianchi, who died in action against the enemy.
You may have some consolation in the memory that he, along with his comrades in arms who died on Bataan and Corregidor and in prison camps, gave his life for his country. It was largely their magnificent courage and sacrifices which stopped the enemy in the Philippines and gave us the time to arm ourselves for our return to the Philippines and the final defeat of Japan. Their names will be enshrined in our country's glory forever.
In your son's death I have lost a gallant comrade and mourn with you.
Mrs. Carrie Bianchi
New Ulm, Minnesota
The solemn, heart-breaking letter, signed by another hero of the war in the Pacific, signaled the end of the short but heroic life of a local boy, a family's only son, by many accounts a selfless, fair man...
Willibald Bianchi, or Bill, as he liked to be called, was born March 12, 1915, and attended New Ulm Catholic Schools, according to newspaper clippings in the BCHS archives (Gale Tollin, Associated Press, Nov. 12, 1979). His father died in an accident, and Bianchi dropped out of the New Ulm High School in his senior year, to help on the family dairy and turkey farm. He hunted pheasants, rabbits and deer and became an expert marksman.
He completed his high school studies at the University of Minnesota's School of Agriculture in St. Paul before entering South Dakota State University.
Bianchi worked his way through college, doing janitorial work for his room and board. He boxed and played football.
In the Reserve Officers Training Corps at college, he became a cadet major. Bianchi wore his uniform a lot, and his friends jokingly nicknamed him "Medals," because he was proud of his ROTC decorations and wore them with his uniform.
Bianchi graduated in animal husbandry in 1939 and was commissioned second lieutenant in 1940. Less than two years later, he was sent to the Philippines.
In presenting the third Medal of Honor of the war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur praised Bianchi "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty."
An Associated Press correspondent wrote about the bravery he displayed on Feb. 3, 1942 (New York Times, Feb. 20, 1942).
When a rifle platoon of another company in his battallion was ordered to attack two Japanese machine gun nests, Bianchi volunteered to lead. Early in the advance, he suffered two bullet wounds in his left hand and no longer could handle his rifle. He moved on forward firing with his pistol. He came upon a machine gun nest and silenced it with hand grenades. Two machine gun bullets ripped muscles in his chest.
Bianchi still fought on. He climbed atop a disabled American tank and turned the tank's gun on the enemy. Several machine gun bullets struck him and finally he was knocked off the tank by a grenade blast. By that time, Bianchi had so weakened the position that it was readily captured by infantry.
After a month of recuperation, he returned to action and was promoted to captain.
Taken captive when Bataan fell April 9, 1942, Bianchi survived the infamous Bataan Death March.
Other prisoners told how he moved up and down the line, spurring on those crazed by hunger and thirst and sharing their burdens.
The march ended at a camp where more than 2,000 prisoners died in the first two weeks. Some who lived told how Bianchi bartered with Japanese guards to get food for Americans threatened with starvation (Tollin, BCHS archives).
"Dear Mrs. Bianchi," says a letter by Capt. Theodore I. Spaulding, a fellow prisoner, of June 8, 1951 (BCHS archives). "I wonder if anyone has told you of what I consider Bill's most difficult assignment. Much to our dismay, we discovered in prison camp that few could be trusted to honestly divide the rather short rations that were issued by our captors... Bill was one of those chosen who proved to be absolutely honest and fair in the performance of his assignment, and it was considered a lucky break to get to eat at his kitchen...
One must be starving to understand the mental processes of a hungry man..."
On Dec. 15, 1944, Bianchi was being transported from Manilla to Japan aboard an unmarked Japanese prison ship that was sunk by the Americans. Many of those topside were rescued, but Bianchi was not among them. It was typical, survivors told his family, that he had gone into the ship's hold to aid the sick (Tollin, BCHS archives).
Story and layout by Kremi Spengler; photos of awards and documentation by Steve Muscatello