Survivor of the Bataan Death March Remembers
Anyone who has joined us on VBC Happy Hour knows Henry Schoepke, our much-loved teenager from Wisconsin. Henry is an avid student of history, a supporter of veterans, and an autograph collector. One of his many projects is to write thank you notes to 500 World War II veterans. So far, he’s sent over 300. One of them was to Paul Kerchum, a 102-year-old survivor of the Bataan Death March. Paul recently received Henry’s note and answered it with 17 handwritten pages sharing his story. We’ve excerpted the letter below. We’ve edited the letter for clarity and added a few important details from a Knights of Columbus article, “Service and Sacrifice Knights of the ‘Greatest Generation’ tell their stories of faith and courage as veterans of World War II” at kofc.org.
Paul Kerchum, age 95, in 2015 (Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney/USAF)
Written by Paul Kerchum
I was born 25 January, 1920. In the community I lived in, it was customary to leave school when you reached the age of 16 and get a job and help support your family. When I reached the age of 16, I dropped out of school and worked for 2 years, then I decided to join the Navy and see the world.
The first thing the navy agent asked was “Do you have a high school diploma?” I said no. He asked me to go across the hall, they will take anybody. So I joined the Army.
My first enlistment was E Co 27th Infantry Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. When my 2 years overseas was over, I returned to the U.S. After 2 weeks I reenlisted and joined B Co, 31st Infantry stationed in the old Spanish walled city, Manila, September, 1940.
When WWII broke out, the Japanese gained complete control of the air and seas in just a few days. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the armed forces in the Philippines implemented War Plan Orange. This plan called for all the troops to enter the Bataan Peninsula and hold out for six months, when help would come from the States. The plan started off well with one exception—somebody forgot to bring the food.
Bataan is a peninsula 45 miles in length, and 45 miles at its widest point. Its terrain is mountainous jungle with rice and cane fields at lower areas. Bataan had the reputation of being one of the world’s most malaria-infested areas.
So what did we have on Bataan? The Philippine Division, 14,400 strength, comprised of the American 31st Infantry, the only Americans on Bataan, at ½ strength, plus 3 Philippine scout regiments, and the 45th cavalry regiment, horse mounted with a mule train. When things got desperate on Bataan, we ate horses and mules.
Map of Bataan Death March (USAF)
The Philippine scouts were career, well trained, dedicated soldiers and performed exceedingly well during fighting. Weapons, WWI vintage, obsolete with one exception. The Philippine Division received the M1 Garand rifle 6 months before the war started.
Early January, 1942, the Japanese broke through the MLR, Main Line of Resistance, manned by the Philippine Army. The Philippine Division was opened to counterattack and tried to establish the original MLR. The battle that took place was the Battle of Abucay Hacienda. It was during this battle that I received my 1st wound from mortar shrapnel.
5 April, Easter Sunday, the Main Line of Resistance completely collapsed, and what followed was complete chaos. The objective was to end up at Mariveles, where the men could get to and continue to fight on Corregidor. 300 men from the American 31st Infantry did end up on Corregidor and continued to fight.
After 93 days of fighting on less than ½ rations, obsolete weapons, and overwhelming odds; General [Edward P.] King, the Commander of the Armed Forces on Bataan—after considerable soul searching, knowing the poor condition of his army, knowing that help was not coming from the States, and knowing the Japanese general, known as the Tiger of Malay and recent conqueror of Singapore, where 60,000 British soldiers surrendered, had just entered the Philippines—decided to surrender the Army on Bataan. He surrendered a completely exhausted, hungry, sick, disease ridden army suffering from malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, and other diseases. The men were not ready for the Bataan Death March.
The Bataan Death March, 55 miles from Mariveles to the San Fernando rail head.
The men were shot, bayoneted, beheaded or beaten to death on that hot, dusty road. At San Fernando we were stuffed into freight cars, standing room only. After a 4-hour freight ride we were unloaded at the village of Capas and then 9 miles to the nearest POW camp, Camp O’Donnell, a former Philippine Army camp.
When our group entered Camp O’Donnell, a Japanese officer greeted us yelling, screaming. “You are not POWs but captives and you will be treated like captives.” And some were.
1,500 Americans and a thousand Philippine soldiers died at Camp O’Donnell early June ‘42. I was in a group transported to the main POW camp, Cabanatuan. One day while we were there, we were chased out of our huts, forced to watch Pvt. [Irvin] Penvose, B Co. 31st Infantry, dig his own grave and be executed by firing squad.
Early on, work details were sent to Bataan, airfields, and other areas on salvage operations. Work details were also sent to Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Manchuria to perform slave labor in mines, factories, and shipyards. Ships that sent men to those areas became known as hell ships. 5,080 Americans went to the bottom of the ocean when they were on hell ships, sunk by American submarines or American aircraft.
Early October, 1943, I was part of a 500-man work detail sent to an area near the village of Las Piñas, 40 miles from Manila. There for the next 12 months we built an airfield. One day early November, 1944, we were at the end of the runway when one of the men began yelling and pointing towards Manila—American and Japanese aircraft [were] in aerial combat.
Paul Kerchum, 1946
Later, we learned that that was the time General MacArthur returned to the Philippines. The next morning 1,100 of us were stuffed into the forward holds of the Japanese ship, the Haro Maru.
The ship was part of a 9-ship convoy with Japanese destroyers as escort, destination Japan. The convoy no sooner left Manila Bay that it was attacked by American submarines. The holds were covered, and they remained in complete darkness. It seems like endless days that I kept hearing the exploding depth charges from the destroyers.
We ran all over the South China Sea being chased by American submarines for 18 horrendous days and nights. On the eighteenth day we pulled into Hong Kong. When we docked, I happened to be by the ladder when a guard motioned for me to come up. I scrambled up the ladder, grabbed a water hose, poured water over my head, drank and drank, filled my two canteens, and hooked them back on my belt. Began filling canteens and water bottles as they were sent up from the hold. This went on for about 4 hours when suddenly the air raid sirens rang out.
Here come American planes looking for targets of opportunity. Back down to the hold and off we went.
We pulled into the port of Mogi on the northern tip of Kyushu, the 2nd largest Japanese island. We were ferried across the strait and unloaded on the largest Japanese island and home of Tokyo. We were stuffed into a train and headed north. This was late Nov. ‘44, and B-29s were bombing everything in sight. The train had to stop frequently for rail repairs. We finally reached Sendai and took a narrow gauge railroad way up the mountain to the village of Hosokura where we worked at the Mitsubishi mine No. 11. Every morning, a Japanese guard squad would escort us to the main tunnel and turn us over to civilian workers.
In the evening, they would escort us back to the camp, and we were on our own. One day a B-29 came over head, bombed the shelter, several buildings, and the narrow gauge railroad. Bombing the railroad was important, because it was the only way down to Sendai. One day, we were marched to the tunnel and machine guns were placed at each end of our group. A Japanese officer was on the phone. When he was finished he hung up the phone and said something to the Japanese Lt., and we were marched back up the hill.
The next day a B-29 came over and dropped food, clothing, medicine, and news that the war ended. However, we had to wait 30 days while the narrow gauge railroad was repaired.
Finally we went down to Sendai and got on a hospital ship, received showers, med shots, and for the first time in 4 years, I slept in a REAL bed! I began eating well and, soon enough, I was no longer a 75-pounder.
Next morning, we were put aboard a British destroyer and headed south, where we entered Tokyo Bay, the most beautiful site—battleships, cruisers, destroyers, hospital ships, and every type of naval craft. We were placed in a hangar at Atsugi Airfield, a former Japanese airfield, and there we were debriefed by American intelligence. Later we learned that 200 POWs on the Philippine island of Palawan were sprayed with gasoline, set on fire, and machine gunned. Ten POWs escaped and told the story!
Then, we were put aboard a B-24 and headed south. We landed in Okinawa and were put into tents. That night a typhoon hit Okinawa, and our tent blew away, and we were running around like naked jaybirds.
After order was restored, we were put on another B-24 and headed south. You can’t imagine where we landed. Yes, Las Piñas airfield, the one we built for the Japanese.
After 6 days, one of the nurses asked, “when would you like to go back to the States?” I said, “Today.”
She said I have an opening on a ship 2 days from now. So I got aboard a slow ship and eventually we reached San Francisco. There were about 50 people to welcome us—mostly newspaper people.
After a few days, we were put on a train and headed East. Once in a while the train would stop and let some of the men off. The plan was to let men off at hospitals or VAs near their homes.
Eventually, our group was off the train at Staunton, VA. We entered a hospital. We were basket cases. We didn’t pay attention to the nurses and often jumped over the fence and then to the nearest beer place. One day, I was placed on a train and headed north. I arrived at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, at an Army camp where I was discharged and took a train home.
Paul Kerchum to Henry Schoepke, August 2022
I wasn’t too happy at home and decided to stay in the service.
I was inducted at Ft. Meade, Maryland. I heard about Route 66 and decided to hitchhike to March Air Force Base, California, my next duty station.
What followed [at March AFB] seems like a nightmare. We joined thirty 31st Infantry men there, and we were basket cases. We broke every rule and regulation on the base and even some of the regs at the local city of Riverside.
One day, most of us were reduced to privates. In order to make some money, I began working evenings at a beer garden. Every evening this good looking young lady came through the beer garden on her way. She worked in the cafeteria. One day, she was sent to the beer garden to get some food from the walk-in freezer. She walked in and I walked in behind her and closed the door. We talked for a bit, and I made a date. I visited her family, and it was not too long before Gloria and I got married.
Looking back, it was obvious that we were suffering from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But Gloria stayed by my side, and together, we succeeded in conquering PTSD. When Gloria and I married, she put me on the right road.
When the Korean War broke out, I received orders to go to Japan. I could have refused because POWs were exempt from going to Japan. However, I decided to go.
Everybody used to ask me, “Why did you go back to Japan?”
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.
I retired 1 August, 1966 in the grade of Chief Master Sergeant with 29 years of service, 8 in the Army and 21 Air Force, with the following awards and decorations:
Purple Heart, 2 Bronze Stars, Airforce Commendation Medal, POW Medal, American Defense Medal, Asiatic Pacific Medal with 2 battle stars, Philippine Defense Medal, Korean Service Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, Philippine Independence Medal, Air Force Longevity Ribbon, United Nations Ribbon, Victory Medal, 2 U.S. Presidential Unit Citations, 1 Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, 1 Korea Unit Presidential Unit Citation, and a combat badge.