BENSON — Across the country, veterans were honored for their serviced sacrifice Thursday through parades and commemorative ceremonies.

Veterans Day in Benson was celebrated in the town’s Veterans Park where the community gathered to reflect on and remember all those who served, past and present.

Organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Barney-Figueroa Post 6271, the event was emceed by Benson VFW senior vice commander Derek Dion. Lisi Harris sang the national anthem and Mayor Joe Konrad read a proclamation. The VFW honor guard fired off a gun salute as a tribute to fallen veterans, and Ernie Bernal and Marcus Tucker performed taps. The event also featured a lineup of speakers.

World War II Bataan Death March and prisoner of war survivor Paul Kerchum, who will be 102 in January, was the event’s keynote speaker. His presence at Benson’s Veterans Day tribute has become a local tradition.

A highly-decorated war hero and engaging speaker, Kerchum has made numerous appearances at schools, civic organizations, churches and veterans groups through the years. He also is among the Bataan survivors honored at the annual Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands, New Mexico, every March.

During his speaking engagements, Kerchum vividly describes his World War II experiences and 3½ years spent as a prisoner of war in labor camps under the Japanese Imperial Army.

He recalls the American Army’s surrender to the Japanese on April 9, 1942, on the Bataan Peninsula of the Philippines, and subsequent capture of American and Filipino soldiers. The men were rounded up and subjected to the Bataan Death March, a tortuous trek of more than 65 miles from Mariveles, located in the southern tip of Bataan, northward to the San Fernando railway. Thousands of troops died from starvation, dehydration, tortue and disease on that march.

“The men were beaten, shot, bayoneted and beheaded,” Kerchum said. “After we arrived in San Fernando, we were stuffed into suffocating boxcars where it was standing room only, and taken to Camp O’Donnell. More than 1,500 soldiers died at that camp.”

With graphic recall, Kerchum described the starvation, disease and terrible conditions in the Japanese slave labor camps, as well as inhumane living conditions on the Japanese hell ships, which were used to transport Allied troops. Kerchum said 5,280 soldiers “went to the bottom of the sea” on those ships.

Kerchum joined the U.S. Army as an infantryman in 1938 when he was 17. His military career started in Hawaii with the 27th Infantry. He later re-enlisted and was a member of the C Co., 31st Infantry Regiment, serving in the Philippines from 1940 to 1945. He participated in three battles, was wounded several times and, in addition to surviving the Bataan Death March, worked as a slave laborer in prisoner of war camps in the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan. After World War II ended in 1945, he left the army and enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps, now the U.S. Air Force. He retired in 1966 as a Chief Master Sergeant after 21 years with the Air Force. Upon retirement, Kerchum had a combined military service record of 29 years.

As a seven-year member of the Benson VFW and through his role as senior post commander, Dion said he’s always impressed when he hears Kerchum speak.

“He has an incredible memory for details and the stories about his experiences are always amazing,” he said of the keynote address. “Our community is definitely fortunate to have him as a speaker and to have his history available to us. As long as I’ve been a member here, I’ve never seen him use notes. I think he’s amazing.”

When she spoke, Audrey Palma, president of American Legion Vicente Manzo Post 45, praised veterans for their service and spoke of the importance of supporting them.

Benson’s commemoration concluded with the VFW Honor Guard gun salute as a tribute to fallen service members, followed by an echoing taps performed by Bernal and Tucker.

“We had a good crowd here today,” Dion said. “It was really great to see the show of support for our veterans.”