When WWII veteran Orland “Bud” Kelch looks back on his life, there are events the 93-year-old Urbana resident will never forgot, for instance, marrying his wife, Marjorie, nearly 70 years ago, and the births of their three sons and seven grandchildren. Those fond memories, however, might never have happened had it not been for the actions of a young Filipino man on May 6, 1945 – a day Kelch often looks back on and wonders, “What if?”
On that date 70 years ago while serving his country in WWII as a chief radio operator specializing in Morse code, Kelch was stationed in Santa Cruz, Philippines, with other members of the 574th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion of the U.S. Army Air Forces Fifth Air Force when his platoon took on enemy fire.
According to an official government document one of Kelch’s sons came across at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, on May 6, 1945, Kelch’s 48-man platoon – nicknamed “Jungle Rats” but officially known as the 15th Reporting Platoon – received word that a group of 50 Japanese soldiers were reported to be within three miles of a U.S. Radar site. In response, six men from the platoon, six infantry road patrolmen, and approximately 30 Filipino guerrillas were sent to investigate. While returning from patrol, the group was ambushed.
“I was actually off duty at the time, but I volunteered to go out on that particular patrol,” Kelch said. “Our biggest problem was with the (Japanese) coming out of the mountains after food and anything else they could get, like clothes and medical supplies. I guess they were hungry and looking for food this time around, and when you get hungry, you get mean.”
While recalling the harrowing incident in which several guerrillas and one infantryman were killed, and a fellow platoon member sustained a severe leg wound, Kelch said, “They had us trapped and outnumbered, but the boy got out.”
The boy, a young Filipino man named Basilio, lived in a small fishing village near camp and had befriended the troops.
“I call him a boy, but decades after the war, I found out by his death notice that he was the same age as I was,” Kelch said.
By pure luck, Kelch said, Basilio saw the servicemen passing through the village on that fateful day on their way up the mountains when Kelch made a decision he didn’t know at the time would end up saving lives, maybe even his own.
“You could trust Basilio, and he was a smart individual,” Kelch said “He saw us going along on the trunk, and he started hollering at us. I told him to hop on, and he hopped onto the side of the truck. If he hadn’t gotten on, we wouldn’t have had anyone with us who was familiar with the area.”
While surrounded by over 50 Japanese soldiers and taking on gunfire, Basilio’s familiarity with the area allowed him to escape down the mountainside with a note in hand that read, “The patrol is trapped in the hills…please send truck immediately.”
“He was able to make it all the way back to our camp with the note, and before we knew it, a military gun truck had arrived,” Kelch recalled. “Thank goodness there wasn’t any water in the rice paddies because they were all dried up, which allowed the truck to get to us pretty fast. Once the truck got up to the top of the knoll, they opened the gun up and just started spraying the whole area with 20-mm shells. That’s what got us out.
“Basilio truly saved us, and some of us wrote to him for years until he died when he was in his 70s,” Kelch added.
After completing his four-year commitment to the U.S. military and receiving the American Liberation Medal, three combat medals and the Good Conduct Medal, Kelch made his way back home to Urbana, where he worked in the automotive parts business and started a family.
In the 1960s, Kelch and his wife opened OK Automotive on North Main Street. After a successful 20-year run, the couple sold the store to a larger automotive parts outfit in Sidney.
With free time on their hands, the Kelches traveled every year for 20-plus years to the annual reunion of the “Jungle Rats” platoon.
“We had some great times, but now most of us are gone,” Kelch said. “At the last reunion we attended in Perrysburg about seven or eight years ago, there were only about six of us there. “We actually debated even going to that reunion because we knew there wouldn’t be many there.”
The reunion turned out to be one he is thankful he attended.
While talking to the wife of his former lieutenant (deceased), Kelch said, he was handed an envelope.
“Before opening the envelope, she said to me, ‘Bud, you are the last remaining boy that was on that trip up into the mountains over there in the Philippines, so you will want to have this.’”
Inside the envelope was the actual note Basilio delivered to camp back in the Philippines that saved Kelch and others from sure death at the hands of Japanese forces.
“She gave me the note, and I about passed out,” he said. “I had no idea that the letter still existed, so I was just tickled to death. It’s certainly a piece of history.
“The only sad thing was, there wasn’t enough of the guys left to show it to,” Kelch added.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.