PAUL KERCHUM, 31st Infantry: Retired as a Chief Master Sgt. He joined the Army at age 16, and served in the 31st Infantry Regiment in the Philippines. He was captured by the Japanese, was a prisoner of war for 34 months, and survived the Bataan Death March. In 1944, he was brought aboard a Japanese prison ship, the Shin’yō Maru, also known as a “hell ship.” It was attacked by an American submarine, whose occupants were unaware American prisoners were aboard. He was one of 82 survivors. He floated on a hatch cover, picking up other survivors, and made it to the Sindangan Bay in the Philippines, where he was rescued by Filipino guerillas, served in the Air Force for 18 years after the war.
Paul Kerchum, Benson’s WWII hero
In honor of the 75th Anniversary Thursday of the D-Day Invasion in Normandy, we salute those of The Greatest Generation who served in World War II.
Benson has its own living hero in Paul Kerchum. The longtime resident speaks at every veterans commemoration and is beloved in the San Pedro Valley. He visits schools and just recently returned from Myrtle Beach where he spoke at a reunion of the 31st Infantry.
“I gave my talk there and it was well received,” he said. “I was the only POW there who was in Bataan…”
With vivid recall, Kerchum describes the litany of horrors bestowed on servicemen found in the throes of the Bataan Death March. He also describes in graphic detail atrocities endured by American soldiers at the hands of enemy captors.
“Men were shot, bayoneted, beheaded and beaten to death by the Japanese Army for no reason.” The Bataan Death March extended 68 miles, from Mariveles to the San Fernando railhead and took about five days, he said.
“Freedom is never free,” he says. “American men and women have spilled their blood and given their lives so we can have the freedom we enjoy today.” Kerchum notes that as bands play and the flag goes by, he is constantly reminded of World War II and his comrades in the 31st Infantry, of the 99 days of fighting on the Bataan peninsula with obsolete weapons, half rations, little medicine and against overwhelming odds. “It was April 9, 1942 when General King surrendered an exhausted, beaten, hungry, diseased army, and that’s when the event that became known as the Bataan Death March followed.”
Kerchum tells of his time spent in prisoner of war camps in the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan, where captives remained under constant fear of being killed “at the slightest whim of any Japanese solder.” He routinely recounts the 39 days cramped in the hull of a Japanese “Hell Ship” – an unmarked vessel that carried American prisoners of war – under constant attack by American submarines as he and other soldiers were being transported from Manila to Taiwan. “Because these ships were not marked, 5,200 Americans were killed when they were sunk by American submarines and aircraft,” Kerchum said.
At the conclusion of the recent Memorial Day observance where he offered an unscripted keynote address in his usual candor and flair, Kerchum said he’ll do his best to speak on Veterans Day next November.