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Movement started to make sure this Gainesville-born war hero and Medal of Honor recipient is remembered
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Alexander "Sandy" Nininger Jr., who was born in Gainesville, was the first Medal of Honor recipient during World War II. (Photo courtesy History Fort Lauderdale)

Gainesville is the birthplace of a war hero who rarely comes up in conversations among Hall County veterans and doesn’t have a memorial in town. 

Alexander “Sandy” Nininger Jr., born in Gainesville, was awarded the first Medal of Honor during World War II.  

Nininger was featured in an article published by The Times in 1972, which included a clipping from the newspaper's predecessor, the Gainesville Eagle, written in 1942. It stated that the 2nd Lt. received the award for his exceptional bravery as reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the Philippines forces at the time.  

“The lieutenant known here as a youth as ‘Sandy’ voluntarily attached himself to another outfit engaged in fierce fighting against Japanese snipers, Gen. MacArthur reported. Using a rifle and hand grenades, he fought forward and killed several enemy snipers and destroyed several small Japanese units before he himself was killed.” 

According to the report sourced in the article, Nininger’s body “was found beside those of a Japanese officer and two Japanese soldiers.” 

Nininger was 23 when he died valiantly on Jan. 12, 1942 during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. 

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A statue of Alexander "Sandy" Nininger Jr., who was born in Gainesville and raised in Fort Lauderdale, was erected on Fort Lauderdale's Riverwalk in 1994. Photo courtesy the South Florida Sun Sentinel

Bill Hallman, a local Vietnam War veteran who served in the Navy as a flight engineer, said he was shocked after recently coming across information about Nininger. As someone born and raised in Gainesville, Hallman said he had never heard of the war hero. Veterans will be honored Nov. 11 in at least two local Veterans Day events

“It’s [the Medal of Honor] only awarded for actual courage above and beyond (what) any normal person would do,” Hallman said. “And it’s only awarded after a recommendation from someone that observed the action.” 

Kyle Gomez-Leineweber of Oakwood wrote a letter to the editor in June, suggesting moving the “Old Joe” Confederate memorial in Gainesville’s square to a museum and replacing it with a better option. One of his recommendations included a monument of Nininger.  

Gomez-Leineweber described Nininger’s sacrifice in combat as “a story of bravery and courage.” 

According to History Fort Lauderdale, formerly Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, Nininger voluntarily attached himself to a company that was in combat. He received three wounds but continued to fight with his rifle and hand grenades until he was killed “after pushing alone far within enemy position.” 

“He did that for whatever reason, love of country, love of family, love of his brothers he was fighting alongside,” Gomez-Leineweber said. “He's absolutely a figure we should all be able to celebrate.” 

The reason that most in Gainesville are unaware of Nininger’s heroism lies with the fact that he didn’t spend much time in Gainesville, but instead grew up in Fort Lauderdale.  

Patricia Zeiler, executive director of History Fort Lauderdale, said Nininger was a graduate of Fort Lauderdale High School, where he served as a member of the swim team. She said Nininger was described by some as a “scrawny teenager,” and was involved in the Key Club, a service organization for high school students. 

Alexander Ramsey Nininger Jr 2017
Alexander Ramsey Nininger Jr.

He then moved on to the United States Military Academy at West Point. After being commissioned as a lieutenant, Zeiler said Nininger requested an appointment to the Philippines.  

Zeiler said the whole town of Fort Lauderdale mourned Nininger’s death when they received word of his ultimate sacrifice. The city later memorialized Nininger in 1994 by placing a statue of the war hero on its Riverwalk. 

“He was a hometown hero,” she said.  

Johnny Hulsey, who served as an Army tanker during the Vietnam War, said after hearing about Nininger on Tuesday, he felt inspired to help erect a monument for the fallen soldier at Rock Creek Veterans Park in Gainesville.  

“This man paid the ultimate sacrifice for his brothers,” Hulsey said. “That would be a great project for us (Rock Creek Vietnam Veterans) in the coming years. He’s from Gainesville, Georgia, and he needs to be honored here.” 

Nininger was inducted into the Georgia Military Hall of Fame in 2017.