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Who was the first United States soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II?

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Alexander Ramsey Nininger Jr. (20 October 1918 - 12 January 1942) was born in Gainesville, Georgia, but was raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During his youth, he was accustomed to hearing family stories about some of his relatives: his father had served during World War I; his grandfather, Captain Alexander R. Nininger (1844-1918) had served as an army officer during the Civil War and in the 28th U.S. Infantry from 1867 to 1870; and his great grand uncle Alexander Ramsey, a pioneer of the West, was first governor of Minnesota, and secretary of war during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th U.S. president. After graduating from Fort Lauderdale High School he went on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York where he received his army commission in June 1941 and asked for duty in the Philippines in anticipation of being called into war. Accordingly, Second Lieutenant "Sandy" Nininger was assigned to serve with the U.S. Army, 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, under General Douglas MacArthur. From the 424 members of the West Point class of 1941, Nininger was the first of 36 of his former classmates who gave their lives in World War II. He was also the first United States soldier to earn the Medal of Honor in World War II and among 51 recipients to have been awarded this highest distinction while serving in the Philippines.

Nininger's heroism in helping fight against tens of thousands of Japanese forces on the ground during the Battle of Bataan is clearly outlined 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 handgrenades 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." While it was reported that he was buried at the Saint Dominic Parish Church Cemetery in Abucay, his remains were never identified as recovered. Upon recommendation from General MacArthur, President Roosevelt posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Nininger on 29 January 1942 and it was presented in a solemn ceremony at Third Air Force Headquarters, Tampa, Florida to his father, Alexander R. Nininger by Major General Walter H. Frank on 10 February 1942.

Alexander Nininger continues to serve as an inspiration and is well commemorated. He is memorialized among 36,285 names inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery. There is also a cenotaph that was erected in his memory in 2010 at Arlington National Cemetery. At West Point, his name is synonymous with honour. One of their most important rooms is Nininger Hall, a permanent home for the Cadet Honor Committee, as this is where the fate of every cadet who is accused of an honour violation is adjudicated. The First Division of Cadet Barracks is named after him, and in 2006 the West Point Association of Graduates established The Alexander R. Nininger Award for Valor at Arms "intended to recognize the personal valor of the recipient but also to acknowledge the bravery of all West Point graduates who have heroically led Soldiers." His legacy also includes two ships named after him: a coastal transport ship, the MS 'Alexander R. Nininger, Jr.' was commissioned on 7 December 1944 and there was a Victory ship completed in 1945 that was later renamed to USAT 'Lt. Alexander R. Nininger', following a practice of naming U.S. vessels after recipients of the Medal of Honor. At Fort Benning, Georgia, there is a rifle range at the Infantry School named in remembrance of him. His hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida did not forget him. After two years of efforts and fundraising, a 700-pound bronze casting of Nininger and a memorial wall listing Broward County's war dead was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1994. As shown in the photograph, Mr. Enzo Gallo, the sculptor and artist, depicts Nininger as he might have appeared just prior to his death. Other local community recognition includes Nininger Drive, Nininger AmVets Post #3, and the Nininger Army Reserve Center.

On this day, 12 January 2022, we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the death of Second Lieutenant Alexander R. Nininger Jr. and for his conspicuous gallantry in the Battle of Bataan, he is recognized as the first United States soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II.

André M. Levesque

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