My Dad Was a Hero: A Vet’s Son Pays Tribute to His Father’s Unsung Bravery

by The Village Green
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This story was first published on November 11, 2015. Tom Kerns is a resident of Maplewood, NJ.

Like any other young boy who had a father that served during World War II I wanted to know every detail of what my father experienced. I asked him if he ever shot anyone, was he in any battles, did he see anyone get shot….you get the idea. He always had the same reply: “The only thing I ever shot was a goat,” and that “I had to dive under a jeep once but my feet were sticking out and I was afraid they would get shot. They survived.” I guess I was a bit disappointed because the stories told by the other kids were more exciting. (I never did find out why he shot a goat). What I did not know was that my dad was a hero.

My dad, James M. Kerns, was a Technical Sergeant serving in the Army Air Corps stationed in the Pacific. He called himself a “radio operator” and that he was stationed out of a base on an island south of Indonesia called Christmas Island, but that’s about all I knew. It wasn’t until after my parents were gone that I found out he was actually a hero.

Dad died young, at 59 years old from lung cancer in 1979. He was a chain smoker and it killed him. I was 21 at the time and I do regret not getting to know him as I became an adult. My Mom passed away in 1992. She lived in the house I was born in almost up to the time of her death. When it came time to sell the house I went up into the attic to go through all of the old junk that accumulated over 35 years. I came across a manila envelope that was labeled with my Dad’s handwriting, “Army Papers.” What I found inside that envelope changed everything I knew about father. I literally sat and cried. It was a Certificate of Commendation, personally signed by Brigadier General Ivan Farman. It read:

For the highest devotion to duty, bravery and intrepidity in the face of continuous personal danger from enemy bombing and strafing attacks during the invasion of Okinawa, in establishing and operating for a period of ten days the only air-ground radio facilities on that island.  A member of the 148th AACS Squadron but at the time attached to Headquarters, Second Marine Aircraft Wing, T Sgt Kerns, displaying the highest sense of duty and devotion to service, as well as technical knowledge and skill fully equal to the task, established and operated the only air-ground radio facilities on Okinawa, and though in constant peril of life from enemy attack, maintained such facilities for a period of ten days, unassisted. Through the timely establishment and subsequent operation of air-ground radio facilities by T Sgt Kerns, aircraft of the Armed Forces of the United States were enabled to operate over Okinawa in effective force and thereby greatly implement the Ground Forces in the Successful battle for that island.

There were other documents that detailed what was accomplished. In essence; he went on to the island of Okinawa while it was still under the control of the Japanese, established air to ground radio communication which allowed the invasion to take place, and stayed and operated the radio for 10 days by himself.

I did some research….

The battle of Okinawa proved to be the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. Thirty-four allied ships and craft of all types had been sunk, mostly by kamikazes, and 368 ships and craft damaged. The fleet had lost 763 aircraft. Total American casualties in the operation numbered over 12,000 killed (including nearly 5,000 Navy dead and almost 8,000 Marine and Army dead) and 36,000 wounded. Combat stress also caused large numbers of psychiatric casualties, a terrible hemorrhage of front-line strength. There were more than 26,000 non-battle casualties. Japanese human losses were enormous: 107,539 soldiers killed and 23,764 sealed in caves or buried by the Japanese themselves; 10,755 captured or surrendered. The Japanese lost 7,830 aircraft and 16 combat ships.

I now know why Technical Sergeant James M. Kerns never spoke about his experience in the war. And, not for nothing, but the other kids’ stories don’t even come close to matching my dad’s.

A salute to all of our Vets.  Thank you!!!

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