His parents didn’t want him to sign up.
But there was no stopping Kenneth Kerr shortly after America was jolted out of its remaining isolationist doldrums Dec. 7, 1941.
So, five months after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Kerr and two guys he went to high school with drove 2,100 miles to San Diego to sign up with the U.S. Navy and serve his country.
He became a medical corpsman, serving in battles in the Philippines, New Guinea and, finally, Okinawa – the largest land-sea-air battle in history and the bloodiest of the Pacific War.
On Oct. 29, a small but grateful group of Americans gathered at Zzeeks Pizza and Wings on Warner Road at 48th Street to thank Kerr for his service.
They also wished him a belated happy birthday – two days after he turned 98.
The guests – including his daughter Penny Gipson, granddaughter Cassandra Gipson-Reichardt and 3-year-old great granddaughter Laura Gipson-Reichardt – had gathered largely as a result of Zzeeks co-owner Jody Pectol’s social media invitation to the community.
Even a 92-year-old World War II veteran, Bob Metzner of Ahwatukee, showed up in his wheelchair to greet a onetime comrade in arms.
Widower Kerr only arrived in Ahwatukee in mid-September to live with daughter Penny, a three-year Ahwatukee resident.
Pectol and her husband Mark thought a little party welcoming him to the community and honoring his birthday and his service would be a fitting welcome for one of the dwindling number of America’s greatest generation.
People answered Pectol’s call with greeting cards and warm welcomes after Kerr arrived with a small escort, courtesy of Scott Slocumb of Ahwatukee and Matt Cavanaugh of Gilbert, members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.
Kerr was thrilled beyond belief, at times wearing a little party hat and other times his baseball cap with “World War II Veteran” emblazoned above the visor and sporting the three Navy bars he earned for the three battles he served in.
Between reading the cards he received, Navy First Class Corpsman Kerr told his story.
Kerr not only defied his parents when he took off for San Diego, but cut short a promising college basketball career.
“I broke my dad’s heart,” he said, explaining how his father, a retired Army officer, was stationed at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana and had wanted him to enroll.
“I wouldn’t go to the military school because I made the varsity basketball team when I was a freshman” despite the fact that he was only 5’9.”
“He wanted me to be a military man. Well, I ended up being military anyway,” Kerr recalled.
“I was an athlete,” he continued. “I wanted to be a coach and I made All-Section 1 in the state of Indiana. I got a scholarship to small colleges and then Pearl Harbor happened. Pearl Harbor was a tragedy.”
He and one of his two friends had cars, so they flipped a coin to see who would drive.
When the trio got to San Diego, “we just walked right in to enlist.”
The only problem was the guy with the car had a heart murmur and was rejected. The other friend decided he’d help him drive back to Indiana.
“I had already signed up, so I was staying,” Kerr said.
He was sent to several training schools to become a medical corpsman and at a USO Club met Frances Watson.
“We hit it off and decided to get married before I went overseas,” he said of Frances, to whom he was married for 55 years until she died in 2008.
Then, he was shipped off to war and for 13 grueling months saw little else but blood and tears.
First destination was Manila, where he fought for the liberation of the Philippines.
Then it was on to New Guinea, where the Japanese ultimately suffered a crushing defeat.
Finally, he was sent to Okinawa, the last and costliest battle of the Pacific Theater where 155,000 Japanese soldiers were determined to fight a war of attrition.
By the end, Americans suffered 49,000 casualties, including about 12,500 deaths. An estimate 110,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives, as did between 40,000 and 150,000 Okinawa civilians.
Throughout that time, Kerr had to carry a gun even though he was a medic. “In Europe, the enemy didn’t shoot medics, but the Japanese did,” he explained.
“I get tears in my eyes,” Kerr said. “The worst thing was watching these guys go over the hill. I stayed on the beach and I survived. I don’t know what happened to them.”
“When you make the landing, you don’t know if you’re going to come back or not,” he continued. “I landed in the third wave.
“I never went in more than a hundred or 200 yards because I was a medic and we treated the wounded on the beach and I was in charge of evacuating, getting them to the hospital ships. That’s what I did. I was proud of it.
“But it was sad. Somebody had to do the dirty work. But we had the right people, I’ll tell you that. They were great.”
About a week before the birthday party, Kerr addressed a group of Air Force service people at Luke Air Force Base and recounted his Okinawa.
“I told them ‘Help us. We really need you. Because this world is chaotic and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
One of the men in the audience asked him what his happiest moment in the war was “and I told him when I came home.”
After he got out of the Navy, Kerry eventually wound up in St. Louis, where his wife worked as a secretary and he worked as an usher in the day time at a movie house for seven years while he went to school at night to earn his degree in accounting.
They moved to Long Beach, California, where he got a job with defense and aerospace corporation McDonnel Douglas and got a second degree. He was with the company for 30 years, rising to controller after his first 12.
Kerr’s parents got over their disappointment at his enlistment.
“They were really happy when I came home and they were happy I went back to school to get my degree,” he said.
He and Frances raised three daughters and after his retirement, they moved to Hemet, California, where he pursued golf with a passion.
The party left an indelible impression on Kerr, according to his daughter.
When he got home, Gipson said, “He was looking at all his cards, counting them and looking at them. He loved it. He just absolutely loved it.”