His war medals are pinned neatly inside a frame that hangs in the hallway of his Greenwood home.
Paul Totten isn’t the boastful type. If you ask him about those medals, he’ll name the two he’s most proud of — the combat medal and the Philippine Liberation Medal — then tell you the rest are just a variety he received after returning home from World War II.
Totten flips through the pages of a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings and photos, each page telling another story from his life — a life he couldn’t have imagined when he first returned to Greenwood following WWII.
This month, Totten was awarded one of the state’s highest honors, recognizing his lifetime achievements including his service in WWII, and his involvement in his community. Totten was given the Sagamore of the Wabash award, joining presidents, politicians, astronauts and ambassadors.
“Oh, I’ll probably hang (the Sagamore) in my bedroom,” Totten said.
Totten doesn’t view his time overseas fighting the Japanese in the Pacific as heroic — it was simply the right thing to do, Totten said. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Totten, who was then 17, and a few classmates went to Franklin to enlist in the army. He would be turned away, but encouraged to return when he was 18, Totten said.
After basic training, Totten served three years fighting in different battles, being sent on special missions, and outlasting the environmental elements of the Pacific theater of WWII, Totten said. Simply surviving each day took on a whole other meaning, though, when Totten spent four months in a Japanese prison camp after he and 17 other soldiers were captured during a secret mission.
Totten was eventually set free by his fellow Americans when the prison camp was liberated less than a year before the war ended. When Totten returned to Greenwood following his service in WWII, he was 21 years old living with the vivid memories of battle and weighed a little more than 100 pounds, Totten said.
“I came back, I had nightmares every night — if a car backfired, I’d jump. I didn’t talk about WWII until I was 75,” Totten said. “When I got back to Greenwood I had a hard time adjusting to civilian life. I lived with my parents, had no money, no car and went to work for some odd jobs.”
One of those odd jobs led Totten to his eventual wife, Carla. The two met while Totten was working the meat counter at Kroger and married three years later. Totten then began selling ads for the Indianapolis Times, which ultimately led him to his successful career in the real estate industry.
For about 40 years, Totten worked his way from a real estate agent to well-respected appraiser in the real estate industry. He worked as a real estate agent after F.C. Tucker asked Totten to work for him, then eventually started his own agency, Blue Ribbon Realty Co. Totten later owned and operated Totten Appraisal Company, the first of its kind in Greenwood, Totten said.
“I knew everyone in Greenwood. I lived and worked here my whole life. I just worked hard at it — I was honest. And it seemed like I was always running into somebody who told me, ‘hey, you sold me my house’,” Totten said.
Totten became well known in Greenwood as a businessman, and also a leader in the community. He spent almost 30 years serving on city and county boards, and later joined the Greenwood Rotary Club, which was the driving force behind nominating him for the Sagamore of the Wabash award. Totten even has a plaque on the wall of fame inside Greenwood Community High School.
Now, almost 92 years old, Totten continues to fulfill his passion of service to his community, the main reason he was given one of the state’s top awards. This time, his latest effort to leave a lasting mark on the city of Greenwood is on behalf of his fellow veterans, and those who paid the ultimate price defending freedom. Totten is working with Warriors Hope, a veteran peer support group, to help bring a war memorial monument to Freedom Park, he said.
At 91, Totten can’t do much work aside from campaigning for the monument, but he’s doing all he can to try to bring one to Freedom Park, he said.
Family: wife, Carla and daughter, Debbie
Career highlights: WWII veteran, successful businessman in the real estate industry, former city and county government board member.