The defeat of the forces of Imperial Japan in the Philippines in 1944–45 was a long and brutal ordeal for the US military and for Filipino guerrillas. If Americans mainly recall Corregidor, the Bataan Death March, and General Douglas MacArthur’s much-publicized return to the Philippine Islands in October 1944, there is so much more deserving of remembrance with respect to World War II and the Philippines. The courageousness and sacrifice of men like Manuel Pérez Jr., killed in action on Luzon and awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, were an integral part of the story.
A proud Mexican American, Pérez was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 3, 1923. When he was not yet two years old, he moved to Chicago, where his father and grandfather raised him. He attended Crane Technical High School on the Windy City’s West Side and graduated in June 1941. Like so many males just beginning adulthood, Pérez’s life was upended by the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor six months later.
While working at Best Foods, Inc., Pérez registered for the draft in late June 1942. Several months later, he entered the US Army. Volunteering for training as a paratrooper, Pérez was assigned to Company A of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, formed at Fort Toccoa, Georgia (famous for its association with the “Band of Brothers” of Company E, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment). Following rigorous training at Fort Toccoa, Private Pérez and his comrades received additional instruction at a number of stateside locations: Fort Mackall in North Carolina, Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Polk in Louisiana, and Camp Stoneman in California. This was a lengthy and demanding process, mentally and physically, with marksmanship tests proving especially challenging for him. Yet the training readied Pérez and the men of the 511th for what they would face when they deployed to the Pacific theater.
Pérez and the 511th fought the Japanese as part of the 11th Airborne Division, activated in late February 1943 at Fort Mackall and commanded by Major General Joseph Swing. The 11th was sent to Dobodura, New Guinea, in early 1944 for further preparation for combat. On November 18, 1944, Pérez participated in his division’s landing on Leyte in the Philippines, encountering no Japanese opposition. In November and December, the 511th pushed westward on Leyte, contributing to the 11th Airborne Division’s smashing of two Japanese divisions. General Swing’s men then conducted a series of small amphibious operations, backed by airborne troops. It was an impressive, if harrowing, start for Pérez.
For Pérez and his unit, Luzon was next. Swing’s 11th Airborne would lead the assault of the Sixth US Army’s attack on the island. The landing commenced on January 31, 1945. Four days later, Pérez and the 511th executed a parachute drop on Tagaytay Ridge, south of Manila and 2,200 feet above sea level. After the landing, he participated in the horrendous fighting with the Japanese in the capital city of Manila, the scene of some of the bloodiest urban combat of the war. The city was liberated in early March.
Private First Class Pérez’s defining moment occurred on February 13, 1945. His Medal of Honor citation details (with a discrepancy between the final number of Japanese killed and all those listed in the narrative) this astonishing incident:
“He was lead scout for Company A, which had destroyed 11 of 12 pillboxes in a strongly fortified sector defending the approach to enemy-held Fort William McKinley on Luzon, Philippine Islands. In the reduction of these pillboxes, he killed five Japanese in the open and blasted others in pillboxes with grenades. Realizing the urgent need for taking the last emplacement, which contained two twin-mount .50-caliber dual-purpose machine guns, he took a circuitous route to within 20 yards of the position, killing four of the enemy in his advance. He threw a grenade into the pillbox, and, as the crew started withdrawing through a tunnel just to the rear of the emplacement, shot and killed four before exhausting his clip. He had reloaded and killed four more when an escaping Jap threw his rifle with fixed bayonet at him. In warding off this thrust, his own rifle was knocked to the ground. Seizing the Jap rifle, he continued firing, killing two more of the enemy. He rushed the remaining Japanese, killed three of them with the butt of the rifle, and entered the pillbox, where he bayoneted the one surviving hostile soldier. Singlehandedly, he killed 18 of the enemy in neutralizing the position that had held up the advance of his entire company. Through his courageous determination and heroic disregard of grave danger, Pfc. Pérez made possible the successful advance of his unit toward a valuable objective and provided a lasting inspiration for his comrades.”
Pérez knew that he would be recommended for the Medal of Honor citation, writing home to family about how thrilled he was. On March 3, he turned 22. But only 11 days later, his life was cut short by war, killed while attacking a Japanese bunker near Santo Thomas.
A hero to his comrades in Company A of the 511th, as well as to the Mexican American community, Pérez’s bravery and sacrifice have been acknowledged and memorialized in many different ways. In Chicago, several reminders of his service exist: Mexican American veterans named a post of the American Legion after him. There is also a Manuel Pérez Jr. Elementary School in the city’s historic neighborhood of Pilsen, as well as a Manuel Pérez, Jr. Memorial Plaza in Little Village. Oklahoma City commemorates him with a Manuel Pérez Park.
Most importantly, the US government awarded Pérez, posthumously, the Medal of Honor. In February 1946, it was presented to his father, Manuel Pérez Sr. Pérez Jr.’s final resting place is in Fairlawn Cemetery in Oklahoma City.