As a young man, Ken Porwoll endured the worst of war. But in the end, he decided that kindness would be its best salve.
His tank company out of Brainerd, Minn., was among those caught on the Bataan peninsula of the Philippines, already starved and low on ammunition, when Japanese fighter planes screamed across the sky after Pearl Harbor.
In defeat, the 21-year-old was among nearly 70,000 U.S. and Filipino soldiers forced to walk as many as eight days and 100 miles inland to the point of surrender.
The stories Porwoll would later tell of 1942’s infamous Bataan Death March and the 3½ years he spent as a Japanese prisoner of war spoke of beheadings, starvation, terrorism and brutality. But they also spoke of strength and faith.
“It’s strange what the human spirit will put up with, if you make up your mind,” Porwoll told the Star Tribune in a 1992 interview.
Nearly 1,000 Americans died on the march. Of the 64 National Guardsmen from Brainerd who went to the Philippines, only 32 returned.
Porwoll, of Roseville, died on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, at 93. That leaves his grade-school friend, Walt Straka, as Brainerd’s lone Bataan March survivor from the Guard’s 34th Tank Company.
Porwoll “refused to let four years of torturous treatment as a POW dictate how he would live the rest of his life,” said his son Tom Porwoll of Andover. “Even with all the pain and ugliness he had seen, Dad held onto the sweeter, lighter side of life.”
After a 30-year career at a small machine shop, Porwoll began volunteering as a barber at a St. Paul drop-in center for homeless people. He showed up at Listening House every Wednesday, even on Christmas Eve, for 25 years. Porwoll put a steady hand on every man’s shoulder before he got out the clippers, as a way to share a “nonthreatening touch,” as he put it.
“These were men who might have felt unwanted,” said Porwoll’s wife of 60 years, Mary Ellen. “And it’s how many of them felt as prisoners of war. They were dirty and without a home. It was how he gave back.”
Porwoll also spent 5,000 hours volunteering at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. And he gave speeches to thousands of high school and college students as well as military graduates, always working in the Charles Swindoll quote that “life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.”
Though told he would never have children after years of malnutrition and abuse, he and Mary Ellen had nine kids. Despite back pain caused by blows from a Japanese soldier’s gun, Porwoll rolled on the floor with them to play, and took them hiking and agate hunting.
In recent years, as Porwoll was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the family formed its own army of care, mobilizing to keep him in the home he and Mary Ellen bought in the 1950s.
The family feared his mind would return to the days when he was prisoner No. 362, packed into the hold of a “hell ship” on the way to a labor camp in Japan where he scrounged for grass and weeds to flavor his rice.
They made sure Porwoll was in a place he knew, with the “touch of loved ones,” said daughter Kenzie Martin, who moved from Colorado to be a full-time caregiver.
“I wanted to be sure there was no sense of abandonment … of that mortal sense of emptiness and loneliness he must have felt at the POW camps,” she said. “My heart wouldn’t forebear it for him to have any taste of that wretched experience in his final days.”
Porwoll also is survived by other children Ann Porwoll of St. Paul, Jack Porwoll of Vadnais Heights, Mike Porwoll of Mounds View, Steve Porwoll of Oak Park Heights, Peggy Kulhanek of St. Paul, Joan Porwoll of Columbia Heights and Bill Porwoll of Golden Valley.