By Paul Kerchum, Tom Rossi and Louis Graziano, with Columbia staff
Millions of young men entered the armed forces to serve their countries during World War II. For patriotic Canadians, Britons, Frenchmen and their allies, the call came after the Nazi invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Millions more from the United States joined them after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“We know that they were very young, and for most of them it was their first trip abroad,” said French Consul General Vincent Hommeril, who recently bestowed the medal of the French Legion of Honor upon Louis Graziano, a Knight who on June 6, 1944, participated in the D-Day invasion.
“They were not compelled to do that, but they decided to do it — they risked their lives,” Hommeril continued. “I am from Normandy. So personally, these people really mean something to me. And we are still, up to this day, very grateful for what they did.”
While Graziano saw grim action on the front lines, others like Tom Rossi, then a 22-year-old member of the top-secret Office of Strategic Services — a precursor to the U.S. Army’s Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency — played a perilous role working behind enemy lines.
Others still, like Paul Kerchum, showed the courage of endurance as prisoners of war. Kerchum spent more than three death-defying years in Japanese labor camps — after surviving the horrific Bataan Death March at age 22 in April 1942.
In the following pages, we share the dramatic stories, adapted from interviews, of these three Knights of the “Greatest Generation.”
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.
Gaetano “Tom” Rossi was born in Newark, N.J., in October 1919 to parents who had immigrated from the Neapolitan region of Italy. When the United States entered World War II, Rossi joined the top-secret Italian Operational Group of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was organized by the legendary Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan. Similar to today’s Special Forces, OSS operational groups supported partisan resistance forces, disrupted communications and supply lines, and rescued Allied prisoners of war.
Unrecognized for many decades, Rossi and his brother commandos — who called themselves “Donovan’s Devils” — received official commendation for their OSS service when they each were awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, in 2018.
Rossi joined the Knights of Columbus 60 years ago and is currently a member of St. John the Evangelist Council 7515 in Yardley, Pa.
There were nine kids in the family. That was an education in itself. As a youngster, to help the family, I shined shoes. I had a box, carried it downtown, and the people who could afford a pair of shoes got a shine for a dime. I also worked in a barbershop sweeping the floors. These little jobs were all everybody had. I wasn’t alone; everybody was doing the same thing.
You get out of high school in middle of the Depression, so what do you do? You look for work, which wasn’t there anymore. I finally hit it when I went to this employment office and they sent me to an upholstery shop. They wanted me for a week, but I stayed even longer.
I was at my uncle’s house listening to the radio when we heard about Pearl Harbor. I said, “Pearl Harbor? What the hell is that?” I had no idea. But staying on the radio, we found out that we were attacked.
I couldn’t wait to get downtown to sign up. Half the city was down there. At age 22, I was in OK shape and got to be a 1-A (eligible for military service). After my draft notice came, I was assigned to the Army War College in Washington, D.C.
After a couple of months of the paperwork business, the boss, Col. Booth — I won’t forget that name — wanted to talk to me in private. “You have an Italian name,” he said. “Yeah, my parents are Italian. I’m Italian.” “Well, they’re making up a special group. A lot of action, mostly secret. Are you interested? If so, we’re going to make an appointment for you to be interviewed by the Office of Strategic Services.” I said, “Yes.”
Within a week, I got the notice. The guy picked me up, took me to a room full of colonels and at least one general. “Whatever you hear here, you don’t repeat,” they said. “You’re going to be involved in parachuting and sabotage behind the lines.” Our job was specifically to get a hold of the many Italian resistance groups or partisans — partigiani, as they were called — and support them.
Our training was rigorous and was conducted in secret at what is now known as the presidential retreat Camp David. William Fairbairn, a tough British army officer, directed much of the hand-to-hand training there: If you have to grapple with a guy, we were told, make sure he’s down. Boom boom. Always two shots. Never boom and then go.
After training, I was assigned to the 2671st Special Reconnaissance Battalion, Company A — the Italian-speaking unit — but we also had units in France, Greece and so forth.
We were what they called an OSS operational group — a fighting, commando group and the forerunner of today’s U.S. Army Special Forces. We’d have two or three guys go behind the lines maybe for a month, or some for days. We had our American uniforms and always, even behind the lines, we kept our uniforms.
There was also the OSS secret intelligence group (SI), which later became the CIA. They were spies, who were there already and which we knew nothing about.
Our job started once we got to Africa and the Sicilian campaign started. We had a small group parachute into Italy, and their job was to find the concentration camps where the American and British prisoners were and talk to the wardens in Italian. “Let’s get these guys the hell out of here. What’s the best way?” Our guys took care that they got out safe.
Then we moved up to Corsica, which was a few hundred miles in front of the action with direct access to the Italian coast. That’s where our long-term job started.
L’Île-Rousse, on the northwest coast, became our main headquarters; I was sent to the forward operating base in Bastia, on the northeast coast. The FOBs were located behind enemy lines and facilitated air drops, intel and direct support for the many ongoing operations.
The unit got involved in everything after early operations expelling most of the Nazis from Corsica. I was in the headquarters most of the time and got drafted out to help our first sergeant handle paperwork. One very important mission my unit was involved in was the Ginny mission. We had to get to a long mountain tunnel in north central Italy that the German trains used to transport guns and food for the German soldiers. Our job was to break up that tunnel.
Somehow, after the outfit landed, all 15 men got captured. We found out later that Hitler had ordered, “We don’t care what uniform they have or not. If they’re here for sabotage, kill them. Period.” So, our men were executed. We lived and trained with these guys. To lose them all was a terrible blow.
From mid-April to May 1, 1945, I was part of a small operational group that established a forward operating base behind German lines in Siena. There, we were in a better position to supply and lead partisan forces against the Nazis. It was to be our last FOB of the war.
BROTHERS FOR LIFE
When V-E Day came on May 8, we got down to Naples to take a boat, go back to the States to train to go to the East. War wasn’t over. We got to Washington, and we were all waiting to go to the Pacific. But we didn’t have to go there. The war ended in August.
I served in the war four years. When I saw my kid brothers and sisters again, they were teenagers. They grew up, and I had missed those formative years. I also missed my youngest brother, who had died during the war.
I got married in 1946, and Giovanna and I eventually had four children. A few years later, as a GI Bill graduate, I passed the civil service tests and Social Security became my profession.
In 1961, I joined Our Lady of Fatima Council 5184 in Newark. We had a ball doing good things: collecting food, giving it out, collecting money at intersections for good causes. We kept busy and did the work of the council. Wherever people needed help, we went. Charity was numero uno. I’ve always loved the Knights of Columbus, and half of my family are Knights today. My current council here is beautiful. Our guys do a lot of great work.
My OSS group had a lot of reunions aer the war, because most of us came from New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania. We had at least 50 reunions. We were close going in. We were close coming out.
It took 50 years for my unit — the 2671st Special Reconnaissance Battalion, Company A, OSS Italian Operational Group — to be officially recognized. But it finally happened in 2018, when the members of the OSS all received the Congressional Gold Medal, the few of us that were left, for our service. I think that was very honorable, very impressive. I was so happy. I was proud to be who I was: an American soldier.
Luciano “Louis” Charles Graziano was born in February 1923, the youngest of five children. His parents came through Ellis Island from Sicily and settled near Buffalo, N.Y. After eighth grade he quit school to go to work, and later joined his family’s hair salon business.
Graziano set aside his scissors to take up arms during World War II, landing at Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. The following year, he was present in the room at Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France, where German Gen. Alfred Jodl signed the Instrument of Surrender on May 7, 1945.
A charter member and past grand knight of Father Larry Endrizzi Council 6918 in Thomson, Ga., Graziano was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor in Thomson on Sept. 17.
In January 1943, I received a letter from Uncle Sam to report to Fort Niagara for a physical. After combat training, I left for England with 16,000 troops on the Queen Mary.
During the 18 months I spent in England, we had a lot of tough training as we prepared for the invasion of Normandy. At one point, a German plane came every night waking us up. Finally, I said to the men, “Let’s stay up and get that plane.” I put a tracer bullet — one that lights up — every fourth bullet in my gun to be able to find our target, and I shot that plane down. Another time, I was sent for six weeks on a secret mission to London. Almost every night, the bombs would whistle and explode, and I never knew if I was going to get hit. It made me pray harder to God for protection.
The night before we landed on Omaha Beach, we had a prayer meeting, and that was one night everyone prayed.
When we landed in the morning, we were in the third wave. I drove a truck off the landing ship, then jumped out of it in a hurry because the Germans were up on top of the cliff shooting down at us. I lay down among the dead soldiers and then crawled toward the cliff, which was 100 feet high. When I finally got under it, we set the woods on fire and got rid of that machine gun on top. Then I shot a flare up in the sky, knowing the Navy would know what to do: They took out another machine gun for us.
I was in charge of 35 men, and sadly lost two when we made the landing on the beach. Most of my men had lost their guns in the water coming ashore, as they would have drowned if they didn’t drop them and other equipment on their backs. We remained underneath the cliff for a day, until the arrival of the Rangers, who were the first group of soldiers to climb the cliff.
Then I said, “All you men without a gun, go down and get one off the dead soldiers and follow me up the cliff.” So, we followed the Rangers up the cliff while the Germans continued shooting down at us. And we finally made it up there and got control of them.
LIBERATION & SURRENDER
For the next 43 days, we fought all the way to Saint-Lô and then kept on traveling till we got to Reims, where Gen. Thrasher put me in charge of utilities. He gave me 35 men to work with, and we had to take care of all the buildings in Reims that the Americans occupied. I put the men to work getting things done.
At one point, the general came over and said, “I need for you to put a telephone in Gen. Eisenhower’s quarters.” I took my buddy Buck with me, and we had to run wire through the town and fields while watching out for mines. We stayed at headquarters a couple days with Gen. Eisenhower. He was really good to us, and it was an honor to serve under him.
The war continued through 1944, and one day that the winter, the captain asked me to go on a mission. I asked him if it was a request or an order. He said, “I can make it an order.” I replied, “OK, let’s go.” I had been in the worst possible battle in my life at Omaha Beach, so what could be worse?
We had to find a company of troops that were lost and needed to get to Bastogne, Belgium, to reinforce Gen. Patton’s men who were cut off by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. It was snowing hard and bitterly cold. We went out and found them between Reims and Metz. As we escorted them up to Bastogne, we were worried that we might not have enough food, ammunition or warm clothes. I had not been issued combat boots and my feet froze.
Once we arrived in Bastogne and got them all situated, the captain and I went back to Reims — and I made it back there just in time. Fluid was coming out of the sores in my swollen feet; another day and they would have had to amputate them. I stayed in the infirmary three weeks before they let me out.
One building in Reims that I took care of was known as the “Little Red Schoolhouse,” which was used as Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, where Gen. Eisenhower and his staff were quartered. I found out May 6 that the German commanders would be coming in to sign the “Instrument of Surrender.”
I had set up a war room with all the maps, where they were to do the signing. I was honored to be in that room when the surrender was signed in the early hours of May 7, 1945. The German general wouldn’t sign until the Americans, British, French and Russians had signed. He wanted to be the last one. When we got through, the Germans had nothing but a straight face. They got up and clicked their heels together.
Then I took them into Gen. Eisenhower’s office, which was a couple of doors down the hall. He asked them if they were satisfied with how everything went. And they nodded their heads and clicked their heels together. He dismissed them. And that was the end of that.
THE POWER OF PERSISTENCE
One day after the surrender, Buck said, “Let’s go watch the ladies play ball.” So he got his girlfriend and the three of us went to a Women’s Army Corp softball game in Reims. I said to them, “Who’s that pitching?” Buck’s girlfriend said, “Her name is Bobbie, and she’s my best friend.” So, the next day I asked her for a date, and she said, “OK.” I went to pick her up that night. But when I got there, the lady in the office said, “She’s already gone with somebody.” So, I got stood up!
About two weeks later, I went back and asked her for a date again. And that time Staff Sgt. Eula “Bobbie” Shaneyfelt was there. Little did I know that I would be marrying the girl of my dreams a few months later in Reims and honeymooning in Paris. We got married by a priest when we arrived in New York.
My wife was from Alabama, and she didn’t like the snow up north. So, we eventually moved to Thomson, Ga., where we raised our five children and I opened Louis Hair Styling Salon.
I also helped establish and build our parish church. In 1977, I joined the Knights of Columbus and was a charter member of our council, signing up about 30 men at the beginning. I later served as grand knight and as treasurer for about 20 years. Both of my sons and two grandsons joined our council too.
We do Friday fish fries, spaghetti dinners and chili suppers for the whole parish. And we raise a lot of money and do a lot of good for people who need help.
I think all Catholic men should join the Knights of Columbus. It makes them better men — men who work to help others.
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