Memories of Pearl Harbor Kept Alive

MOUNDSVILLE – William Knuth wondered in 1940 what kind of army would send a man to Hawaii, the Pearl of the Pacific, and pay him $21 each month to play bass horn just because he had done so in his high school band. It seemed too easy, too good to be true.

All that changed for the Benwood native on Dec. 7, 1941.

According to research conducted by Moundsville historian Gary Rider, Knuth had chosen to enlist in the military in 1939 after graduating from Wheeling High School and having trouble finding a decent job. While he had hoped to join either the Navy or Marines, he was turned down by both and joined the Army. He was not yet 18 years old when he was deployed, and on May 30, 1940, he boarded a U.S. Army troop ship headed for Hawaii.

After 23 days at sea, Knuth was greeted by an Army band playing “Aloha Oe” and girls in grass skirts who put leis around his neck. He then spent six weeks in boot camp at Honolulu’s Fort Kamehameha, where his regiment was taught to identify deadly gases, bore sight guns, clean and disassemble rifles and slash at straw dummies with fixed bayonets.

Knuth recalled the saying, “Join the Army and Learn a Trade.” It chilled him to think that he was learning a trade as he practiced “sticking and slashing” on the straw dummies, knowing the techniques were meant for men.

After completing basic training, Knuth was recruited by a band director at the fort to play the bass horn in the band. His job was to perform with the band for the troops on the drill field.

“Fort Kamehameha was a coast artillery fort and was pitifully weak, with a 3-inch gun battery and one 12-inch mortar battery,” Rider wrote in his “Marshall County Patriots and Heroes.” The fort was there to help protect the nearby Hickam Field base, where planes were sitting lined up outside.

It was Sunday morning a year and a half later when the attack came. Knuth was cleaning the recreation room at the base and looking forward to returning home in six months when he heard planes flying overhead. Upon hearing explosions, Knuth and the rest of the men present ran outside to investigate.

“They were caught completely by surprise,” said William Knuth’s son, David Knuth, executive director of Moundsville Chamber of Commerce.

By the large red disc on the low-flying planes, the men knew that they were under attack by the Japanese.

“There were no weapons or helmets at their base to protect them if they were attacked,” Rider wrote.

“As I stood flattened against a concrete pillar, the breath scared out of me, the only only sounds I heard were whistling bombs and droning planes,” the late William Knuth recalled in a memoir. “I had never felt such terror or such hopelessness. I thought of all the excitement I had not yet experienced in my 19 years of living. Was this it? Would I die? I had never even driven a car yet.”

“Essentially, they were sitting ducks,” added David Knuth. “All they could do was run for cover. The U.S. Army was there to guard the base, but that Sunday morning their guard was definitely down.”

William Knuth survived the attack and went on to serve as a clerk in the message center, gradually climbing the ranks to sergeant 1st class. When the ranking sergeant was granted disability leave, Knuth was promoted to master sergeant.

Knuth returned home on a three-week leave in August, 1944. He visited friends and family and got married.

Upon returning to service, he was sent to Okinawa, an island near Japan, where he served in a special entertainment unit consisting of musicians, artists, actors and circus performers to keep spirits up as the men dug small caves into the hillsides for shelter during the nightly air raids.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, Knuth was among those discharged. He was awarded the American Defense Medal with one bronze star, as well as an Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon with two bronze stars and recognition for good conduct. During his five years of service, he received one minor injury when he slammed his finger in a truck bed door.

After surviving Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, and a Kamikaze attack, Knuth returned to the United States to start a new life with his wife. He got a job with Tri-State Electric, raised a family and lived to be 90 years old before dying Aug. 12.

“Dad never talked that much about when he was in the service,” said David Knuth. As he grew older, William Knuth began to share his story more, but David Knuth said that his father always refused to go into any detail about the casualties of Pearl Harbor.

At first, being in the military was fun and interesting and you got to go different places, William Knuth had said in “Marshall County Patriots and Heroes.” By the end of the war, he was just glad to get home safely.