What kind of stories you want will determine which war Paul Kniss talks about.
Ask him about World War II, and he’ll tell you about his destroyer escort. It was such a tin can that his buddy pushed a metal scraper through the deck when he was scraping paint. He’ll sit back in his recliner, his chubby dog Dude sitting on his lap, and laugh almost like Santa Claus complete with a round belly and white beard.
Ask him about the Korean War and he’ll talk about how 1,200 pilots went down over North Korea and only 200 of those made it home, or how he sat in a mud cell for 14 months eating nothing but rice, cabbage and onions wondering what day he would die.
Kniss’ story is one of two wars. The first he hit at the tail end, a 17-year-old eager to join the Air Force but landing in the Navy. The second one he entered as a commissioned officer flying bombing missions over North Korea.
Kniss grew up in Illinois, the middle of nine siblings. Four of his brothers went to war. An older one served in Pearl Harbor during the bombing, another in the Battle of the Bulge, another flew 30 missions in the Pacific and the last one was a medic. All came home alive except the medic, who died in the U.S. when his truck rolled over.
In May, 1944, a bit more than a month after he joined the Navy, Kniss was on a ship to the Pacific. His destroyer escort, the U.S.S. Mitchell, supported seven invasions, running unharmed, too little for kamikazes and torpedoes to try and hit.
Sure, some parts were scary; wandering around at midnight on a ship looking for submarines that might shoot is an unnerving thing. But most of Kniss’ stories are about antics, like how he and his buddies would wait until the kitchen lights went off before stealing loaves of cooling bread.
Once, when boxes of fruit cocktail went missing, officers scoured the ship before one finally found three cans of fruit stuffed in the end of a three-inch gun barrel.
“He asked how we were supposed to sink any submarines with fruit cocktail,” Kniss said.
“We told him we hadn’t seen any submarines in a week.”
When the U.S.S. Mitchell came home in September 1945, it hadn’t lost a single man.
Kniss decided he wanted more military and enlisted in the Air Force.
He went to Korea. He doesn’t laugh as much when he talks about that war.
He trained pilots and flew bombing missions. If he made it long enough, he would be a fighter pilot.
Three months after he started in the 18th Fighter Group, the last day of May, 1952, a jet shot him down.
It took about 15 minutes for Chinese soldiers living in Korea to find Kniss and take him prisoner.
“The best place to surrender was to the Chinese,” Kniss said.
“The Chinese, at times, could be almost humane.”
Soldiers took him to a camp full of mud huts scattered throughout villages. A family lived in the front of the house. Further back was a kitchen, a room for the Korean interrogators and a room for the guards. The last room was his. He always stayed in his cell with a guard at his door.
“The guards fell asleep at night and they would sit out there and snore. People would ask why I didn’t walk away,” Kniss said.
“I was 300 miles into hostile territory. I couldn’t drink the water and couldn’t eat anything below the ground because of contamination, and it was 150 miles to the nearest ocean.”
Prisoners were never allowed to see or talk to other Americans. The educated Chinese interrogators spoke English, and Kniss learned a mixture of Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
Daily interrogations often came with slaps to the face and beatings from the ends of guns. He once faced a firing squad only to learn later it was a charade to make him talk.
Questions often didn’t make sense and prisoners generally lied. The trick was to lie in a way they could remember and that didn’t get another soldier in trouble.
“If you confirmed what someone else said they would be happy and leave you alone. If it was different, they would pound on you, pistol whip you with a gun butt.”
Kniss’ only revenge was to sleep on his blue prison pants, pressing a crease in the front and back. The guards didn’t want his pants to be creased, he was a prisoner.
“I would say, I was an officer and I could crease my pants.
“Finally they would give up.”
When the war ended, Kniss and 14 other soldiers were the last to leave. Kniss knew something happened when planes stopped flying over his cell.
The North Koreans gathered the final prisoners in a tent in one of the peace villages. They waited, surrounded by dozens of guards with guns. Kniss, sick with malaria, thought that finally the guards would just kill them all.
Instead, the men were freed.
Kniss left with 30 names in his head, names of other American prisoners carved into cell walls as a way to tell each other who was there. Many of them were his former students when he worked as a flight instructor. Only two came home alive.
He’d briefly considered staying in after Korea, but decided two wars were enough.