A Slightly Different War - West Virginia Strong

Last Vet Standing: A Slightly Different War

This is another installment from my interviews with West Virginia veterans of World War II. It’s also loosely a Labor Day story, which is why I chose it for this week. As is so often the plight of West Virginians, even back in 1940, Bill Knuth wanted a job but couldn’t find one. It was the end of the Depression, but before the United States entered the war. So, Bill joined the army hoping to learn a trade and figuring he wouldn’t have to fight. He ended up being strafed by a Japanese Zero during Pearl Harbor.

Bill Knuth is a musician and craftsman. He has joined these two loves and his living room is decorated with scale models of instruments. There is a perfect replica of a piano, right down to the strings and pedals sitting on a bookshelf, and other scale, handcrafted fascinations lying about. Bill knows my mother, and as we talk we figure out that we both know a minister that used to preach in Bill’s church. “He and I used to run together,” Bill says. I say, “Where I come from, running together usually involves moonshine.” Bill laughs, “Nope,” he says, “we just jogged.” Bill asks what I want and I give him line. “I want to know what you did in the war. How you got in the service, how it affected your live. I’m not interested in facts, I'm not gonna check out anything anyone says, it’s more of a narrative than a history project.” He smiles, seems to like the idea.

I get my tape recorder running and Bill’s wife, Phyllis, comes in. Phyllis is Bill’s second wife; his first wife died in 1980. Phyllis has a tape recorder too. She plugs it in and explains that as Bill’s second wife, she has never heard Bill talk much about the war. She wants a record, too. She gets set up, brings in coffee, and Bill starts:

I joined the Army in 1940 because I didn't have a job. They didn't have the draft at the time. Now in 1940 the war was already started in Poland, but America wasn't involved at that time. I had no expectations of being involved in the conflict. I probably wouldn't have joined had I known that the war was going to happen. When I enlisted I had three choices of where I could go; the Philippines, Panama, or Hawaii. Of the three, I thought Hawaii sounded best, and in retrospect I'm awful glad I didn't pick the Philippines. I probably would have ended up in a Japanese prison camp, or dead. My enlistment was just a two year hitch and I figured I could stand two years doing anything.

My first wife was from here in Wheeling, West Virginia. We grew up in the same neighborhood and I had known her most of my life. I was only eighteen, she was fifteen, when I left. I signed on for two years, remember, and because of the war I didn't get home on furlough until three and a half years after I joined. So they kept me an extra year and a half. Well, no, I was in a total of five and a half years.

I joined the Army to learn a trade and when I got to Hawaii they must have seen on my record that I played the bass horn and so they interviewed me for the band. Back then I didn't know that you could say ‘No.’ I had played piano for a little while when I was younger, but when I was a freshman in high school I wanted to be in the band and they needed a bass horn player, so I took that up. So, it pretty much boils down to the fact that because I played the bass horn, I was close to Pearl Harbor and about a mile from Hickam Field when they were bombed.

Hawaii was fairly primitive then, but they still had department stores and such. People thought it was a lot more primitive than it was. I wrote my grandmother once, asking her to wire me money so I could buy my girlfriend an engagement ring. My grandmother was surprised and asked if there were banks in Hawaii. I told her that there were not only banks, but a store with an escalator. We didn't have escalators in Wheeling at that time. She thought it was a primitive country.

In Hawaii I was assigned to the 15th Coastal Artillery Regimental Band. We weren't more than about a mile from Pearl Harbor and it was pretty flat terrain. To go to town we had to go through Hickam Field. The mountains are on the island of Hawaii. We were on the island of Oahu, as was Pearl Harbor. Our band director was a Major and I always thought that that was unusual, to have someone of that rank commanding a little old band. And, after he retired, they had a Tech Sergeant take over and we never had a commissioned officer after that. An average day was very easy in the band, we practiced from 9:00 to 11:00 in the morning and then we were free for the rest of the day. At 5:00 we played for Retreat, where we marched and played when they took down the flag. On Sunday mornings we had to play a concert in the bandstand, and whenever a ship would come in we'd meet them on the dock and welcome them in with music. It really was an easy job. We slept a lot in the afternoons.

There was a guy in with me, Mike, and he was the oddest character I ever knew. He was a grizzled sheepherder from Montana and a lifelong soldier. I think he spent his whole military career in the band, and he never married. The Army was his home really, and after a career in the Army, I don't know how long he'd been in when I met him, but quite a while, he only was a Corporal. No, no he was just a Private. He didn't really have any great aspirations. Like I said, the Army was his home and he was a career Private in the Regimental Band, a trumpet player. He really wasn't that good of a trumpet player either. You really didn't have to be a great musician to get into a Regimental Band because the Regimental Band was about the lowest level band situation there is in the Army. Companies themselves didn't have bands and a Regiment was just so many companies, so the Regimental Band was at the bottom.

In fact, I wasn't all that great a musician then either, I just came from a high-school band. I didn't even play that much when they interviewed me for the Regimental Band. I played for a minute or two and the guy said, ‘OK, that's fine. You're in.’ I knew then that they must have really needed a bass horn player. They only had one other bass horn player, a Filipino named Sal, and he could play rings around me.

I was a Private, with a fourth-class specialist rating, in December of 1940, and on that now infamous morning of December 7, I was cleaning the Recreation Room. It was about twenty minutes before 7:00, Hawaii time, when we heard the planes going over, and I heard some explosions, too. I thought something must have blown up in the area but I sure didn't think about it being a bomb being dropped. It was Sunday morning, so of course some of the guys were still in bed. Then suddenly everyone was running out to see what was flying over. We had about thirty-five members in the band and fifteen of them were Filipinos. One of the Filipinos saw one of the planes going by and said, ‘That's a Japanese plane!’ He saw that big, round orange ball on the plane and knew it was Japanese. Of course I didn't know anything about Japanese planes but he was an older man and I guess he knew more about the Japanese, having lived over there in the Philippines, closer to Japan. We kind of huddled when the bombs started dropping on Hickam Field, which wasn't more than an air mile from us at Fort Kamehameha.

We could see the planes but we couldn't see the explosions. We were sort of huddled under the porch but I don't know why we thought that would be safe since the barracks were made of wood. There were some concrete pillars and I was standing behind one of those, as were others. It wasn't much protection, I guess we figured that if something came directly at us from exactly in front of that pillar we'd be safe, but if it came from any other direction, well, the pillar wouldn't have been much help. But anyway, after a while there was a lull in the bombing and we figured we'd run out to see if we could see anything. I mean the sky wasn't filled with planes or anything, they came over in waves. So we ran out and we were standing on the parade ground which was adjacent to our barracks, there must have been five or six of us, and here comes a lone Japanese plane over, and right in front of us he strafed the ground with his guns. Needless to say, we went back for cover. After that I didn't see anymore. I stayed put, I mean, we were in the band so we didn't have rifles, pistols, or even helmets.

I often wonder why that pilot, flying toward Hickam Field, would take the time to strafe five or six guys standing in a field. Whether it was frivolous or what, I don't know, though I've never considered the Japanese frivolous. They were inscrutable.

Our base got missed because it just wasn't as important as other installations and the Japs knew it. They were after airfields and ships. At the same time they bombed Hickam they bombed Wheeler Field and I think one other. Of course the harbor was the main target, but if they could keep our planes from getting in the air they would have a better chance.

I could not distinguish our fighters from theirs so I can't say if we got anything off or not, surely there were some of our planes in the sky. What was notable to me was that from where I could see, what I could watch, our few anti-aircraft weapons didn't hit anything. I could see planes coming over and bursts of our anti-aircraft fire would surround them, but I couldn't see any planes falling. One plane was shot down in our area, not where the band was, but several hundred yards down the way, and afterwards the Army left the plane where it crashed with the Japanese pilot still in it. We walked down to see it. It was the first time I had ever seen a Japanese Zero. The pilot was still hunkered over his stick; they didn't have the wheel type controls. But he was dead, still had his helmet on. That was the only time in the whole war I ever saw the enemy, except much later on Okinawa, but they were dead, too. As I recall, the whole raid didn't last more than half an hour. That's something I don’t know for sure, it just seems right. Although it seemed a lot longer at the time.

After the bombing we were issued World War I era helmets and .45 caliber pistols, but I had never even fired one before. In basic training we had 1903 Springfield rifles and that was what I qualified on, but they never assigned any to us after that. If I had been in a regular battery, a Coastal Artillery unit, they would have given us guns, but not for the band. I don't know if anyone there had helmets, I guess there just seemed no need for them, despite the fact that negotiations were going on in Washington with the Japanese. But I never had any inkling that the Japanese would come to where we were, and everything I've read since then seems to suggest that no one else thought they'd come there either. It was a real, real surprise attack.

I never did see the harbor after the bombing. One time we had an occasion to go by Hickam Field where the men's quarters were made of concrete. They had gaping holes in the walls. I don't know what the Japanese had been firing but it looked like rocket holes. At any rate, it was obvious that they had been hit. The planes that had come in had had bombs of course, they bombed the runways, but they also did a lot of machine gun firing.

Right after the bombing the Army's attitude shifted and I was transferred from the band to a command post. If I recall, most of the rest of the band was reformed and sent to perform for the troops on the South Pacific islands, closer to Japan, but I never did hear from any of them again. I've tried to get in touch with them, but to no avail.

I was assigned to work at what they called a Command Post. We worked under ground all day and slept right outside the command post on cots, so I don't know what was going on anywhere else. Actually, where I was stationed was called Battery Selfridge and it was a twelve inch mortar battery that had not been fired for years. Sometime during our stay there they decided to activate it, test it, and fire it. What they were going to fire at, with a twelve-inch mortar, I don't know. A mortar has a very limited range. We had sixteen inch guns that could fire fifteen miles and they were trained on the harbor, but that mortar, it just had very limited range. But anyway, they fired it and it about broke our ear drums.

Our command post was part of the 15th Coast Artillery base. In addition to the command post, we had gun emplacements that were out on the hills in different places. Some of those gun emplacements were made after the war had started, using guns that had been taken off some of the ships that had been damaged in the attack. They took the whole turrets off, like twin turrets, I guess they were six inch guns, and mounted them in emplacements that the island defenses people had built right after the bombing. And so those were in our jurisdiction, of the 15th Coast Artillery I mean. There were several other Coast Artillery divisions there too, the 55th and 41st are two that I recall. They were doing the same thing we were and they had the same type of people, same ranks, and same type of work.

Not all of us were underground at the command post. We had observation posts that were twenty or thirty feet up on stilts, with telescopes to watch ships. Our operators were trained to identify the types of ships that passed by, and their numbers. They stood there day and night; it was a waste of time. We never saw a Japanese ship. They say that there were several small, one-man subs I believe they called them, Japanese subs, that did make land, but I don't recall what ever happened to them. I don't remember anyone saying that they captured them, whether they just saw them or whatever, who knows.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed, that was pretty much it for us you know. We never had another incident, either from abroad or internally. I think they kept the Japanese on the island under surveillance, but I don't remember anyone being convicted of spying, or for causing any sort of disturbance.

Our command post was ground level, and the mortar was ground level, but then there was a big pile of dirt on top of us, I guess for camouflage and protection, so we were technically underground, but when you stepped out the door you were at ground level. What we did in there was register the coming and going of ships. We weren't in contact with them, we just reported their movements to, well I don't really know who we reported to, the Navy I guess. But, like I said, we had no contact with the ships. We were just supposed to identify them. We also studied charts to learn how to identify Japanese bombers and their other planes, but of course we never saw any of those after the initial bombing, but we had to know all that. I say “we,” but really I spent almost all my time typing. There weren't too many people that typed in those days for some reason. I typed, made mimeographs, stuff like that.

The commander of the command post was a full Colonel, and his Executive was a Lieutenant Colonel, and they were constantly writing letters and I had to type those. We also had an officers' training school set up where the new officers coming in had to learn about the gunnery and stuff like that. I had to make, well type, the manuals for that, but the gunnery instructors actually created the manuals. I was really busy doing things like that.

I was still a Private, Fourth-Class Specialist, at the time, but as people left the command post to go to Officer Training School, or wherever, I got more and more rank until I finally made Master Sergeant. It took less than two years to advance that far. I remember because the guy ahead of me that had the highest rank was a Tech Sergeant, that was three chevrons up and two down. That was the standard rate for that position at the time and when he left I got his job and that rank. Shortly after that, they advanced the rate, the Table of Organization as they like to call it, for that position to Master Sergeant. It was pretty fast to advance that far but there wasn't anybody else in line and I was the logical candidate. The only higher enlisted rank above Master Sergeant was First Sergeant, so I was about as high as I could go. In fact the pay grade for Master Sergeant and First Sergeant was the same. I was making $135 a month, and that counted the extra 20% for overseas. I have no idea what they would make today.

I was in the message center where we received and sent coded messages. The coding device was a cylinder, about an inch and a half in diameter. There were about ten cylinders and they all had letters on them and each day you set them for the code and worked out the messages on that dumb machine. I mean it was really primitive. There was no master mind cloak and dagger genius to it really, I mean I didn't even go through any official training for it. I guess we got the daily code via messenger, I don't think they would have used the phone.

I was there until February of 1944, and then I went to Okinawa. After Okinawa was invaded, the Army was assembling a task force to send there. I didn't volunteer for it, I didn't even know the task force was being formed. I got what they call Shanghaied.

I had been in the command post as the Master Sergeant for almost a year and a half when the Sergeant Major of the 15th Coast Artillery headquarters went back on rotation. He was eligible, and so was I, but I didn't want to go back on rotation because I thought I'd be reassigned to Europe, or someplace else further away yet. So, I got his job. It was there that I was dealing with the Adjutant, a Second Lieutenant, and a difficult man to work with. As part of the job we, meaning the 15th Coast Artillery, had to provide dock workers every night to unload ships, or load ships, and like that. It was a miserable job and the Adjutant gave me my orders. I had to call around to the different batteries to request these men and we got all kinds of flack. I'd have to call and talk to the Captain of the battery and say, ‘We need fifteen men.’ And they would inevitably say, ‘We don't have fifteen men,’ you know. And I say, ‘Well that's the quota that was given me.’ And they would grumble and somehow come up the men. It was a miserable job. If you liked being in charge of something like that it would have been a good job, but I didn't particularly like that. So I was probably there about six months or so.

I guess I must have irritated the Adjutant, or crossed him, or something, because he was the man that put my name down for the task force. He ‘volunteered’ me. Ironically, I ran into someone on the ship on the way over to Okinawa that knew him, and he told me that that Lieutenant had been Shanghaied for the same task force too!

They had to put somebody on the list and I was a Master Sergeant at the time. There were few opportunities for someone of that grade so they stuck me in the Judge Advocate General Department and when I got to the place in Hawaii where we were to assemble I was interviewed by the Judge Advocate General headquarters. The first thing they asked was ‘Are you a lawyer?’ And I said ‘No.’ And they said, ‘Then what are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well, this is where they assigned me.’ And they said, ‘Then I guess we'll send you back to your outfit.’ So, rather than go back to the command post I asked if there wasn't something else I could do for the task force and they checked around and found out I could head up a Special Service Unit, which was a non-combat unit in the area servicing and entertaining front-line troops.

I lost my birthday going over to Okinawa. We crossed the International Date Line on my birthday, March 21st. We got to Okinawa in early spring of ‘45, I guess. I was kind of glad to be there, really. I felt guilty, having been in the service so long and not having seen any action. 'Course I didn't feel as guilty once I got over there and got in the air raids and stuff. I began to feel I should have stayed in Hawaii. The Japanese were still there when I got there. As far as I understand, they never really got off Okinawa, those that weren't killed were captured.

I was never really worried about going into action, it was never a pressing concern. Of course when they said we were going into a forward area we didn't know what to think. And when we were out to sea a couple of days they said we were going to Okinawa and we didn't know what we were going to get into there. We did practice getting off the ship on cargo nets while out to sea, and into small boats while wearing full gear. And we thought, ‘Well, this is how we are going to disembark, I suppose.’ But when we got to Okinawa and caught sight of the dock I said, ‘Dock? I thought we were going on cargo nets!’ So we thought we'd probably see some trouble, but it wasn't that we were going to be shipped up to the front, just in harm’s way, you might say.

I spent the last, well not quite year, of the war on Okinawa. We basically put on shows and provided the troops with recreational equipment like balls and bats. We also had a library where they could borrow books, and we published a small newspaper. It was a pretty safe job. We went up close to the front to perform, but usually we didn't have any interruptions. Once in a while there would be an air raid and we'd have to take cover, but that was it.

By that time Okinawa was fairly secure. The supply lines were running fine and we didn't really lack any necessities, though we slept in tents and we had no electricity, and we couldn't take real showers. We used a 55-gallon drum with a spigot welded on to it. It was filled with rain water that ran off our tents, and when you turned it on, it dripped cold water on you.

The first few months we were there the Japanese bombed us almost nightly. It wasn't a big island so even if they were bombing one end of the island you could hear it on the other end. And we didn't have foxholes. We were in a valley and our foxholes were caves in the side of the hill on either side. We just headed for our caves whenever an air raid siren sounded and the shrapnel fell in the area. That was the biggest threat to us, falling shrapnel, even though I never saw a bomb dropping anywhere near us. One Japanese airplane was shot down and did crash maybe a quarter mile from us, but there were no bombs exploding near us. The shrapnel came from our anti-aircraft guns. It would explode in the sky and drop onto us, so there must have been planes overhead in order for the shrapnel to come down where we were.

The first time I ever flew was on Okinawa. Once we had to fly to Ie Shima, which was another of the Ryukyu Islands, I don't know how many miles away. In fact, that's where Ernie Pile, the civilian war correspondent, was killed. We flew over there to put on a show and that was the first time I was ever on a plane. No, no, it wasn't the first time, what's the matter with me? When I was on furlough in the US (I came back by ship of course), and cross-country by train. I got married, but my total time at home was only to be twenty-one days. After we were married we would only have had a few days left together if I were to go back by train, so I opted to fly. That was the first time. The next time was on Okinawa and I haven't flown since. I just do not want to be up in the air.

We were what they called an Occupation Force, just to, well, occupy the area, so we were not part of the force being readied to invade Japan. We didn't even have a hand in securing the island, that was for the infantry. After the island was secured we were to take over the administration as an Army garrison force.

I was on Okinawa when they dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and boy, the rumors were that we were in trouble. They said the fall-out was going to get in the ocean and reach us on the Ryukyus. Of course that never happened. I don't really recall even hearing about those bombs when they were dropped. We had no communications in our encampment, no electricity and no radios as far as I remember. The Headquarters had all that, and they passed out information. They had that small newspaper that I spoke about, but I don't know if we read about the bombs in that, or if we heard about it through the grape vine. And we didn't know what an atomic bomb was back then anyway. I’d never heard of an atomic bomb back then.

The closest I ever got to being killed was actually on my way home from Okinawa. I was in a casual camp, I guess they called it, in a tent. It was night time, early evening I guess, everything had been quiet and all of the sudden here was this terrific small-arms fire going on. Bullets whistling over, through the tent, and we all hit the ground. When it was over we heard yelling and cheering. It was the announcement that Japan had surrendered. I guess it was friendly fire, but that was no time to get hit.

Soon after that, we were loaded onto ships to go home. The first ship we were loaded onto was a pretty nice ship and we thought we were going on that but something happened and they said, ‘Well you're not going home on this. We're going to transfer you to another one.’ While we were still in the harbor on that first ship we had a Kamikaze attack. The war was over, but I guess this dumb Japanese pilot didn't know it, so the ship made smoke and we had to go below deck and wait. We heard all sorts of noises, sirens and what not, but we never heard any explosion. They said that the Kamikaze did go into a ship in our group in that harbor, but we felt fortunate that it wasn't us. We never saw it, but maybe that was better.

So anyway, we got on a ship that was a former cargo ship. It went to Okinawa, they said, carrying cement, so I knew it was going to be slow. It took twenty-one days to get home. Actually, we stopped in Hawaii and they let us get off the ship and I went back to the command post, the 15th Coast Artillery where I had been stationed, but I didn't find anyone I ever knew. Everybody was moved out and everything had changed. That was the last time I ever saw Hawaii. I never went back. Once the ship got to the West Coast I came across the country by train. I was discharged at some fort in Indiana and I was glad to get out.

I never had any thoughts of staying in. I could have retired with twenty years at thirty-eight years old, could have had a second career after that, but I didn't. I was so glad that it was all over that I didn't even consider re-enlistment.

To read Bil's next "Last Vet Standing" interview with WWII Veteran Clyde Crowley, click here

Bil Lepp is a nationally renowned storyteller and a PEN Award winning author. To see more of Bil's WV Strong content, click here. 

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