Monday, July 29, 2013

John and DeDe, a Love Story (Part 2)

Aaron Elson: Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?

John Knox: I was sitting at the kitchen table. We were having a late breakfast, I think it was about 11 o’clock Sunday morning, and we had a big kitchen. It was shortly after we moved away from my aunt and my grandma and my two uncles. It was the first place I ever lived since I was four or five years old where our family was alone now in our own house, and my brother and I had our own bedroom, and I still remember the scene sitting at the table and hearing, I guess we were playing music or something, and they cut in, Roosevelt.
 We were dating then. It didn’t affect us. We just kept on dating. I finished school and went to work for Curtiss-Wright for a year until I was going to be drafted. I didn’t want to enlist because I was in love with her, so I just figured, I knew I was A1. And I kind of thought I’d go in the Air Corps because I was so small, and I worked for Curtiss-Wright. I just assumed that. Then I made the mistake, they said, "Don’t ever volunteer in the Army," you’ve heard that expression, and I volunteered to go to gunnery school. That’s where I made my mistake.
     Ray Lemons [a waist gunner on Knox's crew] and I both went to gunnery school, and then we went to Sheppard Field, Texas, to become flight engineers on  B-25 or B-26 medium bombers. We were in the same class but we never knew each other. Then we got through with that and we thought we were gonna be on a B-25 or a B-26, be a flight engineer, and that puts you way up to tech sergeant, pretty good rating. And then they put us on a B-24 and we didn’t know anything about the mechanics, so Ray became a waist gunner and I became a tail gunner. And he helped me out when I was shot. I got a direct hit from a 20-millimeter cannon shell, knocked me for a loop and knocked my turret out of commission. The plane was on fire. He opened the door and got me out.

DeDe Knox: He was operated on his knee without anesthetic.

John Knox: That’s all on the tape [a video interview that was done with the Knoxes].

Aaron Elson: Let’s go back to Pearl Harbor.

John Knox: We’re going too fast.

Aaron Elson: DeDe, where were you when you heard about it?

John Knox: She probably doesn’t remember.

DeDe Knox: I don’t remember.

John Knox: Her memory’s slipping a little.

Aaron Elson: Did you know immediately that John was going to be drafted?

John Knox: Oh, sure, as soon as I was called in for a physical and rated A-1, we talked about it. We were dating pretty hot and heavy. We were engaged when I went over.

DeDe Knox: Before he went overseas, he was out in Colorado, and the pilot said that’s it, they were ready to go overseas but they had a delay, and he wanted me to come out, because some of them were getting married. My mother said you can’t let them get married, because she wanted a church wedding, and she said, “You can go,” but his mother chaperoned me. At that age, you never heard of that now. So I did go to Colorado and spend that week with him before he went overseas. And we were married after he got back. The Air Force flew him home every weekend so he could see me, and finally the doctor said “Jack, you go back home and get that girl and marry her and bring her back so you can stay put long enough for us to operate on your eye.”

John Knox: I lost an eye. Shrapnel penetrated the optic nerve, and shrapnel put my knee out of commission. I’ve had a stiff knee all my life. This has been a terrible thing. You can’t sit right. You can’t do anything right. That’s why I can’t fly anymore, because I think when we went to Kansas City, the last 8th Air Force reunion we went to, my god, I got on the plane, I couldn’t get my leg under the seat in front of me. And I’m standing there, everybody’s getting on the plane. I told the stewardess, “I just simply can not sit down, what am I gonna do, get off?” I said “I can sit in a bulkhead seat,” so she arranged a bulkhead seat. And then when I got to Atlanta I had to arrange a bulkhead seat, and then coming back. And I said never again.

DeDe Knox: They don’t let you do it ahead of time.

John Knox: The time I flew before that the plane I was in must have been bigger, probably Delta, but I could squeeze my leg under the seat in front of me. But this, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get all the way down and get my leg. I almost hit the panic button, what am I gonna stand up the whole way or what?

DeDe Knox: Because he was supposed to light one candle, he was supposed to be on the stage and honored in Kansas City and I said “What are we gonna do?” And he said, “I’ll figure out something.” That was four planes during that trip, and he said this is going to be our last trip by plane.

John Knox: That was five years ago.

Aaron Elson: Tell me about your crew.

John Knox: We all met in Salt Lake City, that’s where they assembled the crew. That’s where we met Jim Baynham and the co-pilot Charlie, and the flight engineer was Howard Boldt who just died recently from Houston. We didn’t have a navigator and a bombardier. We picked them up later. But that’s when Ray and I found out we weren’t going to be flight engineers on a medium bomber and we’d probably go to the South Pacific. And we weren’t too happy about it. After Salt Lake City we went to Colorado Springs to do our training on B-24s.
Aaron Elson: Who was in the crew? Who else joined later on.

John Knox: Jim Baynham. Charlie Bosquet was the co-pilot. When we finally got the navigator it was John, he’s from Kentucky, it’s on the tape. Hector Scala was the bombardier, and Boldt was the flight engineer. He was shot up worse than I was. He was just getting in the bomb bay waiting to bail out, and he got shot in the legs. And of course Bosquet and John, the navigator, they were two that weren’t shot, and the radio operator was Jim Fields from California, and he was wounded. And then the other waist gunner, opposite from Ray Lemons, was Olen Byrd. He was kind of a Texas farmboy, not very well polished, and the last Ray and I saw of him he was sitting down on the floor of the airplane under the waist gun kind of looking at us. And the plane was on fire. We don’t know whether he was afraid, and we had the door open to bail out, that was right there too. And I remember looking at him and I remember Ray saying “Come on, Bird, come on,” and he said “no, no, no.” And we don’t know whether he had a bullet in him, or whether he froze, scared, all we know is we think he went down with the plane. And to this day, Ray and I were the only ones who saw him, and we don’t know why. He had a funny look on his face. But he wasn’t dead. But with all that stuff on him he could have been bleeding interior, and the plane was raked with cannon shells and shrapnel. The plane was in bad shape, and on fire. So we don’t know about Bird. He was just a real quiet guy and all he did, he’d just gone to gunnery school, he hadn’t gone to any mechanic school or anything like that, he was strictly a gunner. And then we used to have a ball turret when we went over, and we had a ball turret gunner, his name was Jed Lord. I don’t think we flew maybe one mission and then they took out the ball turrets because we had better escorts and the missions were getting easier, and that thing created a drag, so we could go a little faster. So we rotated. And Lord happened to be the one that day that didn’t fly. When I didn’t fly he flew the tail turret and when Ray didn’t fly he flew the waist gun. So he was the one, and he went ahead and finished all his missions, stayed over there a couple of years I think, in ordnance.

Aaron Elson: Which mission was that for you?

John Knox: My eighth. It was different for some of us. It was my eighth, and I think it was Jim’s tenth. We rotated, like I say, so I lost one there. And then one time the pilot and co-pilot, the flight engineer, and I think they took Ray along on that one, a bunch of them flew gasoline over to France. They got credit for a mission I think for that. So even on the same crew we had different, but I think eight was the minimum. People ask me how many missions I went on and I always said “Seven and a half.”

Aaron Elson: Was that mission in September when they flew the gas over to France.

John Knox: Our first mission was in August, so it had to be in late August or September. They made one mission doing that and they might have got two missions in, I’m not sure. But there was no reason for a tail gunner to go because they were not going over enemy territory, they were just going across the Channel. And I remember Charlie, the co-pilot, got some cognac while he was over there. And I think he got drunk on it, too, because I think they stayed overnight, by the time they unloaded the plane, and he had a ball. He was a character. Somehow he died, he wrote me a letter about 20 years after the war. We didn’t know each other too well because I was an enlisted man and he was the co-pilot. But it was a weird letter, like he was having mental trouble, all mixed up or something. And I wrote back and told him if there was anything I can do, let me know. But we weren’t that close. He was closer to Jim. And about six months later he was dead. And I think he committed suicide. His family wrote us.
      When I was a prisoner of war my mother got some information from the Army Air Force, of the addresses of all my crew members, and she wrote to all the wives, or mothers, to find out how many of them are alive and how many are dead, because I was the only one that was missing in action. All the others were accounted for. Either they were dead or they were POWs, but I wasn’t accounted for until one of my older letters from Germany which I still have, all those letters, arrived at her house, the following March, after the mail carriers kept telling her “You might as well quit writing, all of the letters are coming back.”

DeDe Knox: He was probably dead.

John Knox: And then when they got that letter that morning he got in the car and took it right to the house. And she called up my mother, and that’s the only way she knew that I wasn’t dead. But I’ve got all the letters my mother wrote to Jim Baynham’s wife and Hector Scala’s mother. They wrote back. Who was missing, who was a prisoner of war, and who was KIA.

Aaron Elson: Tell me about the battle itself, what you remember, from the first inkling that something was wrong.

John Knox: Well, that was all weird. Our radios, we didn’t back there know we pulled away from the group. We didn’t know that. And then all of a sudden I saw a plane on my tail. I assumed it was an American plane, and then I got looking close and I said “No, that’s not a P-47, that’s an FW-190.” And boy, he was coming in on me. And I’m shooting at him. There’s nothing over the intercom about planes or bandits or enemy planes or anything. Nothing. And he’s shooting at me and I’m shooting at him, of course he’s got 20-millimeter cannons and maybe even a 30, and I’ve got a couple of little .50-caliber machine guns. And he just, one of them hit my turret. I never saw all those 130 planes at all. And to this day I can’t figure that out. It’s weird. We were fairly in the back, and I think the attack started in the front. But I didn’t see a lot of planes being shot down or a lot of German planes or engines. I didn’t see anything. But the plane was already on fire when I got hit, so you know they made some passes at us. There was a fire in the bomb bay. So I don’t know, it was just dead. I heard nothing. I heard nothing about a fire. I heard nothing about bailing out. I heard nothing about bandits in the area. Nothing. I’ll never figure that one out.

Aaron Elson: Which position were you in?

John Knox: Tail gunner.

Aaron Elson: No, I mean the plane. Was it the tail end?

John Knox: I think we were pretty much. I’ve got a diagram of that. We all got diagrams in our Kassel, the black book, this Kassel book [The Kassel Mission Chronicles].

Aaron Elson: Once you were hit, did the turret shatter?

John Knox: Apparently it shattered because I had shrapnel all over.

DeDe Knox: He’s still got 13 pieces in him.

John Knox: But I knew my eye was hit, and I knew my leg was hit, and I could see the tear in my pants and the blood coming out. And I just got out of the turret and clipped on my parachute. I was kind of half in and half out and I bailed out and I counted to ten, I wanted to clear the rudders, then I pulled the cord right away. Because I was kind of woozy. And that’s what I shouldn’t have done probably because I passed out, see, we were at 23, 24,000 feet.

Aaron Elson: When this was happening, did your life flash before your eyes?

John Knox: No.

Aaron Elson: Did the concept of death occur to you?

John Knox: The concept, no, what occurred to me was, if I wanted to live, I had to get out of that burning plane. My desire to live overcame any fear of bailing out. So I took the only escape that I could see. I had enough sensibility to do that.

Aaron Elson: At what point did you see Bird?

John Knox: I saw him while I was putting my chute on, and Ray had the door open, just that second or two before I went through the hole there. He was sitting to my left, right under the waist gun.

Aaron Elson: And who was the other gunner who you said was hurt worse than you?

John Knox: Oh, that was the flight engineer [Howard Boldt]. The flight engineer flew the top turret, and he got out of the turret, got his parachute on, tried to put out the fire I guess and couldn’t. And the bomb bay doors were open. I don’t know whether he opened them or whether they never closed or what, and he was on the catwalk, and that’s where he and the radio operator were supposed to bail out, just right where the bombs went through, the doors. And he was standing on that. I’ve got a whole lot of stuff about him, a whole book about him, because he remembered every detail. And he was just ready to step off of the catwalk and fall through the bomb bay doors, and I guess he got raked by, both legs ...

Aaron Elson: Machine gun?

John Knox: I don’t even know whether those FW-190s had machine guns by that time in the war. They had, according to my book "The Log of the Liberator," they had 20-millimeter cannons, of course we knew that, and they might have even had a 30-millimeter cannon, which would be a pretty big one. But whether he got hit by machine guns or not, or whether those 20-millimeter things explode, kind of like a cannon shell, and spray shrapnel.
     After Christmas, I came back from another place where they looked at my eye, as a prisoner of war, and that’s a funny story. I was put in the bed right next to him. That’s the first time I saw him. We were side by side. And we both had a cast over our legs and all the way up our body. And we’d sit there and play cribbage, they had a little cribbage board. He was in a lower bunk there and I was in a lower bunk here. We couldn’t get in a higher bunk because we were just practically on our backs. We couldn’t even sit up because of those casts. But he was in one of those electric scooters for the last 30 years, I think.

Aaron Elson: Was that Boldt?

John Knox: Howard Boldt. He had a terrible time. And he was a big man. And having a stiff leg, the worst thing you can do, being big, is fall on your own legs. I think he had a terrible life. But he was very, very cheerful. He was the most upbeat guy. The last 25 years he called me every five, six weeks. The last time he called me was just about a month or two before he died. And he would just talk about how they’re taking care of him, and real upbeat, laughed, and he had nothing to be happy about because he had everything in the world wrong with him. His arms, finally he couldn’t use his arms because he’d used them so much to pull himself up, they went bad.

DeDe Knox: We tried to talk him into coming to a reunion one time.

John Knox: He would have loved to have gone to the reunions, but he said he just couldn’t get around.

Aaron Elson: Did he have a family? Was he married?

John Knox: Of all things, his wife died young, probably when she was fifty. Where he needed her so badly. She died early. He had a son and a daughter, but the only one that ever seemed to help him much, later on, was a grandson, would come around and see him. He had a terrible life. But he was so upbeat. He never complained. Always laughing and joking.

DeDe Knox: He used to cook very well, too. And I admired him.

Aaron Elson: Now, when you pulled the ripcord, you passed out. When did you come to?

John Knox: Hanging in a tree. A tall tree. My parachute caught in a tree and I’m dangling. And about that time three or four German soldiers drove up in a vehicle similar to our jeep, and cut me down and took me somewhere. I was conscious then. And I came to just about the time they came, so I don’t know how long I was hanging in the tree. Boldt was hanging a tree for several hours. And he couldn’t cut himself down because his leg, well, he did finally cut himself down. He had a pocket knife. And there’s a long story about that [in Boldt’s account]

Aaron Elson: Where did the German soldiers take you?
John Knox: I don’t know whether they took me right to the hospital where I was at, or whether they took me to a field hospital. They took me somewhere, and the doctor said he was going to operate on this knee, but he didn’t have any anesthetic. But he said there’s a, it was either a Catholic nurse or some of those nurses over there in Europe wear kind of habits, they’re like a nun, so I don’t know really which it was. He said, “She’ll hold your hand.” He said, “I’ve got to operate on your knee.” He spoke pretty fair English. And I passed out. And the next thing I knew I was in this boys’ school which they’d turned into a POW hospital.

Aaron Elson: So you passed out and didn’t feel the operation?

John Knox: See, I was pretty woozy from the time I was hit. I don’t know how much blood I lost. I think they said they gave me some transfusions. So I might have a little more German blood in me now.

DeDe Knox: When they brought him home on the hospital ship he was about 65 pounds.

Aaron Elson: Now Baynham, did he land the plane or did he bail out?

John Knox: No, he took it down to about 12,000 feet as I remember, and then they bailed out and it blew up then. I don’t know why he took it down so low. I guess he was trying to get back to Allied territory. But I guess the fire wasn’t all the way out. Why did it blow up? I never did get that story. Of course he’s the only one that can tell that. One time we were at Lemons’ house, after the first Kansas City reunion, that was about ten, twelve years ago. We went down and spent some time at Ray’s house, and he surprised us and had Baynham there. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen Baynham since the war.

DeDe Knox: And we went out of the way to see the fellow that didn’t fly that day.

John Knox: Oh, yeah, Lord. We stopped in Tampa to see Lord.

DeDe Knox: You’d seen all the rest of the crew and Jack said, I’d like to go there. And his wife says he felt so guilty.

John Knox: Oh, we did that on the way home. We’ve been to Ray’s house twice. The first time he had Jim over for dinner. He was married to his second wife. Then the next time we went there, we drove down to Houston and saw Howard Boldt. That’s the only time I’ve seen him since the war. But Ray Lemons and I went to a lot of the reunions, and his wife and my wife get along real well. We had a good time at the reunions. The first reunion we went to was, one day Ray called me up, I lived in Deerfield Beach up here, DeDe and I did, we had a nice condo. And he said “Hey, Jack, there’s going to be an Air Force reunion at Hollywood, Florida. Would you be interested in going?”
And I said “Yeah. Where’s it going to be?”
And he said, “At the Diplomat.”
I said, “That’s kind of expensive, why don’t we just stay here? We had a three-bedroom condo close to the water right on the Intercoastal. And so he came down, and his wife Jean, and we went down there, and this was an 8th Air Force reunion. We’d never heard of the 2nd Air Division. And that was 1989. 1988, something like that. And so we went down there, and came back at night, for two or three days. And that’s where we heard about the 2nd Air Division, and the following year they were gonna go to England. Jimmy Stewart was gonna be there. So we signed up for that. And that’s the year we went over to the Kassel Mission Memorial.

Aaron Elson: That was in 1990?
John Knox: We had a week in Norwich for the reunion, and then we went over for three or four days, for the opening ceremonies.

Aaron Elson: That must have been a very moving experience for you.

John Knox: Olen Byrd’s name was on there, and Hector Scala. And John, I can’t think of John’s last name, he was going to the University of Kentucky.

DeDe Knox: When we left to go on this trip, we had a neighbor at the condo in Deerfield Beach, she worked for the Sun Sentinel. She heard about us going over to this reunion, and she came over and said, “I’d love to interview you.” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know...” And she said, “This is something good. People like to hear about this.” So she came and talked to us and got all interested. So we went to Germany, then she called him over there, at the hotel, and did an interview. It was all over the newspaper. And then she called him two or three days later again.

John Knox: She brought a photographer and they came out to the condo before we left, and it was on the front page of the second section of the Sun Sentinel. And a whole article about us going to Germany and meeting the pilots.

DeDe Knox: And then she did a followup on it and phoned him again to see what his reaction was, and then they had another article two or three days later. She said people like to read about good things. And this was a gesture between the two countries, and it was very nice. And the bands were there. It was special.

Aaron Elson: When did you learn the fate of the three crew members who were murdered?
John Knox: I don’t think until about 1986. I got a letter from Walter [Hassenpflug]. Walter wrote me a letter. I think he wrote everybody a letter. He wanted to know more about, and asked me a lot of questions. That guy got all the serial numbers of every plane that was shot down, every crew member, everything.
     After the war I had a lot of trouble, mentally and physically. I was in bad shape. And I went to psychiatrists, I went through shock treatment. And the psychiatrist wanted to find out what happened, so he asked me to write a letter to Jim Baynham, and I think that’s when I first knew that we’d even gone off course. That this whole mission was a disaster. And that’s all I knew about that, I didn’t know anything about anybody being hit. I think it was 1986 when I found out about the three fellows being murdered. They started to put this stuff together, writing back and forth, and we got some information, all through Walter.

Aaron Elson: Now, tell me about your treatment in the hospital.

John Knox: It was better than you would think. It was good. No abuse of any kind. And the whole hospital was run by Dunkirk and Dieppe English prisoners of war. You know how they were trapped when France collapsed. They couldn’t get back across the Channel. So there happened to be among them a medical group. Doctors and enlisted medics and all. They were all taken prisoners, and Germany utilized them by putting them in this hospital. The doctor I had was a captain, a young captain, I don’t think he was 25 years old. He would come around and review the cases with the English doctors. And the medics, they had to do everything, wipe our butt and everything else for a while. Howard Boldt and I were in terrible shape.

Aaron Elson: Why is it that you lost so much weight?

John Knox: There wasn’t much to eat and what there was was so bad I couldn’t eat it. The bread had green mold around it and was real heavy and black and tasted like it was made out of sawdust. And the coffee was the same, ersatz coffee, I don’t know what it was made out of. It was horrible. Once in a while they’d get cheese, and I should have eaten more of that than I did, I just can’t stand cheese. So part of it was my own fault. But most of it was just there just wasn’t much to eat. Everybody lost a lot of weight. But see, I was small, I only weighed about 128.

Aaron Elson: Did you smoke at the time?

John Knox: I might have got a few cigarettes and given them to Boldt. Boldt smoked, in the next bed. If I got any cigarettes, I would have given them to him. I’m not sure. We got a couple Red Cross parcels. There weren’t many.

Aaron Elson: Did they notify the government, or the Red Cross, that you were POWs?

John Knox: Somehow they did Boldt. His wife was notified that he was a POW. But my mother, see, she [DeDe] wouldn’t have got the letter because I was not married. She never got a thing. All she got was letters missing in action. And we never, ever figured that out.

DeDe Knox: Well, the Red Cross said that the Germans didn’t notify people until they got well and went to regular prison camp or till they died, then they notified, but in that interim period they didn’t notify them while he was in the hospital.

John Knox: Three things could have happened to you in that hospital. You could have got better, and put into a stalag. Or you could have died. Or there was a repatriation list, and one boy went home a couple months after I got there. I gave him my address, and he actually wrote a couple of letters. I’ve got the letters even. I think I was on a repatriation list, but that didn’t come up very often.

DeDe Knox: Would you like a cup of coffee?

Aaron Elson: No, thank you. DeDe, how about you during this time?

DeDe Knox: I was in school. I was in college, and then I worked part time. I sold World Book encyclopedias.

John Knox: She wrote a letter to my address in England every day. From September the 27th she kept them going until ...

DeDe Knox: May.

John Knox: Every day. And eventually they all came back. But she kept writing.

DeDe Knox: I kept writing. The mailman told my mother, why don’t you tell that poor girl to quit writing, he’s probably dead. And I said, well, I’m a very religious person, and I said well, I think he’s alive somewhere, maybe with a nice family. He said, “You’re a dreamer.” I just knew he was alive.

Aaron Elson: You never doubted?

DeDe Knox: No.

John Knox: I’ve got whole albums of this, all the letters. And no one ever sees it anymore.

Aaron Elson: When you learned Jack was alive, what went through your mind?

DeDe Knox: Grateful. Happy and grateful. His mother and I were very close. She would pick me up and take me shopping and she took me to church and we were very close. We got to know each other.

John Knox: I didn’t say much in the letters because we weren’t allowed to complain or anything, so I just said that I’m doing okay, I’ve got some injuries, or something like that, and I’ll never be quite the same as before, but I miss you and hope to get home soon. I just couldn’t say much.

DeDe Knox: When he got back he was really cruel. He wanted to leave me off the hook. And I said to him, “I have been writing to you every day all the time you’ve been gone, and you are not gonna dump me!” The doctors, psychiatrists, I went to too with him. And he said that it’s better that you weren’t married because now this way Jack knows that you love him. But he was always of small stature and he was very self-conscious. But he realized that there’s more important things in life.

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