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By Larry Nelson
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Veteran's History Project: Paul R. Kniss

 

Paul R. Kniss

Seaman, U.S. Navy

1st Lieutenant

U.S. Air Force

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one of many American Veteran accounts published in The Sidney Sun-Telegraph. The writer, who is from Sidney, is conducting the interviews as part of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project.

In 1943, Paul Kniss was 16 years old. In the Monmouth, Ill., area, he was a "frequent flyer" at all the military recruiting offices.

But, his country was at war and he wanted in the fight. He was afraid the war was going to end before he got in. He changed the dates in the family Bible so he would be older, but that only irritated his mother and didn't fool the recruiters.

The U.S. Navy was the only military branch enlisting young men if they were 17. He waited. Three days before his 17th birthday, he joined the Navy. He had four older brothers who were in the services – Navy, Air Force and Army. His oldest brother was killed in this war.

He went to the Great Lakes Training Center near Chicago. He was there for about five weeks. He met new people, got new clothes, a new bald-like haircut. The welcome committee was there, talking at louder voices ... his trainer was a good leader, centered on teaching the new men (a rarity) rather than messing with them.

At one point they marched 20 miles to a training site. For a 17-year-old farm kid, this was not a problem. There were draftees in the outfit, including lawyers, bankers, professionals and ... a kid.

From basic training, he was sent to the West Coast by train. The train unloaded many at San Pedro, Calif. Then, they boarded an LST, and headed for Hawaii. (An LST is a flat-bottomed vessel developed during World War II to land troops and cargo on open beaches. A trip on the ocean in an LST would be an 11-day training exercise in learning how to control sea-sickness, no? (This would have to have been very difficult.)

At Hawaii, Paul and his group were on a work detail when President Roosevelt's motorcade drove by. Soon, though, they were assigned to their ship, DE43, the USS Mitchell, a destroyer escort carrying about 180 men. And ... they were delivered there by another LST. This time not so far.

The Mitchell and its sailors were to be at sea for 26 months. They went to the South Pacific. Whatever job needed done, whether painting, mopping, sanding, carrying stuff ... he did it. They were mainly an anti-submarine patrol unit.

There were no casualties here. It reminded him most of the movie "Mr. Roberts." The U.S.S. Mitchell did get into some activity with Admiral Halsey's Fleet near Okinawa. Their ship went out ahead of the fleet, checking for submarines. They trained most of the time, always preparing for any eventuality.

There was one instance concerning food aboard the ship. The bread had maggots crawling in it. The men complained to the top cook who essentially ignored them. So, they (about 12 men) wrote a letter to the ship's captain, telling him of the situation.

In no time, all 12 men were standing at attention on the ship's deck, having the letters of courts martial read to them. The captain wanted the men to know about protocol, chain of command, what happens to those who think they can "rock the boat," literally. In the end, the captain let them off the hook.

The ship was at sea for six to eight weeks at a time before running low on fuel. They headed to a friendly port for replenishments and "beer call." This 17-year-old was capable of drinking about a beer and a half.

Eventually, the DE43 headed back to California. The trip was about 10 days and ended at San Francisco, having gone under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was late at night when they arrived. There was no greeting from the public.

He was discharged from Portland, Ore., after de-commissioning a ship there. He returned to Illinois. He tried going back to high school but for having the experiences he had, he couldn't relate to other students so much.

He took a job as a bartender for a few months and then married.

He heard about the Air Force offering pilot training, especially to men who had prior service. He enlisted at the same rank as what he left the Navy, an E-4.

At first, he went to Radar Operator's school at Keesler Air Force Base. In a few weeks, he was notified he was accepted in Cadets (flight) School. He was interviewed and screened by a general. The general asked him how a man could have one year of high school and pass the high school equivalency test? Off the cuff, Paul told him "because I am smart." The general liked the attitude, he said, and passed him on through.

The training was one year at both Randolph and Barksdale Air Force bases. The training focused on the T-6 and B-26 aircraft. Immediately after graduating, he became a flight instructor on the T-6. He trained pilots for more than a year. He got a chance to be an instructor on the P-51 Mustang aircraft.

He talked with the personnel officer and lobbied to get out of the training mode and into combat. The personnel man warned him that the Mustangs were being lost fairly often, was he sure? You bet! He went to Japan, and at a base known as K-46. He is in a combat unit. He had one short training session on-site. He's all set.

Paul had completed 28 missions since being assigned to combat. On the 29th, they were again over the northern rail lines when his wingman told him to bail out; his plane's tail section was on fire.

He could see the ocean and thought he could make it to sea where he could be rescued. The tail section burned off. The plane went out of control and he parachuted. It was May 30, 1952.

His landing was in an irrigated, soft, rice patty. He had secret documents on him and quickly buried them. He had an emergency radio and used it to tell the helicopter crew that was inbound to rescue him, to not land, it was too risky. He ditched the radio.

He also had a handgun and pulled it out, ready for what was to happen next. He was taken into custody by local farmers. One of the captors grabbed Paul's handgun and aimed it at the ground. He shot into the ground and almost hit his own foot. Paul made the mistake of laughing at the guy which earned him a pistol whipping.

They took him to a nearby building and began questioning him. His captors made serious threats but got nothing out of him. Soon he was taken out to get onto a truck that would transport him away. On the truck were Russian soldiers who were working with the Chinese soldiers, his new caretakers. More threats, more muscle. The Chinese were a volunteer bunch.

After taking him to another building, his new captors made him strip out of his clothing. It seemed that when he landed on enemy soil, he had fallen into land that had been fertilized with decades of human waste. His clothing was more than ripe. At the end of the day, with clean clothes now, he was loaded onto another truck.

He was taken to another spot and turned over to the Koreans. He was questioned and tortured. Name? Service number? What unit are you in? What mission ... questions asked by someone who didn't speak much English. No answer means hits to the face and head.

He was finally positioned at a place for a longer period of time. This was the first he knew that there were other Americans in the area. He was in Camp 2. He was in a hut, in solitary confinement.

At first, he was subjected to more questioning so that his captors could gather information. The serious questioning began in a few days. They focused on what he knew about germ warfare. The Koreans were convinced that the American forces were using germ warfare. When Paul persisted that he knew nothing about it, the intensity of the questioning increased, keeping him awake for three days. They played tapes about other airmen admitting to using it. Paul refused. His confession would confirm the use of germ warfare.

In solitary confinement, he was alone for months. His was a room in a mud hut. There were four rooms in the building. His room was at the end of the building and got little heat. His door was covered with newspaper to keep what heat there was inside the room. He jogged in place, slept on a small mat on the floor and had a bit of a blanket.

The diet was the same food, twice a day: rice and boiled onions in the morning; rice and boiled cabbage at night. He got to a point where he turned the food down. His weight dropped from 180 pounds to 110 pounds.

After about 12 months, Paul threatened suicide. His caretakers brought in another American so he wouldn't be so alone. He knew and had helped the new fellow captive. As they talked for the next months, they compared notes on what had happened to each other.

The new man told Paul that when the interrogators asked him about various types of warfare, the man told them that germ warfare was being used. He said it as a baseless joke, just to mollify them. (That joke turned out to cause injury and death to many captured servicemen who refused to acknowledge the issue. This was most upsetting to Paul. Nothing could be done about it at that time.)

Paul and his cellmate concocted a plan to escape. Rather than break through a wall, they would walk past the sleeping guard. Then what? All the hilltops were manned by armed soldiers. They had no map. He had stashed matches, a piece of mirror, a tin cup, and a spoon. In time, they scrapped the plan.

He did scratch his name in the clay wall over the door: "Kniss, 18th." (18th Bomb Group). Other names were already etched there and he knew many of them. He memorized the names, 40 of them.

He valued most his faith in God. Somehow he was provided a small sized Bible. He is still very private about his faith, but knows how much it meant and still brings him comfort. He said that he felt so small, that he felt like he was fighting the whole Chinese army.

One afternoon, he heard trains moving nearby. They usually ran at night for stealth/defensive reasons. This one was moving during the day. Paul asked one of his overseers if the war was over? The guy said "yes," then left.

More often than not, captives were killed rather than be released. This idea haunted these captives as well. Some POWs were released fairly soon. Six weeks later, a guard came to them and said "you're going home." A group of 10 of the POWs including Paul were taken to a truck and loaded onto it. They hadn't spoken aloud to others for so long; they had trouble mouthing words at first.

The now-freed captives were driven to "Freedom Village." It was heavily guarded. Paul had dysentery. The armed guards scared the men. If the guards started shooting, the men would rush them. If we're going to die, let's die bravely. Nothing happened that night.

The POWs loaded onto trucks the next morning. They were debriefed and fed a good juicy steak and finally allowed to sleep on beds. During the night, Paul was not so comfortable so he moved to sleep on the floor. He noticed all the other POWs did as well. They were not used to the comfort of a mattress.

They were cleaned up, shaved, given new clothes. It was the first time he had brushed his teeth for 14 months. He used a small stick to clean them for that time. He said they had no cavities because there was no sugar in their diet. They were taken to a nearby US Navy ship. Hmmm "why aren't we flying home?" The government wanted to give them time to adjust back to life for another 30 days. Oddly, the ship was the same one that carried he and others overseas years before.

Once the military knew who they had and didn't have, rosters were made, sent to the U.S., and families were notified. Paul said that when the notifying official went to his mother's home, the man said that his name was not on the list of survivors. It was very difficult on his mother.

The notifying official went on his way. A short time later, he re-checked his list and found that he had made an oversight, a mistake. The name, Paul Kniss, was on the list. He returned to the home and re-notified with better news.

The ship took the POWs to San Francisco. The POWs were debriefed. There had been 1,200 US Air Force members shot down and captured. About 200 of them came back.

The re-union with his wife was glorious, but he was too weak to fulfill all the things he had planned. They went to the "Top of the Mark" restaurant for a fine meal. He was served one drink, and was intoxicated.

Finally, they went back to Illinois for re-union time with family. He was still in the US Air Force. The Korean conflict was over. He was alive. He stayed in another eight months, mostly in Albuquerque, NM. Finally, he had had enough. It was time.

Paul soon found job opportunities in the airline industry. In short, (and long) he worked for United Airlines as an engineer, then co-pilot, and finally pilot. His career lasted 25 years there.

Thank you for your service, 1LT Paul Kniss.

 

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