Harold Knebel was sure his 24th birthday would be his last.
It was July 23, 1945, and he was sailing aboard the USS LST-942, a ship used to land tanks ashore as part of the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific Theater in World War II.
By this time, Knebel was the veteran of four major campaigns — the Aleutian, Marshall and Gilbert islands, as well as Borneo — and nine separate invasions. Now Knebel and his shipmates were preparing for the greatest offensive of all. They were to be at the tip of the spear for the final thrust — the invasion of the Japanese mainland.
“I was sure it was going to be a suicide mission,” said Knebel.
But President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb changed that calculus. The first bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6. The second fell on Nagasaki on Aug. 9. On Aug. 15, Japan announced its surrender.
When the word spread, Knebel’s captain broke out “all the beer a man could drink” on the deck.
“For the first time, and the last time, I drank too much,” said Knebel, who turned 96 on Sunday. “But why not? The war was over. I just got my life back.”
Knebel did end up putting his boots on Japanese soil. Three months after the bomb dropped, he was in Hiroshima unloading supplies for the new occupying force.
During his off-duty time, Knebel walked around Hiroshima — four hours every day for a week. He carried a small camera through the city, taking pictures of the devastation.
He and his comrades looked for a bomb crater, but there was none, he said. The bomb exploded almost 2,000 feet above the city for maximum impact.
“Everything above a foot and a half was destroyed,” he recalled.
Knebel graduated from Highland High School in 1939. Germany would invade Poland that fall, marking the beginning of World War II. Though the U.S. would not enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Knebel said he could hear the drums of war beating, and he knew his country would need him.
Initially, Knebel wanted to be a pilot. But his prewar studies soon had him trading the idea of soaring among the clouds to sailing the seas. On June 20, 1942, at the age of 20, Knebel enlisted in the Navy, though the rocking of the sea is something this boy from the prairie really never got used to.
“I would have paid a king’s ransom for Dramamine,” Knebel wrote in a memoir of his time in the service.
Knebel’s first ship was the USS LST-480, a 320-foot transport crewed by 52 men and seven officers.
In August 1943, they sailed for what was to be their first fight. The ship was part of a flotilla making its way to the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. They were to invade the island of Kiska, but when they arrived, all of the Japanese troops had secretly evacuated, but not before leaving behind sinister traps.
Seventy-five men in the landing force were killed by exploding booby traps. Deviousness of another kind also wreaked havoc among the ranks.
“Poison sake took its toll,” Knebel said.
Knebel’s first true engagement with the enemy came at the battle for Tarawa, part of the U.S. invasion of the Gilbert Islands in the Central Pacific. The battle for the small island, which is only 2 miles long and 800 yards across at its widest point, was a bloody one. The 4,500 Japanese defenders fought to the last man. Of the 5,000 Marines who put ashore on the first day, 1,500 were killed or wounded.
“The bodies were floating in the shallow water,” Knebel recalled.
After the campaign in the Gilberts, LST-480 traveled to two more invasions in the Marshall Islands before heading to Pearl Harbor to resupply and allow the crew a little rest and relaxation. The trip turned out to be the exact opposite.
The West Loch Disaster
About 1/3 of the crew of the LST-480 was on leave in Honolulu on May 21, 1944.
Knebel, however, was not among them. He remained aboard ship, which was anchored at West Loch Pearl Harbor, tied to a cluster of 21 other LSTs being equipped for the invasion of Saipan.
Each ship was full of ammunition, explosives, nitroglycerin, 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 1,000 gallons lubricating oil, and other supplies. One hundred 55-gallon barrels of gasoline were also placed on the main deck of each ship.
Around 3 p.m., the ship’s fire alarm rang out. Knebel, who had been in the shower, hurriedly threw on pants and shoes and ran to his station. He was ordered to get top-side to help fight the fire. Confusion mixed with panic as munitions and fuel exploded all around, but for three hours, Knebel and his crew fought to save their ship.
As he endeavored to extinguish the flames, a detonation threw a 3-foot piece of angle iron into Knebel’s back, just inches from his spine. He was thrown into a wall and knocked unconscious. When he came to, the metal had been removed, but the fight for the LST-480 was over.
The order was given to abandon ship. Knebel yelled the order to men in the engine room below, then made his way to the edge of the boat. Looking down, he saw burning oil and smoke covering the water. Looking back, there were the gasoline barrels on the deck.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Which way do we want to die today?’” Knebel said.
Pieces of shrapnel, bursting shells and tracer bullets shot into the water around them. Fire and smoke made it hard to get a bearing, but Knebel was able to swim to shore.
Exhausted when he hit the sand, Knebel collapsed on the beach. But there was no reprieve as continued explosions launched salvos of metal debris landing next to his head. He ran inland. He would collapse three times before he found a safe haven in the ambulances waiting on the edge of the beach.
He had a mild concussion, serious burns all over his body, infected eyes, punctured ear drums and the wound in his back. But as he laid on a cot in the hospital hall, surrounded by 400 wounded, none of it seemed to matter.
“The Lord was with me that day,” Knebel said. “I was alive.”
The event claimed the lives of 163 men. It is unknown what caused the initial explosion. Knebel said it was speculated to be a Japanese time bomb. However, that theory could never be proven. Official Navy records list it as an accident.
End of the war
By Sept. 27, 1944, Knebel was at sea again aboard a new ship, LST-942, steaming back into the fight. Before the war’s end, he would partake in the invasions of Samar, Cebu and Mindoro islands in the Philippines, and Borneo.
Three years, 6 months and 15 days after his enlistment, Knebel was honorably discharged. He made 49 ports of call during his career and retired as a chief motor machinist’s mate.
“My experience in the Navy and the military gave me a different outlook on life — for the better,” Knebel said.
But he was ready to resume his old way of life.
The return home
After the war, Knebel refused the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Marines, who hoped to recruit him for more time.
When Knebel arrived back home, he went to the roller skating rink in Troy. It was there he was reunited with a lovely young woman, who he had not seen in years, but had always considered his best friend. Her name was Jean Wise. She was one of two cheerleaders in Troy when Knebel was in high school. He thought she was stunning. A year later, they were married.
They now live at Faith Countryside Homes in Highland. On March 10, they celebrated 70 years of marriage. They are still best friends. Harold tells Jean everyday how much he loves her and holds her hand as she falls asleep every night.
The photos he took at Hiroshima, he displays on his mantle alongside pictures of his wife and family. The contrast of the images serve as a reminder to live every day to its fullest and cherish the things in life that matter most.
“I have a good outlook on life,” Knebel said. “I am not despondent or anything. Some people get depressed. I am not depressed. I look forward to the next day.”
▪ The Aleutian Islands Campaign
▪ The Invasion of Kiska
▪ The Invasion of the Gilbert Islands
▪ The Invasion of Tarawa
▪ The Invasion of Macon
▪ The Invasion of the Marshall Islands
▪ The Invasion of Majuro
▪ The Invasion of Kwajalein
▪ The Invasion of Samar
▪ The Invasion of Cebu
▪ The Invasion of Mindoro
▪ The Borneo Campaign, The Invasion of Borneo
▪ The American Theater of War medal
▪ The Asiatic Theater of War medal
▪ The Good Conduct medal
▪ Chief Motor Machinist Mate