MELBOURNE, Fla. – World War II prisoner of war Tom Pechacek endured backbreaking labor for years under the cruel eye of Japanese guards, hauling salt into ship cargo holds and toiling underground in a coal mine under grueling conditions.
"In prison camp, we got all kinds of cuts. I've got scars all over my head and everything else. My teeth were knocked out from butts of rifles, if you screwed up," the 97-year-old Melbourne retiree told News 6 partner Florida Today.
"We knew it was useless to try to get away. And so many people did get killed — they shot them. When you did escape, they'd herd you in and put you in the box for a month," Pechacek said.
"It was nothing but a jail room with bars on it, and they were made out of wood. It was just a cage, you know? They put you in, but it was only about 4 foot high. And that's what you had to live in. After a while, it would get so miserable that you just can't hardly bear it," he said.
More than 76 years after the U.S. Marine Corps veteran was wounded during the December 1941 bombing of Wake Island — then captured and imprisoned in China, Korea and Japan — Pechacek has finally received his Purple Heart. He didn't bother submitting paperwork for one after the war, saying "the hell with it" about the bureaucratic process.
Donna Loretti is Pechacek's home health aide, and she visits him three days per week. While helping organize his wartime medals and records last spring, she noticed that the military never gave him a Purple Heart.
"I asked him one day, 'Did you ever get a Purple Heart for everything you went through?' He said, 'Oh, no.' And that just made me so mad. So for the last year, I've been after it," Loretti said.
"You hear these stories about people getting their Purple Hearts — and they're long gone. I want him to have that Purple Heart now," she said.
Purple Heart awarded on April 14
Loretti and her husband, Arthur, who serves as second vice commander of American Legion Post 163 in Eau Gallie, spent nearly a year corresponding with the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Thanks to their efforts, Pechacek received his Purple Heart on April 14. That day, American Legion Post 163 surprised him with the medal during its annual POW-MIA Recognition Day ceremony.
"He’s a hero to go through that. Forty-four months as a prisoner. I just can’t even fathom the experience it must have been," said Air Force veteran Jack Werts, American Legion Post 163 first vice commander.
"Being in Vietnam myself, and knowing how the prisoners were treated over there, I can’t even imagine what he went through," Werts said. "He's a hero to me."
Pechacek has lived in the same Melbourne house in a quiet neighborhood off Croton Road the past 35 years. Nowadays, he gets around using a chrome walker; he reads newspapers using a large lighted magnifier; he's Post 163's oldest active member; and he lives with Daisy, his aging terrier.
"First of all, I'm totally deaf, OK? And I've only got one eye. The rest of my stuff ain't much better," he joked, greeting a FLORIDA TODAY reporter.
Born in February 1921, Pechacek grew up Cleveland. After graduating high school in 1937 at age 16, he soon tired of milking cows on his father's dairy farm and joined the Marines in November 1939 — "I was just a gung-ho person." After stints in Cuba, San Diego and Honolulu, he got stationed at Wake Island as a corporal with the 1st Defense Battalion.
Years of captivity in Asian camps
Then December 1941 arrived. Mere hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the other side of the International Date Line, the Japanese began bombing the U.S. military base on Wake Island. The tiny, isolated atoll in the western Pacific — which measures only 2.7 square miles — was besieged for the next dozen days.
"You couldn’t dig a foxhole on Wake Island — it was all coral rock. So you had to run and hide," Pechacek said.
Japanese forces seized Wake Island two days before Christmas, capturing Pechacek and more than 1,600 U.S. troops and civilians. He was moved into the cargo hold of the Japanese merchant ship Nitta Maru in January 1942 and briefly transferred to Yokohama.
"Some of the people they took ashore, we never seen them again — I understand they beheaded them," Pechacek said.
From there, the prisoners got shipped to China: "There were about 6 inches of snow on the docks in Shanghai, and here we were in shorts and skivvies." The Americans were forced to march for miles into barracks at Woosung prison camp, where Pechacek labored for two years.
"The Americans would never forget Woosung. The bleak loneliness, bitter cold winds whistling through their flimsy huts, wormy stone-studded rice and dawn-to-dusk work made a lasting impression. The excesses of the Japanese guards only added to their misery. Although a few of them adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward the Americans, most of the guards were brutal," according to the HistoryNet article "Wake Island Prisoners of World War II" by James W. Wensyel.
Freedom arrives in September 1945
Later, Pechacek was imprisoned in Korea, where he spent nearly a year hauling salt into Japanese ship cargo holds, 12 hours per day. Then he got shipped to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, where he worked in a coal mine and lived on rice soup at the Hakodate POW Camp.
After Japan surrendered to the Allies, Pechacek was rescued from captivity on Sept. 16, 1945, his father’s birthday. He knew nothing about the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After a six-week rehabilitation stint in Guam, Pechacek spent a month recuperating in a San Francisco hospital. He was discharged from the Marines in January 1946 as a staff sergeant. He went on to work as a Pan Am duty supervisor and foreman for 28 years at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, supporting Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.
Pechacek bears a scar on his lower left leg from a shrapnel wound during the Wake Island bombings.
"There was a guard on your butt every minute that I was in prison camp. I mean, there were guards right there looking at you, watching you. And if you screwed up, they didn't hesitate a bit to ram you or jab their bayonet at you," he said.