April 4, 2023: Paul Kerchum
Paul Kerchum remained unyielding to challenges during his lifetime of service and dedication to his country, his family, and his faith. He was born in January 1920 in Youngstown, Ohio, to a Russian immigrant father and Hungarian immigrant mother. He worked odd jobs in Pennsylvania to earn extra money for his family and ended up leaving high school at age 16 to work at a hardware store. Kerchum sought out Navy service to escape his difficult life growing up during the Great Depression, yet his lack of a high school diploma landed him across the hall in the Army office instead, where he enlisted in 1938.
Kerchum was sent to Fort Slocum, New York, for six weeks before being transferred to Francisco Bay, California, and eventually to Honolulu, Hawaii. He was assigned to the 27th Infantry Division, where he received training and remained there for two years until being discharged. After two weeks at home in the United States, he re-enlisted in the Army and deployed to the Philippines, where he was assigned to the 31st Infantry Division in Manila in 1940.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded the Philippines where Gen. Douglas MacArthur planned to hold out for six months in Bataan. Kerchum was wounded from mortar shrapnel in the Battle of Abucay Hacienda but returned to combat before the Japanese combatants broke through the American defense. At the conclusion of the Battle of Bataan on April 9, 1942, U.S. Gen. Edward P. King surrendered “a completely exhausted, hungry, sick, disease-ridden army” to Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma. About 75,000 soldiers became prisoners of war, including Kerchum and other Filipino and American troops. They marched 45 miles in six days with a single meal of rice during the journey, and an estimated 17,000 died.
Kerchum was held at various Japanese POW camps, mines, ships being chased by American submarines, islands and villages before the war ended. He survived three and a half years as a prisoner of war before finding sanctuary aboard a hospital ship and returning to the U.S. After a slow trip to San Francisco, he boarded a train and was hospitalized in Staunton, Virginia. He wanted to return to service, however, and hitchhiked to March Air Force Base in California. There, he met his future wife, Gloria, to whom he was married for 74 years and had two children. During his continued service, he joined the 31st Infantry and returned to Japan.
Kerchum retired on Aug. 1, 1966, as chief master sergeant with 29 years of service, eight in the Army and 21 in the Air Force. For his service, he was awarded a Purple Heart, POW medal, two Bronze Stars, an Air Force Commendation Medal, as well as various other medals, unit citations and badges. He is acknowledged as one of the last survivors of the Bataan Death March. He died in December 2022 at age 102.
We honor his service.
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Writer: Mary Margaret Brennan
Editors: Ashley Shaut, Cate Manning
Graphic Designer: Kiki Kelley