Ivesdale native never shied away from challenges of work or war
URBANA - On the bloody volcanic rock of Corregidor, Paul Cain earned his Silver Star for holding his position and stopping repeated Japanese banzai counter-attacks.
That was 69 years ago, and the former lieutenant turned 99 Saturday.
But calmly sitting in his Urbana home, he tells the World War II story clearly and concisely.
Cain prays his rosary twice a day and greets visitors in his driveway almost every day at 4 p.m.
He thinks it's no big deal that he just turned 99. He didn't even want a birthday party.
That can wait until the big round number, Cain says.
"He plans to live to 102, because that's when the money runs out," says his son Mike Cain, the former Champaign schools superintendent.
"He has always managed to keep himself physically and mentally sharp, working on the computer and taking a walk down the street when the weather's good," the younger Cain says. "This is a man who was plowing a field with a team of horses back then."
Growing up shucking corn by hand on his father's farm in Ivesdale, Cain was a work-hardened young man who turned into a surprisingly fit old man.
Along the way he married the late Florence Wise, rose from being drafted to an officer with three Bronze Stars and a Silver Star, fathered two children and moved from farming into a long career in sales.
He was once considered for county office and is a proud Obama supporter.
Corregidor remains a strong memory long after his warrior comrades from the area have passed away, one of them, he says, possibly running guns in Cuba.
The Philippines were the site of a humiliating American and Filipino surrender in 1942. The Bataan Death March followed. Gen. Douglas MacArthur vowed to return.
More than two years later, MacArthur did return, thanks to the efforts of men like Cain, who had been drafted but graduated from Officer Candidate School and was a first lieutenant in early 1945.
He and his men fought a series of battles in the area before February 1945, when the mission moved to recapture Corregidor, a rocky volcanic island at the mouth of Manila Bay.
A combined paratrooper and naval attack began on the entrenched Japanese, starting Cain's days of terror and heroism.
The battle began with Lt. Cain's men in a dangerous landing ship assault on the beaches.
He remembers that a Jeep's driver was killed by a land mine as the vehicle left the landing craft.
His unit, 34th Infantry Regiment, I company, fought off banzai and mortar attacks and even suicide bombers as the Japanese desperately tried to hold onto the island's depots.
Cain's job was to hold the north dock.
Right off, his company needed a tank to clear a machine gun in a tunnel, which took about an hour.
On the first night, in Cain's written account, a Japanese soldier "slipped into service company area and set off a charge, destroying himself and a water treatment plant brought in to convert sea water to drinking water."
Another enemy soldier crawled under a truck loaded with demolitions. "Fortunately, he blew himself up under the front of the truck and only blew off the truck's left front wheel," Cain wrote.
Cain remembers Japanese soldiers being able to hide in shell holes, thanks to craters created by American 500-pound bombs.
Flame throwers were used to empty caves, trenches and holes.
Cain's company was ordered to move to the top of Malinta Hill, where the hand grenade was the primary weapon of defense.
The next day, Cain asked for the Navy to use illumination shells in the night attacks.
Cain was told Japanese tunnels held some 35,000 artillery shells, 10,000 powder charges, 2,000 pounds of TNT and 80,000 mortar shells — enough to create a new channel in the island.
When the Japanese blew the tunnels, "Malinta Hill bounced, fire came out of the tunnels and rose up the sides," Cain wrote.
His unit was relieved on Feb. 24 as Japanese defenses grew ever weaker.
In August, the war was over. Asked whether the two atomic bomb drops were necessary for a surrender, Cain's face evidenced serious contemplation.
"It had to be done," he said.
Cain returned to the United States in November 1945. By that time he was twice promoted, a Silver Star recipient and would soon be a father.
There were other Champaign County residents who served in the Pacific with Cain, and for a long time he kept in touch with them and went to reunions.
"They're all dead, my group," he says now.
Looking back on his life, from farming to the war to a long career in sales, Cain said there's one thought he has kept in his head when times get tough:
"If you don't like something, don't quit — do something about it."
War in the Pacific
— Japan invaded the Philippines shortly after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Gen. Douglas MacArthur chose Bataan and Corregidor Island as two places that had to be held. Corregidor was important because it controlled Manila Bay.
— In the early war, Japan had great success in the Pacific. Bataan fell in April 1942, and Corregidor Island became the last outpost of organized resistance in the islands. American and Filipino forces held off the enemy for 27 bloody days but were forced to surrender.
— Filipino and American forces that included Urbana's then-Lt. Paul Cain retook the rocky island between Feb. 16 and 26, 1945, but only after facing suicide attacks. MacArthur had vowed to return, and he did.