The President of the United States
in the name of The Congress
takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor
KNAPPENBERGER, ALTON W.
Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, 3d Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Cisterna di Littoria, Italy, 1 February 1944. Entered service at: Spring Mount, Pa. Birth: Cooperstown, Pa. G.O. No.: 41, 26 May 1944.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action involving actual conflict with the enemy, on 1 February 1944 near Cisterna di Littoria, Italy.
When a heavy German counterattack was launched against his battalion, Private Knappenberger crawled to an exposed knoll and went into position with his automatic rifle. An enemy machinegun 85 yards away opened fire, and bullets struck within 6 inches of him. Rising to a kneeling position, Private Knappenberger opened fire on the hostile crew, knocked out the gun, killed 2 members of the crew, and wounded the third. While he fired at this hostile position, 2 Germans crawled to a point within 20 yards of the knoll and threw potato-masher grenades at him, but Private Knappenberger killed them both with 1 burst from his automatic rifle. Later, a second machinegun opened fire upon his exposed position from a distance of 100 yards, and this weapon also was silenced by his well-aimed shots. Shortly thereafter, an enemy 20mm. antiaircraft gun directed fire at him, and again Private Knappenberger returned fire to wound 1 member of the hostile crew. Under tank and artillery shellfire, with shells bursting within 15 yards of him, he held his precarious position and fired at all enemy infantrymen armed with machine pistols and machineguns which he could locate. When his ammunition supply became exhausted, he crawled 15 yards forward through steady machinegun fire, removed rifle clips from the belt of a casualty, returned to his position and resumed firing to repel an assaulting German platoon armed with automatic weapons. Finally, his ammunition supply being completely exhausted, he rejoined his company. Private Knappenberger's intrepid action disrupted the enemy attack for over 2 hours.
Farm boy won WWII fame, sought a return to obscurity
By David Venditta
Courtesy Of The Morning Call
May 31, 2004
Knappie's unit had just started its push against the Germans when his buddy Mooney got hit.
They were moving out from Italy's Anzio beachhead in the bitter cold. Crossing a snow-dusted field, they took heavy fire. Mooney was walking 10 feet to Knappie's left. An anti-tank shell caught him at the throat and ripped his head off.
Mooney kept going forward, still on his feet. The Germans kept shooting at him.
On both sides of him, other men fell. But the 20-year-old Private First Class and the rest of his regiment couldn't stop. Strung out in a long line, they had orders to press ahead.
The next day, they neared Cisterna di Latina, a market town with a medieval castle 30 miles from Nazi-held Rome. Enemy fire intensified. Bullets swept the field. The GIs hugged the frigid, wet ground. Though pinned down, they could see the German gunners. They fired back as best they could.
Knappie saw that the man 10 feet to his right was dead and had a Browning Automatic Rifle. If he could get that BAR, he'd have far more firepower than his M-1 rifle offered.
Bullets spared him as he crawled to the corpse. He grabbed the Browning, leveled it and squeezed the trigger.
He tried to contain the terror that had gripped him for the last several days, ever since he faced death on the battlefield for the first time.
Alton W. Knappenberger — Knappie to his pals — was just a farm boy from eastern Pennsylvania. Like so many other young Americans, he'd come to combat from quiet obscurity.
Born in Coopersburg on the last day of 1923, he was the youngest of eight children. The family moved 10 miles south, toward Philadelphia, while Knappie was a toddler.
His father embraced bootlegging as the surest way to earn money during Prohibition. He made moonshine whiskey in a backyard still. People came to the house to buy gallon jugs of it.
When Knappie was 5, his father died of pneumonia.
The boy went to a one-room schoolhouse through fifth grade. It was all the formal education he would ever get.
As a young teen, he roamed the region in a solitary search for jobs. The cash he got from work on a chicken farm and from milking cows for 50 cents a day helped support his family during the Great Depression. He lived and ate with the farmers who hired him, and grew accustomed to chores that started at 5 in the morning.
Most days, he went hunting for food for hours, usually with a friend. If he planned to bag rabbits and pheasants, he wielded a shotgun. If squirrels were his prey, he carried a .22 rifle. He developed a marksmanship that would serve him in spectacular fashion years later on a cold day in Italy.
When the Army drafted him in March 1943, he was working at a piggery, gathering garbage and feeding it to the swine. About 15 months earlier, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had catapulted the United States into the war.
As a farm laborer, Knappie could have avoided military service, but he brushed off the deferment and chose to go.
Knappie pressed himself to the cold ground on the outskirts of Cisterna di Latina with his newly acquired Browning Automatic Rifle. A few inches of snow pasted the open field, enough to cover it. As dusk neared, the Germans continued to rake the terrain with automatic weapons fire.
The barrage killed or wounded many of the pinned-down men of Knappie's outfit, Company C of the 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. Their officers had not moved up, and the sergeants were hit, leaving the survivors closest to the front line leaderless.
Knappie felt alone and exposed. As little more than a replacement who had only recently arrived overseas, he had no combat experience to guide him.
He had already lost Mooney, his buddy of numerous weeks. They had met after Knappie's troopship docked at the North African port of Casablanca at the end of 1943. Mooney, who was about 19 and from Denver, also joined Company C at that time as a replacement.
With 40,000 other American and British troops, they had landed on January 22, 1944, at Anzio to relieve the Allies stalled in Italy's central mountains. Their unit had pushed five miles inland and waited for days in foxholes by a creek.
Now, on Feb. 1, Knappie felt as though he had lain for hours amid the Germans' leaden storm. But it was still light when he decided he wouldn't stay hunkered down any longer.
No one gave an order. None of his superiors was alive or in a condition to command. In a moment, he chose to act on his own against the enemy massed in front of him.
Gripping the BAR, he got up off the ground. He ran forward, zig- zagging in the open. For 30 yards, 40 yards, bullets whipped past him. Pfft, pfft, pfft. He reached a knoll, threw himself to the ground and looked beyond it.
He saw the flashes of a multitude of German guns — with him in their sights. Bullets missed him by inches. They kicked up chunks of hard dirt.
He faced a daunting task, but the gun he carried would help him hold his ground. The fully automatic BAR combined penetrating power with rapid fire. It shot .30-caliber bullets fed from a detachable box magazine and had a range of up to 600 yards.
Knappie picked out an enemy machine gun about 85 yards away. He got on his knees, trained the Browning on the nest and pulled the trigger. Short bursts. Two of the gunners fell dead. Another was wounded.
On his left, two Germans had crawled to within 20 yards of his position. They tossed potato-masher grenades at him. Just as they released them, he fired and killed both men with a single burst. The grenades landed short and only sprayed chips of dirt up at him.
He shot a German who was about to throw a grenade. It exploded and killed another German.
He aimed at a machine gun nest. This one was about 85 yards away and off to his left a little. Short bursts. He silenced it.
Running out of ammunition, he crawled off the knoll to the right about 20 yards and found a dead GI. The man didn't have BAR ammo, but he did have M-1 bullets, the same caliber as those used in the Browning. Knappie removed rifle clips from the dead man's belt.
Back on the knoll, he fed the bullets one at a time into the 20-round BAR magazine. He opened fire at the German gunners.
Again he used up his ammo. Again he crawled off to the right. This time he found a dead BAR man and took his bullet-filled magazines. As he inched back to the knoll, the Germans sighted him with their machine guns and machine pistols. They peppered the ground with bullets.
When a 20mm antiaircraft gun more than a hundred yards away opened up, Knappie fired back and wounded one of its crewmen.
Tank and artillery shells burst within 15 yards of him.
More than two hours passed. To Knappie, they amounted to a blur. He stayed put and kept shooting. Sometimes he lay flat. Other times he rose to his knees. At 5 feet 6 inches and 118 pounds, he presented a scant target to the Germans.
Eventually, six men from his unit crept up and joined him on the knoll, firing their M-1s. They were the only men left out of the 200 in Company C.
After firing for a while, the survivors scurried to the right as the German guns blazed. They came to a company in a field where the fighting had lessened. Many of the men there were dead or wounded.
“Go back and find your regiment,” that company's commander told Knappie's group.
But they had no regiment left to find. They went back anyway, taking a route away from the battle. They only had to contend with the enemy's artillery shells landing near them. After the firefight they had just endured, the shells were little more than an annoyance.
Knappie had come through without a scratch. All he had was a blister on his heel, from his boot.
Later, when other U.S. troops involved in the drive to liberate Rome took the ground in front of the knoll, they found 60 German dead. Knappie had single-handedly stymied the enemy attack, saving countless American lives.
The episode had lasted just 21/2 hours on his 11th day of combat. It was all the fighting he would ever see. But it would bring the ordinary young man a lifetime of fame he did not want.
Word of Knappie's deed spread quickly. When it reached his commanders, they investigated the reports and recommended him for the highest of awards.
The division's commanding general came to shake his hand and barked, “A one-man army, that's what you are. A blasted one-man army!”
The moniker stuck.
Recognizing the public relations value of keeping Knappie safe, his superiors confined him to the rear and made sure he was coddled.
“I just loafed,” he says. “They didn't let me go back up in the lines no more.”
That was all right with him. He was frightened and didn't want to go back anyway.
He spent a few days at a Naples hospital for treatment of his blister. After that, he stayed on the Anzio beachhead and enjoyed the easiest of duties, doing nothing more than making doughnuts with the women from the American Red Cross.
He wasn't even allowed to ride in the jeep that delivered the doughnuts to the men at the front.
On June 8, 1944, in Rome, four days after victorious Allied forces had entered the city, Knappie received his nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
“When a heavy German counterattack was launched against his battalion, Private Knappenberger crawled to an exposed knoll and went into position with his automatic rifle,” the citation reads, concluding that his “intrepid action disrupted the enemy attack for over two hours.”
Lieutenant General Mark Clark, commander of the 5th Army, congratulated him and draped the medal around his neck.
Knappie doesn't know who recommended him for the decoration, but the source had to be one or more of the half-dozen men in his company who joined him on the knoll. As eyewitnesses, they must have provided statements for the “incontestable proof” needed to award the Medal of Honor.
In August 1944, Knappie left the war behind for good, flying to Washington with a lieutenant escort. At the Pentagon, he and the escort met with some generals.
“Then I gave him the slip and took off,” he says. “I just wanted to go home.”
His escape from the Army brass was the first sign of his eagerness to reclaim the life he'd known before — a life that was utterly ordinary.
He hurried to visit his mother and stepfather in Spring Mount, a Perkiomen Valley village considered the “country summer resort for the Allentown-Philadelphia area.” They lived in a onetime schoolhouse built on a hill and divided into rooms by beaverboard partitions.
Knappie took a train to Philadelphia and hitchhiked the 39 miles to Spring Mount, where he knocked on the schoolhouse door. His mother answered. “What are you doing home?” she asked, and hugged him.
A headline announced, “One-Man Army Home on 21-Day Furlough.”
Knappie used the break to marry a 16-year-old girl who lived down in the hollow. The hastily planned wedding took place on a Wednesday in a Lutheran church with only the bride's parents, Knappie's mother and three reporters present.
Reporters showed up because Knappie was news. People wanted to know about this local farmhand who had bested the Germans in battle. He was a celebrity, a soldier extraordinaire and, more than that, a reason for folks on the home front to feel hope and pride.
Just two months earlier, on June 6, 1944, D-Day, the Allies had landed in overwhelming force on the coast of France, signaling what would be the end of Nazi Germany. Two days after Knappie's wedding, they liberated Paris.
In a frenzy of patriotism, Montgomery County communities celebrated their hero's return with picnics and parades. But Knappie didn't attend many of them.
“Spring Mount had a parade for me,” he says. “I had to go to that one, because I lived right there. But there's quite a few parades I didn't make.”
He didn't feel right about people making a fuss over him. He had done his job as an infantryman, no more, no less.
The day after his wedding, he was supposed to appear in Pottstown for a public reception in his honor. He and his wife, Ruth, instead went to the Quakertown area home of his sister and brother-in-law.
In Pottstown, the Veterans of Foreign Wars had cooked a buffet supper, hired a band, roped off a block and arranged for police to control the crowd.
“Half an hour after the scheduled time for the arrival of the county's No. 1 war hero, the band was still playing, but there was a note of desperation creeping into the music,” the Quakertown Free Press reported. Deflated, the revelers gave up and ate without their guest.
But the VFW commander wasn't annoyed.
“Shucks,” he said, “the boy's just married. Who's to blame him if he likes his bride's company better than ours?”
After a stint at a camp in South Carolina, Knappie found himself back in Pennsylvania. He was posted to the Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, about 25 miles east of Harrisburg, where he whiled away the hours tending to the recreation room.
“My job was to keep everything clean,” he shrugs. “Mostly, I just goofed off.”
On top of that, he was free to go home Thursdays through Sundays. He bought an old Dodge to make coming and going easier.
A January 1945 story in Collier's, a weekly magazine, told of his lazy days at the Gap. It made clear that his status as one of America's greatest war heroes left him bored.
Three men were detailed “to roll Knappie out of bed in the morning, he being regarded as the finest example of “bunk fatigue' ever witnessed on the reservation,” the story says.
He almost didn't make it to a ceremony where he was to receive the Italian government's Italian War Cross for his role in the liberation of Rome.
“The place was alive with gold braid,” Collier's noted, “but there was no Knappie. His three-man bodyguard finally located his temporary snoozing place, yanked him out, slicked him up and presented him.
“There he stood, the American GI of almost classic character, not handsome, not particularly heroic-looking, not too pleased with all this attention. The battalions marched by, he took the salute, the medal was pinned on with appropriate words, and he marched back to his bodyguard. There was a suspicion of his crooked grin on his face, and he growled at them under his breath.
“”Ten-shun, stinkers,' he said.”
Such banter, Collier's concluded, proved that Knappie was “G.I. Joe epitomized He is what the American soldier is like, and no other [nation's soldier] comes even close to it.”
To help raise money for the government, Knappie went on a war bond drive across Pennsylvania. It drew big crowds in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and in small towns as well. Knappie shared the spotlight with a Jeep mounted with a 20mm gun, but he never spoke.
He didn't want to be the center of attention. He didn't want to tell any crowds about what he did on the knoll near Cisterna di Latina. He didn't want to portray himself as anyone other than a soldier who did what he had to do under trying circumstances.
Fed up, Knappie went AWOL, absent without leave. He went home to Spring Mount.
After a week, state troopers came to the house and hauled him off to the Valley Forge Army Hospital, where he was locked up. He spent a half-day behind bars before his captors realized who he was and let him out. A few days later, military policemen escorted him back to Indiantown Gap on a train.
He went on no more bond drives.
“One-Man Army Gets His Discharge,” a headline read in late August 1945.
Now a staff sergeant, Knappie left the Army under a War Department ruling granting discharge to all Medal of Honor holders at their request.
“The war is over, so there is no longer any reason for my staying in,” he said at the time.
Now he was free to pursue his dream of having a farm of his own. He bought a 221-acre spread in the pristine wilderness of north- central Pennsylvania's Potter County and lived there with Ruth and her parents. He grew potatoes and tended 18 cows for milking.
“That didn't go too good,” he says.
After two years, he and Ruth weren't getting along.
He decided to give up the farm. He gave it to another ex-soldier and came home to Montgomery County, to a village near a bend in the Schuylkill River where his mother now lived. He and Ruth moved in with her for a while, then rented a house nearby.
But the marriage fell apart. Knappie had gotten to the point where he'd rather live in solitude, doing as he pleased, than accommodate Ruth's wishes.
“Ruth took off and left me. I just told her I was going hunting one day, and she said, “No, you ain't. I'm gonna leave.' I said, “OK, go ahead, there's the door.' And I went hunting. Never heard from her again.”
Knappie moved around after that, but without any ambition. He had no interest in work that would put him in a leadership position.
He didn't follow the path taken by fellow veterans who hoped for a better life now that the war was over. By the millions, they welcomed government aid under the unprecedented “GI Bill of Rights,” using it to get a college education or job training that would lift them up from the working class.
Instead, Knappie chose to stay the same.
Over decades, he steeped himself in nitty-gritty blue-collar labor, working in foundries and manufacturing plants, driving a truck hauling stone for a quarry, running backhoes and front-end loaders and laying blacktop.
Even though he struggled to support his family, he never aspired to do work beyond the menial.
At home, he suffered years of sorrow beginning in his mid-40s.
The youngest of the six children born to him and his second wife, Mary, were twin daughters. While they were still little, cancer ended Mary's life in 1970.
Suddenly, Knappie needed help with the twins.
A woman who worked with him at a manufacturing company asked her mother if she would baby-sit the girls. Hazel Peck took the job.
But within six years, the twins also died of disease, at ages 10 and 11. The one who lived longer had been excited that Hazel and Knappie intended to marry. After she was gone, they followed through on their plans.
“Acts like it's nothing'
Knappie's Medal of Honor puts him in an exclusive and ever- diminishing circle of heroes. Four hundred and sixty-four were awarded in World War II, 29 of those to Pennsylvanians. Nationally, only 132 recipients survive, including those from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Knappie is one of four in Pennsylvania.
The federal government compensates him for his courage, sending him $600 a month, and he is proud of what he did to earn the medal.
But he still doesn't consider his actions particularly gallant, feeling — as he always has — that he was just doing his duty during his 11 days in combat.
“I was scared all the time I was over there. I just did what I had to do. You go in there and just try to get them guys before they get you.”
Hazel shakes her head, “He acts like it's nothing.”
Uninterested in publicity, Knappie avoids deals that single him out for attention. A New York author wanted to write a book about him. She wrote to him several times, but he wouldn't let her come to interview him.
In the mid-1970s, he turned down an overture from a Hollywood producer to make a movie about his wartime adventure. Hazel wishes he had agreed to it, if only to help his family with the windfall of money he could have reaped.
“I was mad at him,” she says. “I said: “You should do that. Look at the good you could do for your children, your grandchildren.'
“It's a good thing I don't have the medal, because if I did “
Chuckling, Knappie finishes the sentence for her. “Yeah, you'd make movies and everything.”
“You're darn tootin'!”
Still, Knappie has attended public events that placed him in the company of other Medal of Honor winners, a brotherhood in which he feels comfortable.
In 1994, Governor Robert P. Casey saluted him and other Pennsylvania medal winners in Harrisburg. In 1983, Gov. Dick Thornburgh gave them Pennsylvania Distinguished Service medals. Four decades ago at the White House, President John F. Kennedy, also a World War II hero, shook Knappie's hand in a Rose Garden ceremony.
Knappie used to attend reunions of Medal of Honor winners, but hasn't since “quite a few years ago. I just don't get to them no more. My heart is too damn bad.”
A major event that his health prevented him from attending was the dedication Saturday of the World War II Memorial in Washington. He declined an invitation from the White House to be a guest of honor.
The fact is, he's embarrassed that people continue to shower him with praise. On a table in his home, he lays down some of the letters he receives from admirers. They arrive at a post office box he maintains in Schwenksville, near Spring Mount.
After saluting him for his bravery, the writers ask him to sign a copy of his citation and send it back, or to sign pictures of him printed from Internet Web sites.
“I just got a bunch of letters to write back to people now,” he says. “I won't do it.”
With patience and a knack for order, Hazel helps him deal with them.
She also respects his need for privacy, which he fiercely guards.
“I don't want you to put my address in,” he tells a reporter, “because, boy, I don't want nobody bothering me now.”
He doesn't speak to groups about that day on the knoll 60 years ago and has never talked about it even to his own children when they asked.
“I'd always say, “Look it up in the Medal of Honor book. You'll see it.”‘
At 80, Knappie has fleshy cheeks, a full head of soft gray hair that curls out at the nape of his neck, and a flat nose that dives at the tip to a wide mouth lined with thick lips.
Glasses cover wide-set eyes that once were sharp enough to catch a German gunner poking his head up at a hundred yards. He wears suspenders and a cap that says, “World's Greatest Grandpa,” a gift from one of his 24 great-grandchildren.
His mind is sound, and though he still stands erect, his body is frail. He has suffered four heart attacks. The first caused him to retire in 1976 from the blacktopping work he did with his nephew. The most recent one, about four years ago, was the worst. It kept him hospitalized for two weeks.
Hazel made sure he was getting the best care.
“She chased a doctor out of the room because he was playing with the nurses,” Knappie recalls. “She called him “Pretty Boy.”‘
Beyond heart trouble, a lifetime of smoking has left him with an emphysemic cough. Like many Americans of his generation, he took up cigarettes as a child. His habit grew to three packs a day, but he has cut that in half.
“I should give them cigarettes up, I know. But they're hard to give up. I got about 70 years in there.”
He and Hazel lived in a half-dozen places in eastern Pennsylvania before coming to their current home in Berks County's Earl Township 13 years ago. They have a trailer home in a woods, close to the bottom of a hill near Boyertown. Wild turkeys inhabit the slope. Nearby are acres of peach, cherry and apple orchards.
They lead lives of quiet contentment together, with a parade of pets that includes chickens, a horse, two ponies, two dogs and nearly a dozen cats. Geese and a duck make their home at a brook that curls into the woods. Every animal has a name. There's Oscar the rooster, Herbie the duck and Jack the gander.
“I had quite a few others,” Knappie says of the geese. “Dog came down and killed them off on me.”
Along an edge of the brook, a statuette of the Virgin Mary stands with her arms outstretched, welcoming the birds. Knappie isn't Catholic — his mother was Mennonite and his father, Jewish — but Hazel is. In what stands as proof of Knappie's love, he goes to Mass with her on Sundays.
Hazel, who turned 75 earlier this month and still has raven hair, is chatty and energetic. Despite Knappie's lifelong pursuit of obscurity, she thinks he is extraordinary. She admires him for the man he is and for what he accomplished in the war.
As recently as last September, she says, he showed his gumption.
When a tall tree crashed down on one end of their trailer late one night, jacking up the other end like a seesaw and trapping them, Hazel escaped into the darkness through a broken window, but Knappie sat down and lit a cigarette.
“This One-Man Army was as cool as a cucumber,” says Hazel, who affectionately calls her husband “Al.”
They got another trailer for $8,000. Thirty-three feet long and fed by propane gas, it has all they need, including a TV that gets reception from a satellite dish fixed to a post. They especially like old westerns with such stars as Gene Autry. Knappie stays up after midnight if a cowboy movie is on.
He is kind of an old cowboy himself, living in isolation — but by no means stranded. He still drives, tooling around in a four- wheel-drive vehicle that dwarfs his small, fragile frame.
Occasionally, he goes fishing on the banks of the Maiden Creek and the Schuylkill River. He no longer hunts, but he did use a shotgun last year to kill a pesky raccoon.
With his wife and their animals here in the woods, he passes his days in peace. It's what he's always wanted.
Alton W. Knappenberger, 84; Won Medal of Honor
By Adam Bernstein
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Alton W. Knappenberger, 84, a Pennsylvania farm laborer who received the Medal of Honor after using his exceptional marksmanship to hold off two German infantry companies near Rome during World War II, died June 9, 2008, at Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Memorial Medical Center. He had five heart attacks during the past 30 years.
Mr. Knappenberger single-handedly disrupted a German attack February 1, 1944, near Cisterna di Littoria, a market town with a medieval castle about 30 miles from enemy-held Rome. Armed with a Browning Automatic Rifle, Mr. Knappenberger was credited with killing 60 German soldiers during a two-hour span that day.
An American general called him a “one-man army.”
His handiness with a gun won him the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, but he dismissed the publicity that came with the decoration as “the worst darn ordeal” of the war.
Mr. Knappenberger, who had a fifth-grade education, honed his riflery skills in rural eastern Pennsylvania during the Depression, when his meals often depended on his hunting ability.
He had almost a pathological shyness about discussing the medal or the events leading to it. “I was scared all the time I was over there,” he told the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call in 2004. “I just did what I had to do. You go in there and just try to get them guys before they get you.”
Private Knappenberger had landed at Anzio, on Italy's west coast, in January 1944 as part of the effort to dislodge the Germans from Rome. His battalion pushed inland about five miles when a heavy German counterattack pinned down the group February 1. He was caught on a knoll that exposed him to enemy machine guns, several of which he silenced.
After his ammunition ran out, he crawled to the American casualties in front of him and took enough rifle clips to kill many members of an advancing German platoon.
“Finally, his ammunition supply being completely exhausted, he rejoined his company,” the Medal of Honor citation read. “Private Knappenberger's intrepid action disrupted the enemy attack for over 2 hours.”
Only six of 200 soldiers in his company survived the barrage, according to the Allentown newspaper, which credited Mr. Knappenberger's survival to his physique. At 5 feet 6 inches and 118 pounds, he “presented a scant target to the Germans,” the newspaper said.
Alton Warren Knappenberger, known as “Knappie,” was born December 31, 1923, in Coopersburg, Pa. His father was a moonshiner during Prohibition and died of a heart attack when his son was 5.
As a child, Mr. Knappenberger supported the family in odd jobs at farms around the area. He was working on a pig farm when he was drafted in 1943.
After the heroics of February 1, 1944, he was treated at an Army hospital for his only wound: a blister on a foot. He was sent back to his mother, who asked, “What are you doing home?”
He spent a total of 11 days in combat and spoke with distaste of efforts by the military to place him in cushy jobs, such as tending the recreation room at a military base near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
He went absent without leave and was arrested by state troopers but later released after they discovered his identity.
“The war is over, so there is no longer any reason for my staying in,” he told a reporter at the time.
He owned a potato farm for a while but settled into a long career working on blacktopping jobs for paving companies. His heart specialist forced him to retire in the late 1970s, citing the blacktopping fumes and his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit.
His first marriage, in 1944 to his 16-year-old childhood sweetheart Ruth Eickhoff, ended in divorce. As he explained to the Allentown paper: “I just told her I was going hunting one day, and she said, ‘No, you ain't. I'm gonna leave.' I said, ‘OK, go ahead, there's the door.' And I went hunting. Never heard from her again.”
His second wife, Mary Knappenberger, died of cancer in 1970, and twin daughters from that marriage died as young girls. Another daughter from that marriage died last year.
Survivors include three children from his second marriage and three stepchildren.
He spent the end of his life happily settled in a trailer in the woods near Earl Township, Pennsylvania, with his wife of 32 years, Hazel Hamlin Knappenberger, who also survives. He was surrounded by orchards and hunted wild turkeys.
Alton W. Knappenberger
Alton W. Knappenberger, 84, of Boyertown, Pennsylvania, passed away Monday, June 9 at Pottstown Memorial Hospital. He was the beloved husband of Hazel (Hamlin) Knappenberger to whom he was married for over 32 years. Born December 31, 1923 in Coopersburg, he was one of six children born to the late Frank and Lottie (Greenwalt) Knappenberger.
Mr. Knappenberger served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was a Private First Class, in the 3d Infantry Division. Mr. Knappenberger received the Congressional Medal of Honor For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action involving actual conflict with the enemy, on February 1, 1944 near Cisterna di Littoria, Italy. Pfc. Knappenberger’s intrepid action disrupted the enemy attack for over 2 hours.
Mr. Knappenberger was employed at K and K Paving as a truck driver. He was a member of the American Legion of both Sellersville and Spring Mount. Mr. Knappenberger enjoyed the outdoors and taught his children and grandchildren the joys of hunting and fishing. He was very active with his children’s and grandchildren’s lives umpiring their little league games in the Pottstown little league, and playing the role of Santa on a few occasions at their schools. Mr. Knappenberger was a very loving and devoted husband, father, and grandfather.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children: Alton Knappenberger and his wife Nancy of Salt Lake City, Utah, Dorothy Reinert and her husband Robert of Florida, Paul Knappenberger and his wife Shirley of Pottstown, Hazel Trump of Pottstown, Mitzie Chrisman and her husband Ronald of Pottstown, and Robert Moser of Graterford; and many grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren.
He was predeceased by his siblings, Monroe Knappenberger, Elmer Knappenberger, Frances Kramer, Edie Trump, Laura Moyer, Frank Knappenberger; his children, Vickey Butler, and Sharon and Karen Knappenberger; and grandchildren, Jean Marie, and Tracy.
Relatives and friends are invited to attend his funeral service on Tuesday, June 17, 2008, at 7 p.m. from the R.L. Williams, Jr. Funeral Home, Inc. Skippack Pike at Cedars Rd. Skippack, where friends are invited to call for the viewing from 5 to 7 p.m. Interment will be at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday, 31 July 2008 following services at the Post Chapel at Fort Myer, Virginia. Contributions may be made in his memory to the Veterans Home, 1 Veterans Drive, Spring City, Pennsylvania 19475-1230.
Medal of Honor recipient Alton Knappenberger was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery Thursday, 31 July 2008, six decades after his deeds earned him the military's highest award.
Knappenberger was 84 when he died of natural causes last month. His family said it struggled over its decision to have him buried so far from their home in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, but felt he deserved the recognition. His wife Hazel Knappenberger said she was assured that she too could eventually join him at the cemetery.
Born in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, Knappenberger was awarded the Medal of Honor in June 1944, four months after single-handedly holding off two German divisions in Italy. He was credited with killing 60 enemy soldiers. His commanding general called him a “one-man army.”
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard