ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) --
On his way to becoming one of the U.S. Air Force’s most legendary—as well as courageous and inspirational—Airmen, CMSgt (retired) Paul Kerchum, who died Dec. 17 at age 102, traveled some unexpected and difficult roads.
Now in death, Kerchum’s distinguished record and contributions to the Air Force and the nation are coming into focus once again.
In addition to his long active-duty service, first in the Army after enlisting in 1938, then an additional 21 years following World War II in the newly born U.S. Air Force, Kerchum also claimed notoriety as a POW and one of the last—if not the last—survivors of the gruesome Bataan Death March during World War II.
While Kerchum served decades ago and survived the tortuous march in 1942 along the Philippines largest island and as a prisoner of war in which he endured harsh and cruel conditions, his example resonates today and is worth following, Air Force senior leaders say. It is the reason Kerchum was laid to rest Jan. 25 (which coincides with his 103rd birthday) in Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery with full military honors following a funeral mass in Benson, Ariz.
“The treatment of those who endured the Bataan Death March is something we can never let fade from our memories,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass. “However, for Chief Kerchum to take that pain and transform it into a lifetime of service and dedication to our nation is incredible and downright inspiring. Chief Kerchum was, and will always be, remembered as an American hero.”
The solemn ceremony reflected the personal story of a heroic Airman who fought in World War II and contributed to the Air Force’s early days in ways that are still relevant.
Kerchum’s experiences, senior leaders say, continue to inform instruction for how to endure being a prisoner of war. His self-admitted uneven behavior after the war adds depth to the understanding of what became known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Kerchum also reflects a distinguished, but dwindling, population whose stories and influence continue to be felt in today’s Air Force. The group includes Lt. Dick Cole who died in 2019 at 103 years old and who was Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot on the daring bombing raid on Japan in 1942.
Like Cole and Doolittle along with others, Kerchum is best known for his conduct during World War II. Foremost is his performance in the battle in the Philippines that waged for 93 days even though his unit, B Company, 31st Infantry, and supporting units were outnumbered and outgunned.
As Kerchum recounts in an oral history, they eventually were ordered to surrender.
“While fighting, we were on less than half rations and with obsolete weapons,” he said. “Then that which followed became, as the Bataan Death March, a forced march … from Mariveles to the San Fernando Railhead. Men were shot, bayonetted, beheaded and beaten on that hot, dusty road. When the surrender took place, the men were already suffering from dysentery, malaria, malnutrition and other diseases.”
Kerchum and approximately 75,000 other Filipino and American troops were force-marched 65 miles in six days, with only one meal of rice during the entire journey. An estimated 17,000 died.
Yet the toughness and resiliency he exhibited during the march were not surprising.
Born in Ohio and raised in a foster home in Pittsburgh as a child of the Depression, Kerchum and his friend decided in 1938 that joining the Navy would allow them to leave their hardscrabble lives. As Kerchum recounts in his oral history, “The first thing the recruiting agent asked, ‘Do you gentlemen have high school diplomas?’ We said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Go across the hall, they will take anybody.’”
That short journey led to an active-duty history more than three decades long. In addition to serving in the Philippines during World War II, Kerchum served after the war at Air Force bases in Japan among other countries as well as at multiple bases in the United States, including Tyndall Air Force Base and Elmendorf Air Force Base.
He was promoted to chief master sergeant in 1963 and retired Aug. 1, 1966. In all, Kerchum claimed 29 years of service, split among eight years in the infantry and 21 years in the Air Force. Along the way, he collected two American Presidential Unit Citations, a Purple Heart, Air Force Commendation Medal, and the Philippine Presidential Medal with Citation, among others.
He and his wife Gloria retired to Arizona, but Kerchum did not cut his ties to the Air Force or to service. He devoted numerous hours to community service and public speaking.
Kerchum summarized his approach in his oral history in a reference that captured his approach to most other endeavors throughout his life.
“One day my sister-in-law, Edna, called me from Ogden, Utah, and said her husband’s World War II group was having a reunion and needed a guest speaker. I asked ‘how much is the stipend?’ She said, ‘A free dinner.’ I told her, ‘Turn on the light, I’m on my way’,” he said.