Shortly before his 18th birthday, Paul Kerchum enlisted in the U.S. military to escape the gritty industrial towns of Ohio and western Pennsylvania where he had grown up. Now 101 years old, he recalls here his experiences as a POW, his long military career, the transforming influence of his wife, and why he joined the Knights of Columbus more than 40 years ago, as a charter member of Logan De Rosier Council 7521 in Benson, Ariz.
I lived in a poor community during the Great Depression, and it was customary at age 16 to drop out of school and help support your family. I worked for two years until Jan. 6, 1938, when I decided to join the Navy and see the world. The first thing the Navy recruiter asked was: “Do you have a high school diploma?” “No,” I said. “Go across the hall. They’ll take anybody.” So, I joined the Army instead.
After a two-year tour in Hawaii, I reenlisted and joined B Company, 31st Infantry in Manila, where I was a machine gun squad leader.
I was in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. They soon had control of the air and seas in the Philippines, and in early January 1942, they broke through the main line of resistance. The 31st Infantry pulled a counterattack that led to a 13-day battle.
On the 13th day, a Japanese mortar exploded and threw me flat on my face. It destroyed my helmet. When I came to, two men were escorting me, and I kept saying, “I don’t want to go to the hospital.” And I didn’t. That’s when I started to pray. When the bullets were flying around, and bombs were bursting all around you, I said the Hail Mary. Believe me, I prayed.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur then implemented War Plan Orange, which called for all of the troops to retreat. When we retreated to the Bataan peninsula in Luzon, we were on half rations and in terrible shape. On Good Friday, April 3, the Japanese manned a massive offensive, and on April 9 Gen. King, commander of the troops on Bataan, surrendered an exhausted, hungry and disease-ridden army.
What followed became known as the Bataan Death March — 55 miles (88 km) north from Mariveles to the San Fernando railhead. Men were shot, bayonetted, beheaded or beaten to death on that hot and dusty road. A lot of times I didn’t see it. I took the middle of the file, kept my eyes forward, watched the legs in front of me and just kept walking. When somebody ran out of the file, I’d hear shots. One time, I saw somebody beaten to death when he ran out to get some sugar cane.
At San Fernando, we were stuffed into boxcars, standing room only. We were offloaded at the village of Capas, then had a 9-kilometer hike to the first prison camp, Camp O’Donnell. A Japanese officer greeted us. I’ll never forget his words: “You are not prisoners of war,” he said. “You are captives and you’ll be treated like captives.”
YEARS IN CAPTIVITY
In the next two months, hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipino soldiers died at O’Donnell. In early June 1942, I was transported to the main prison at Cabanatuan, where 3,000 Americans died in the next six months. You couldn’t believe the brutality. Three Navy officers in our camp who tried to escape were captured and then beheaded. We were put in groups of 10, and if one escaped, then the other nine were shot.
Work details were sent to Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere. In early October 1943, I was part of a 500-man work detail sent to build an airfield near Las Pinas, 40 miles from Manila. All we had were rumors that help was on the way. We heard that for three and a half years.
One day, we were at the end of the runway when one of the men began pointing toward Manila. And there in the sky were hundreds of American and Japanese aircraft in aerial combat. Later, we learned that Gen. MacArthur had returned to the Philippines.
The next morning, 11 of us were stuffed into a ship, part of a convoy headed for Japan. No sooner had we left Manila Bay than we came under American submarine attack. The holds were covered, and we remained in complete darkness, but we prayed for the best. We ran zigzag all over the South China Sea for days, being chased by American submarines. Approximately 5,280 Americans went down to the bottom of the sea when unmarked hell ships like ours were sunk by American submarines or aircraft.
We eventually landed in Japan and were stuffed into a train to Sendai. Then, we took a narrow-gauge railroad way up into the mountains, where we worked at Mitsubishi Mine No. 11. One day, a B-29 came over and dropped food, clothing and medicine with the news that the war was over. I began eating well and, soon enough, I was no longer a 75-pounder. They put us on a hospital ship, and for the first time in four years we slept in real beds.
FINDING LOVE AND FAITH
After World War II, I joined the Air Force. In order to make a few extra dollars, I started to work at a beer garden. Every evening, this nice-looking 18-year-old lady came through the cafeteria. And all eyes were on her. One day, they sent her to the beer garden to get some food from the walk-in refrigerator. She walked in, and so did I. We talked a while, and I made a date with her. And it wasn’t long afterward that we got married.
When Gloria and I married, she put me on the right road, you know? Because I’ll admit, I was not much of a Catholic at that time. I remember one day I started talking about somebody. And she yelled at me, “Cállate la boca!” (“Shut up!”). Then she said, “Paul, one of the biggest sins is gossiping. And if you want to go to heaven, you better quit.”
During the Korean War, I was stationed at Ashiya Air Force Base in Japan. Everybody used to ask me, “Why did you go back to Japan?” Because I was a POW, I had an option not to go. But I told them, “I want to go there.” Gloria and I talked all about it. And I talked to a lot of the Japanese people. And in my heart, I forgave them. That was how Gloria influenced me.
We were married for 74 years and had two children. Gloria passed away Dec. 21, 2019 — a day does not pass that I fail to think about her.
After serving 29 years — eight in the Army infantry and 21 in the Air Force — I retired in 1966 as a chief master sergeant. When I received my first retirement check, I said, “I need to find a job.” So, I worked for several years at a hardware store and later as a real estate agent.
I’ve spoken a lot over the years about my wartime experiences. One day in 1980, I went up to the podium at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Benson and I gave my talk. Afterward, some of the Knights got a hold of me and talked to me. And then I joined the Order as charter member of Logan De Rosier Council 7521 in Benson. I held many officer roles, including grand knight. It was the camaraderie of it. They were a good group, and they were for something.
When I joined, I really joined, I really became involved. You could find me anytime on Friday or Saturday morning in front of Safeway or the post office raising funds for charity. I raised a lot of money, and I really liked what I was doing. So, to all Catholic men, I say join. And if you join, try to be active.
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