Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright IV was born at Fort Walla Walla into a family with a long history of U.S. military service. During World War I, he was stationed with the U.S. Army in Europe, and in World War II he became commander of all U.S. forces in the Philippines after General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) was forced to withdraw. It would be his unpleasant duty to surrender Allied troops after the Japanese conquest of the islands, and he spent more than three years in captivity before being liberated from a POW camp in Manchuria by Russian soldiers. His service and valor were recognized with a promotion to four-star general and the award of the Medal of Honor. After a lifetime of service to his country, General Wainwright retired in 1947. He died in San Antonio, Texas, on September 2, 1953.
Born to the Barracks
Jonathan Wainwright was born on August 23, 1883, the third child of army Lieutenant Robert Powell Page Wainwright (1852-1902) and Josephine Serrell Wainwright (1852-1939). He had two older sisters, Helen Serrell Wainwright (1881-1910) and Jennie Powell Serrell Wainwright (1882-1939). In October 1883 the family transferred from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Bidwell, California. His father, a cavalry officer, fought in Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. He would die of disease in the Philippines in 1902 during the Philippine-American War.
Jonathan Wainwright IV entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1902, as his father had done 33 year earlier (in 1870). Fellow cadets nicknamed the tall and thin Wainwright “Skinny,” a name he liked, and he graduated in 1906 with the prestigious First Captain of Cadets honor. Wainwright chose to serve in the the cavalry and was first assigned to the 1st Cavalry Regiment at Fort Clark, Texas, where he developed a love for the life of a cavalryman and became an expert horseman. In 1908 his regiment was dispatched to the Philippines (where his father had died six years earlier) as part of an expedition sent to quell the Moro uprising on the island of Jolo.
In 1911 Wainwright married Adele "Kitty" Holley (1887-1970), an officer’s daughter he had known for years. They had one child, a son, Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright V (1913-1996), whom his father called “Jack.” It was a major disappointment when Jack’s efforts to gain entrance to West Point were unsuccessful, but he joined the Merchant Marines and had a distinguished record during World War II. He eventually retired as a captain in the Naval Reserve, which pleased his famous father.
Two World Wars
During World War I, the senior Wainwright served in France as assistant chief of staff for the 82nd Division (today’s famed 82nd Airborne Division). Following the war he held a number of cavalry postings and received regular promotions, and on November 1, 1938, "Skinny" Wainwright received his first star as brigadier general, a rank his father never achieved.
In November 1940 Wainwright assumed command of a Philippine Scout division, then took over as commander of the Northern Luzon Front. When General Douglas A. MacArthur (1880-1964) was ordered to leave the Philippines on March 11, 1942, Wainwright, now a lieutenant general, became the senior field commander of all U.S. and Filipino forces in the Philippine Islands. The overpowering Japanese invasion forced the defenders to withdraw to Bataan and drove Wainwright’s headquarters to Corregidor Island. President Roosevelt authorized Wainwright to continue the fight or make terms as he saw fit. Wainwright chose to continue the battle from Corregidor despite the urgings of some that he leave. He messaged:
"I have been one of the battling bastards of Bataan and I’ll play the same role on the rock as long as it is humanly possible. I have been with my men from the start, and if captured I will share their lot. We have been through so much together that my conscience would not let me leave before the final curtain" (Army Medical Department Regiment).
The final curtain was not long in coming. Wainwright's troops were able to slow the Japanese advance for several weeks, but the invasion force proved unstoppable, and Wainwright finally was forced to surrender the Philippines on May 6, 1942.
The Nation's Highest Honor
Wainwright spent the next 39 months as a prisoner of war, held in prison camps in northern Luzon, Formosa, and Manchuria. Liberated by Russian troops in August 1945, he had the pleasure of attending the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. He then returned to the Philippines to receive the formal surrender of the famed Japanese commander, General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Wainwright was given a hero’s welcome on his return to the United States and was promoted to the rank of four-star general. On September 10, 1945, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) pinned the Medal of Honor on Wainwright in a White House ceremony. The citation supporting the medal read:
"Distinguished himself by intrepid and determined leadership against greatly superior enemy forces. At the repeated risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in his position, he frequented the firing line of his troops where his presence provided the example and incentive that helped make the gallant efforts of these men possible. The final stand on beleaguered Corregidor, for which he was in an important measure personally responsible, commanded the admiration of the Nation's allies. It reflected the high morale of American arms in the face of overwhelming odds. His courage and resolution were a vitally needed inspiration to the then sorely pressed freedom-loving peoples of the world" (U.S. Army Center of Military History).
In November 1945, barely three months after his liberation from Japanese captivity, Walla Walla honored its native son and war hero with a ceremony, parade, and speeches. In 1996, in further tribute to the general, the veterans' hospital at historic Fort Walla Walla was renamed the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center.
Retirement and Death
In January 1946 General Wainwright assumed command of the Fourth Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He made a brief trip to Washington state in August 1946, but chose to live in Texas after leaving the military on August 31, 1947.
The Wainwrights settled in San Antonio following the general's retirement. They purchased a home that Skinny named Fiddler’s Green, after a soldiers' song about a mythical land where cavalrymen go when they die. Unfortunately, their retirement years were not serene. Emotional problems resulted in his wife's permanent hospitalization, and in August 1953 the retired general spent his 70th birthday in the hospital after suffering a stroke. He died the following month, on September 2, 1953.
General Wainwright was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but his wife, still hospitalized in Colorado, was unable to attend his funeral. His gravesite is near that of his father. Upon her death in 1970, Adele Wainwright was buried next to her husband.