Family of still-missing WWII Medal of Honor recipient asks DOD to stop using his name
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 12, 2021
The descendants of World War II’s first Medal of Honor recipient are requesting the federal government remove the soldier’s name from all public buildings and installations, a move coming after what they call a decades-long “bureaucratic logjam” in bringing his remains home from the Philippines.
First Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Nininger, serving with the 57th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts, died in battle on Jan. 12, 1942, near Abucay on the Bataan peninsula of Luzon Island, during the Japanese invasion.
He was given a hasty burial and subsequently became the war’s first service member to receive the Medal of Honor in the early days of the conflict when Imperial Japan invaded and occupied a huge swath of Asia.
“They needed a hero,” John Patterson, Nininger’s 84-year-old nephew, told Stars and Stripes during a phone interview Monday from his home in Rhode Island. “They needed somebody to talk about. They needed help with morale in terms of all of the disasters in the Pacific.”
Nininger’s Medal of Honor citation describes the young officer moving single-handedly against the invaders.
“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,” the citation said.
Patterson has spent his adult life working to bring his uncle’s remains home from the Philippines, a mission he inherited from his mother — the soldier’s sister — who had taken up the work from her father.
On Tuesday — the 79th anniversary of Nininger’s death — Patterson sent a letter to Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams and other officials requesting on behalf of the family that Nininger’s name be removed from federal properties.
Nininger was a 1941 graduate of West Point, where stands the namesake Nininger Hall, among other memorials at the academy.
The family is also asking the Veterans Administration to no longer use Nininger’s name for a veterans nursing home in South Florida.
“This is not what my family wanted to do and we gave this decision a lot of thought but we no longer believe that it is appropriate for the government to use Sandy’s name to represent the highest military ideals if they aren’t willing to lift a finger to identify him,” Patterson wrote. “His case has been stuck in a bureaucratic logjam for more than 70 years and we are beyond frustrated.”
“[W]e are aware that while Sandy's memory continues to be used to inspire future leaders, the government itself has failed miserably to live up to the ideals he exemplified in life,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for the Army secretary told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday that McCarthy was not available to comment on the letter.
Patterson spent years researching the death and burial of Nininger, reviewing early documentation and interviewing veterans with firsthand knowledge of events in January 1942.
In the 1990s, while working in the Philippines for the U.S. government, he investigated burial grounds near the battle site.
He became convinced that the remains in an unknown grave designated Manila X-1130 are those of Nininger. The U.S. government has denied Patterson’s repeated requests to exhume the remains for analysis.
In 2017, Patterson was one of seven plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to force the federal government — including the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the entity primarily tasked with identifying remains — to conduct DNA tests on sets of remains buried as “unknowns” in the Philippines.
In July 2019, the judge dismissed the case in a summary judgment for the defendants.
Both DPAA and its precursor, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, have maintained for years that a physical description of the remains documented during the years immediately after the war is not a close enough match to Nininger’s build to warrant exhumation.
This fall, Patterson took his quest for disinterment of X-1130 to Defense Department officials above the level of DPAA. He was assisted by Jed Henry, a successful MIA investigator and founder of the nonprofit PFC Lawrence Gordon Foundation.
In an email to Henry on Dec. 23, DPAA director Kelly McKeague reiterated the agency’s stance, writing that disinterring X-1130 “still cannot be validated by DPAA’s research, which, as you know, shows significant stature, ancestry, and recovery location discrepancies for the X-1130 remains to belong to First Lieutenant Nininger.”
McKeague said the agency was continuing to “actively explore” possible burial sites used by the U.S. Army in the Philippines in 1942, and DPAA’s historians had submitted six other disinterment proposals from the Manila American Cemetery “for which Mr. Patterson's uncle is a candidate.”
Responding to McKeague, Henry wrote that conducting DNA testing on X-1130 would be a “win-win situation.”
“If DPAA is committed to living up to ‘the fullest possible accounting’ it will one day have to disinter X-1130 so why not do it while the family is alive and can pay their respects?” Henry wrote.
“If X-1130 would unfortunately turn out not to be Nininger then the DNA test can be used to identify one of his comrades.”
Patterson argues that DNA testing on X-1130 might cost a few thousand dollars, a tiny sum compared to what DPAA spends annually.
“It's also worth noting that in the last 6 years DPAA has been appropriated more than $832 million dollars and with that money have only made 962 identification[s], which shows it's costing more than $865,000 per identification,” Patterson wrote in his letter to defense officials.
“Sandy's country has failed him and because of that we ask that the U.S. Government promptly begin the process of removing the name of Lt. Alexander R. Nininger Jr from all Federal facilities and cease trading on his good name and reputation,” he wrote in conclusion. “Further, if the U.S. Government is unable to find and identify the remains of Lt Nininger, please allow my family to hire our own professionals to do the job and we will cover whatever the costs may be.”