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Memories take flight

John Knapp poses in front of various pieces of his work while holding his book “Poet Flyer” while in his apartment at Heisinger Bluffs.

John Knapp poses in front of various pieces of his work while holding his book “Poet Flyer” while in his apartment at Heisinger Bluffs.

As a U.S. Army Air Corps navigator, Lt. E. John Knapp flew 35 Flying Fortress missions during World War II, including a mission on D-Day that softened the beaches of Normandy ahead of British troops.

Like many of the men from his generation, he rarely shared what happened to him during that momentous era.

“The war was over and now my life was on the good side,” he said.

Eventually his three children encouraged him to share his story. And when he did, it came to light in “Poet Flyer,” an autobiographical book filled with Knapp’s poetry, photographs, letters and essays.

Published in 2009, the book serves not only as a testament to the abiding love Knapp held for his wife, Maxine, but it also tells the story of the nine men — Knapp’s fellow B-17 crew members — who were lost in combat in 1944. 

Today Knapp is 97 years old, and Maxine has passed away. Drawn to Jefferson City by daughter, he lives in a modest apartment in Heisinger Bluffs filled with original artwork, music and modern furnishings. But the memories of those earlier years remain vivid.

“My wife and I got advice from everybody: Don’t get married. There’s going to be a war. But we said, ‘Heck with that.’ And I’m glad we did,” he said.

Knapp was attracted to Maxine’s beauty, empathy for others and her feisty personality. She was attracted to his handsome looks and hardworking nature.

For a young couple deeply in love, those early years apart were torture.

From the time Knapp’s crew was assembled at Rattlesnake Bomber Base in Piyote, Texas, the 10 men were close-knit friends. There were assigned to the 8th Air Corps’ 100th Bomb Group, known as “The Bloody Hundredth.” 

Arriving in February 1942, Knapp’s crew was among the first wave of American soldiers to pour into Britain. They were only in the barracks three days when they were sent on their first mission. The crew flew B-17s, better known as Flying Fortresses, heavy bomber aircrafts that bristled with .50 caliber machine guns and dropped 50-pound bombs. 

But it was on their seventh mission that everything went awry. 

Knapp only knows that he was assembled in a briefing room with 25 other crews when his colonel told him abruptly: “Knapp, you’re not flying today.” 

“He never game me a reason,” Knapp recalls, adding that the colonel who pulled him off the mission died that day.

The target that day was a grouping of buzz bombs — unmanned drones — in northern France. Cloudy weather prevented the crew from seeing them on the first approach, but on their second the Germans were ready. 

“He was a rookie colonel on his first mission. He came in at the same altitude, speed and direction. The Germans were waiting and my crew got shot down. Seven died and three parachuted out,” Knapp said. 

The hours after the crash were particularly horrifying. Not only had Knapp lost his close friend and pilot, Lt. James McGuire, he was unable to notify Maxine he was still alive. The mens’ two wives were living together in Denver at the time and it was natural — when McGuire’s wife received the news her husband was missing in action — for Maxine to assume the same as well. 

Getting a sentence past the censors about the mission wasn’t possible, but Knapp was able to send a telegram revealing: “All is well. Love, John.”

Decades later the loss still cuts deeply.

“I lost all of them. I lost all of my friends,” he said.

From the moment of the disaster, Knapp’s whole direction in the 100th Bomb Group changed. He became an extra navigator, pitching in whenever someone was ill or missing. From a small desk in the nose, he would use either the stars or landmarks — and toward the end, radar — to navigate.

To a certain extent, Knapp became the odd man out. 

“It was interesting. I got to know a lot of people. I got to know who were the good pilots and the good bombadiers,” he said. “I always had a different crew.” 

Those early missions were horrifying. One to Merseberg was particularly awful.

“It was important, because if we could knock out their gas manufacturing ... they quit bombing England because of that,” he said.

But the Fortresses proved they could take punishment. “We used to come back with holes in our wings. We would lose engines,” he said. 

But as the war progressed, the missions became progressively less terrifying, especially when the P-51 Mustang fighter planes grew more adept at escorting the heavy bombers in raids. 

Knapp said Tuskeegee Airmen — black men — kept the Germans away from the B-17s and shot down the German fighter planes. 

“They became our heroes,” he said.

Sometimes the missions lasted up to 14 hours. Knapp was so exhausted he couldn’t pick up his briefcase when it was over. “I didn’t realize how pooped I was ... I got 15 hours of sleep that night,” he said.

Knapp said the Americans carefully tried to avoid Europe’s famous shrines and cathedrals. He only remembers two missions where towns were destroyed, both places thronged with German soldiers.

The morning of D-Day is indelibly inked in Knapp’s mind. He said that day all of the navigators and bombadiers were called up by 4 a.m.

“We dressed, shaved, ate breakfast. And then we went to the briefing room where the lieutenant asked to see our identification,” he recalled. “That had never happened before.” 

“This is it. This is D-Day,” they were told.

Their target was a large German gun emplacement just ahead of where the British were expected to land. He remembers seeing the ocean filled with boats below and having to open the bomb bays while over the fleet. “I was terrified of a goof in bombing,” he said. 

As he looked around the mess hall later in the day, everyone was tense and quiet as they wondered if their bombing runs had helped the Allied troops.

Later in the day he helped destroy a half-mile of railroad tracks and a portion of highway — preventing Nazi reinforcements. 

Not all the memories are unhappy ones. 

One Texas pilot wrote home to his mama: “Please send some peaches in cans.” And she did — she canned peaches in Johnnie Walker whisky. 

“It was a secret,” Knapp said.

For his role in the war, Knapp earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Victory Europe medal. 

But his greatest achievement was making it home to Maxine. Together the couple raised three children, one of whom — Marcia Krech, wife of radio personality Warren Krech — lives in Jefferson City. 

John spent his career working as an architect in cities such as Grand Rapids, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin, and St. Paul Minnesota. Late in life, he settled at Heisinger Bluffs to be closer to his daughter.

The war years left an indelible mark on the family man. 

“It was very exciting,” he said. “I don’t mean I enjoyed it. We had a job to do and we were doing it.”

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