It’s impressive, not only because he’s 95, gets around just fine and keeps a holster full of wisecracks ready to fire. But those two feet also carried his 6-foot-3 frame along one of the most infamous treks of modern times.
As a young Army tank commander in World War II, Kirchhoff survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and spent the rest of the war – a grueling 3 1/2 years – as a prisoner of the Japanese.
When the war ended and he was looking for a way home, he found himself on a train rolling through Nagasaki, flattened a month earlier by a powerful weapon unknown to the freed POWs.
Seven decades later, the Coeur d’Alene resident is being honored today as Hayden’s Distinguished Veteran of the Year. He’s the grand marshal of the city’s Veterans Day parade this morning and a guest speaker.
Kirchhoff has always found it easy to talk about his wartime experiences, and he wants young people to know about the sacrifices members of the armed services have made.
“We’re losing our background, our heritage,” he said. “We just don’t seem to have any left anymore. That makes me sad.”
Kirchhoff belongs to a fast-disappearing generation that fought in the second world war. In 2000 there were more than 5.5 million surviving American veterans from the war. Today around 1 million remain. About 550 die every day, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
Kirchhoff has watched the number diminish across the Inland Northwest. He used to be active with a group called American Ex-Prisoners of War. Their gatherings would draw 100 or more, including spouses.
“The last meeting I called we had three show up,” he said.
Of the thousands of American troops taken prisoner on the peninsula of Bataan and on the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay, only about 300 survive today, according to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum at the Brooke County Public Library in Wellsburg, West Virginia.
The American Defenders organization held its last Northwest reunion in Coeur d’Alene in 2008.
“I didn’t know it was going to be the last one, but it was,” Kirchhoff said.
Nowhere to go
He joined the Illinois National Guard’s Maywood Tank Company in November 1940 and was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, when the company was called into service. Kirchhoff trained as a tank driver and motorcycle messenger while there. Renamed Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, they then went to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where Gen. George S. Patton personally tapped them to go to the Philippines.
“He said, You guys are going to go,” Kirchhoff said. “We had no clue where we were going when we left this country.”
The Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941, and Staff Sgt. Kirchhoff found himself in battle and eventually commanding his own tank. One night, around 3 a.m., all hell broke loose.
“We thought we were being shelled,” he said.
It turned out to be American artillery firing at a Japanese convoy parked next to his tank unit. “It sounded like the end of the world,” he recalled.
Another close shave came when Japanese bombers blasted an airstrip and Kirchhoff jumped into a small hole for cover. A bomb fragment landed right next to where he was curled up. “I tried to pick it up and it was hot,” he said.
Bataan was surrendered on April 9, 1942.
“If we hadn’t we’d have just been annihilated because there was nowhere to go,” Kirchhoff said. “The ocean’s lapping at your feet.”
In one surreal episode, he and members of his unit were waiting for the Japanese to arrive and take them prisoner when they decided to search a maintenance shop for food and supplies. They found a nearly new, blue Buick sitting there, loaded it with their bounty and took off down the road with Kirchhoff behind the wheel.
They didn’t get far before they encountered a Japanese general and figured they’d be shot for pilfering supplies.
“Turned out that all that guy wanted was the car,” he said.
A story of survival
Next came the march – a 65-mile walk through scorching Philippine jungles with little food or water and no medical care. About 12,000 Americans and 58,000 Filipino soldiers set out on the horrific journey, and thousands perished along the way. Survivors later shared grisly details of how those who collapsed were shot or bayoneted along the road.
“In the morning if you didn’t get in the group and march out, you didn’t get fed,” Kirchhoff said. “And the only thing you got when you did march out was a rice ball about that big,” he said, indicating a portion smaller than his fist. “That was your food for the day.”
As bad as the march had been, it got worse when the prisoners reached the concentration camp.
“We lost more people at Camp O’Donnell … than by far we had in the march itself,” Kirchhoff said. “And the reason for that was we were so debilitated, our health was down, our resistance was gone, and so anything that came along, whatever bug was there, you’d get it.”
Scores of prisoners died there daily from tropical diseases and other illness, he said. Kirchhoff said he suffered through pneumonia, malaria, Dengue fever and diphtheria. “Somehow I lived through all of it.”
After about a month he and others were packed into sweltering boxcars and shipped by rail to Cabanatuan, another prison camp, where he would remain for more than a year. An estimated 3,000 Americans died in the first nine months there.
“If you got out and went to work and behaved yourself, they didn’t really bother you a lot,” Kirchhoff said of the guards.
“One thing they did: You were in a 10-man group, and if one of those guys escaped, they shot the other nine,” he said, adding he was never sure the Japanese soldiers carried out such punishment. “But the threat was there.”
Next he was placed on an old Japanese freighter and shipped to Japan. There were no Red Cross or POW markings on the ships, making them targets for American submarines and fighter planes.
Kirchhoff survived the perilous journey and spent another two years in four labor camps, mining coal for much of that time. Once he was caught stealing onions from the guards and was forced to kneel through a wintry night in a torturous posture with poles under his shins and another wedged behind his knees.
The war ends
Kirchhoff lost 110 pounds during his imprisonment. He was working in a mine about 40 miles from Nagasaki when the city was devastated by the second atomic blast over Japan in August 1945.
“I was in the mine evidently when the atomic bomb went off,” he said. “We couldn’t come up out of the mine for a while. … It was a big boom, but we had no clue what it was.”
Within days Japan surrendered and the camp guards took off, leaving the prisoners to fend for themselves.
“Two other fellas and myself wandered around Japan for a whole month, from town to town and prison camp to prison camp,” Kirchhoff said.
Finally they met up with American forces and were put on a train, which rolled through Nagasaki. “That city was as flat as a floor,” he said.
Kirchhoff got on an English aircraft carrier to Okinawa, then flew on a B-25 to Manila, and finally made it aboard an Indian freighter that took him to Seattle, where he landed in October 1945.
It wasn’t much of a reception.
“There wasn’t anybody there,” he said. “They hardly knew we were there.”
That night he boarded a hospital train to Iowa and finally made his way home to Chicago, where his return was just as subdued.
“Dad said, ‘Hi. Well, how are things?’
“ ‘Oh, OK.’ It was almost that simplistic,” Kirchhoff said, chuckling at the memory.
After the war he married and started a family. For most of his career Kirchhoff was the Chicago district manager for a New York-based company that made abrasive grit for grinding wheels and sandpaper.
He and his wife moved to North Idaho in 1984, and she died in 2003. Kirchhoff has two sons and a daughter as well as grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
These days he enjoys supporting Newby-ginnings of North Idaho, a charitable organization that gathers basic necessities and household items to give to veterans, active military and their families.
“I collect what I can and direct other people to do it,” Kirchhoff said.
Asked what he wants people to remember about World War II, he answered, “How awful it was. … We’re all losers in a war.”
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