Remembrances of World War II
100-year-old veteran Don Knapp recalls his time in the 712th Tank Battalion
Don Knapp, 100 years young, is still going strong. The former tank battalion commander has a bit of a bad back, uses a cane occasionally and is hard of hearing. But he and wife, Evelyn (96), still live on their own, in their comfortable abode in The Patrician mobile home park in Ventura. Both are charming, engaging and sharp as tacks, remembering experiences long past in great detail.
As a former tank battalion commander (the 712th Tank Battalion, to be exact, in Company C, 10th Armored Division, attached to the 90th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army), he spent 18 months in Europe during World War II. He is one of a handful of The Greatest Generation still with us today.
As part of the 712th, Don landed on Utah Beach of Normandy shortly after D-Day, which took place on June 6, 1944. His battalion fought its way across France, Belgium and Luxembourg, liberated the city of Le Mans, took part in the Battle of the Bulge and was part of the company that discovered gold and valuable art hidden in the salt mines at Merkers. The months he spent in Europe during and after World War II were eventful ones, and we are privileged to share Don’s stories in this issue, published on the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Don Knapp was born on April 20, 1919, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Living through the Great Depression, he was a handy guy who got used to working with tools, building and fixing things — he even made some of the frames that would later hold his photos and other World War II memorabilia. Those skills would serve him well working on the assembly line of Indian Motorcycles.
“I had the first joint of my left toe taken off on my foot when I was 17 and I never finished high school because of that,” Don recalls. “I was in 11th grade and my father got me a job at Indian Motorcycles in Springfield. . . . Then the war came over in Europe. We had military orders making some for this country — but we had a big order from the French and when the draft first started we weren’t at war. You could go in for a year and get out with your training, ready to be called in case of war.”
Don married Evelyn Mougin at the end of November in 1941. A week later, the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. The newlyweds enjoyed a year together before Knapp was called for duty in November 1942. He was able to defer his service for a year: As Indian Motorcycles was fulfilling government contracts, Knapp was considered a “war worker,” and he still walked with a limp due to his foot injury.
First, he was received at Fort Devens, not far from Boston.
“When I got to Camp Devens, I told them I needed two different sized shoes [because of my injury]. . . . But they kept me there waiting for a Quartermaster to go through all this rigorous splitting up of shoes and whatnot. And I could meet Evelyn for a couple of times in Boston. [I’d say], ‘I’ll meet you at our favorite place.’ ”
“The Hotel Manger and it was connected to Boston Gardens where all the basketball and hockey are played, you know. We were great sports fans, and baseball — Fenway Park, you know.”
Not long after that, he was sent to Fort Benning in Georgia for basic training. At first, Don entertained hopes of staying out of the fray by working as a radio operator.
“They were going on maneuvers and they called me in and asked me if I’d like to go to radio school and I thought, well, maybe I could bring Evelyn with me and find a place in Louisville and I won’t have to go on maneuvers. Don’t volunteer for nothing. So, I did go to Fort Knox to radio school and I brought Evelyn with me. And I was there quite a few months and then I got orders after I graduated. I’d taken Morse code etc., radio procedure and all that about the radios and tanks and whatnot, so I was gonna be the company commander’s radio operator and I wouldn’t be up with the boys fighting, see? When I got back they told me to report to Camp Gordon, Georgia. Augusta. . . . Nice little town. And I get to camp and they tell me, ‘you are no longer the radio operator — you are gonna be a gunner in Montoya’s tank.’ Oops. I qualified expert in gunnery.”
He was a victim of his own talent.
“Every weapon I fired I got ‘expert.’ . . . So then I became a Corporal Gunner and we trained in Augusta and we moved to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. And that was in the winter of ’43.”
In March of 1944, he was aboard “a little Victory ship” headed for Europe. The ship landed in Scotland, then the soldiers went to Chiseldon in the south of England for tank training. They headed across the channel that summer, landing at Utah Beach on June 15.
“We had no trouble in Utah. Then we were in the First Army, General [Courtney Hicks] Hodges commanding.”
But before long, the 712th got selected by General George S. Patton for his Third Army. The real Third Army — not the Phantom Army Patton created as part of Operation Fortitude.
“Patton had a secret army and then he came over,” Don explains. “They had, like, vehicles and tanks made out of balloons in secret places and let the Germans think that was Patton’s Third Army. He was ready to take what he selected and they put us in Patton’s Third Army for the breakthrough because he’s more aggressive.”
Continuing east through northwestern France, Don recalls a nation grateful to be liberated.
“I can remember going through little towns and some of the tankers were wearing top hats and girls were swarming over the tanks. . . . We were enjoying the fact that we weren’t doing much fighting and all the French people were grateful. . . . Then we went through Château-Thierry . . . a small town, but they had a lot of trench warfare there [during World War I] and I remember seeing the marks of bullets in those old houses from World War I, you know. . . . In either there or Verdun, we were . . . outside enjoying the nice weather and could hear a Me 109 [Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter aircraft] . . . and I fell into an old World War I trench. It was just a grassy ravine, you know? And I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if I got killed in a World War I trench.”
Mostly, though, Don’s battalion didn’t see much combat — until Metz. After the Normandy breakout offensive, which took place in August 1944 and allowed Patton to push through to Lorraine, fuel supplies ran out just outside of Metz, near the Moselle River. The halt allowed German forces to fortify the city’s fortress. The Third Army would eventually prove victorious, but not without considerable loss of life on both sides. The Lorraine Campaign is today considered one of Patton’s least successful maneuvers.
“The war is static. They’re not moving much,” Don recalls. “Then Patton shows up, the flamboyant gob, you know. Troops, some of them, troops call him Old Blood and Guts. Our blood, his guts. We did get going in back of some real aggressive tank [battalions] . . . We were in a suburb, Maizières-lès-Metz, and we were there quite a few weeks and we couldn’t get through to them. They had school houses blockaded and big guns coming in at us, etc. Yeah, we got into some messes there.”
But they did eventually get out, moving toward Le Mans. “That’s the town we took and it was our tank outfit that took it,” Don says with pride. “We had some guys standing on the back tank shooting the 50 caliber and doing all kinds of things because we ran into a transport group of Germans and we messed them all up. And we got through what inventory that they had and liberated the town, and they were happy to see us.”
After treacherous crossings of the Moselle and Saar rivers, by winter the battalion was in Luxembourg. Icy roads made for dangerous conditions. “My tank driver was good so we got through that. But then we got into action in the Bulge.”
The Battle of the Bulge took place in the Ardennes, a heavily forested region at the intersection of France, Belgium and Luxembourg, in the dead of winter. It was Germany’s last major offensive, and while the Allies would eventually prevail, major casualties were sustained — particularly by American forces, who incurred their highest casualties of any operation during the war. Don is uncharacteristically vague about the combat he faced.
“We got into some stuff there,” he says simply.
But he holds nothing back, discussing the weather. “I can remember never shivering so much in all my life. Cold, cold, and the wind coming in. . . . I had never had my tonsils out and I had acute tonsillitis and they wouldn’t release me. Who’s gonna be the tank commander, you know? So I was up there and then I got what they call the GIs. That’s a government-issued, kind of a snide way of putting it, diarrhea. And I was down to nothing. Well, eventually we got through the Bulge and another company commander, who was a really nice guy, he said, ‘Knapp, get your butt off to the medics — you look like you’re dying.’ ”
He still thinks about a young man under his command who died while Don was in the field hospital.
“In my tank, a nice guy that worked in maintenance, he got killed. And I had Johnny Klinkleman, a nice young man. I was 25 then and he was only 18. From the Middle West, one of the nicest young men, he got an eye put out. They ran into a big mess of SS Troopers and a lot of guns and anti-tank guns, so they got into a big mess there.”
Patients had a respite from combat, but there’s no escaping war, even in a field hospital.
“There we were stationed, not too far from what they call Long Toms — big, heavy artillery guns — and I was laying there but I didn’t have, you know, combat fatigue is what they called it — shell shock. (Now they have a different word for it.) But those poor bastards, they just cry every time the gun went off and I thought, this is a hell of a place to put this thing, you know?”
Don eventually recovered and returned to his tank. The battalion kept moving east with the 90th Infantry Division, arriving in Merkers-Kieselbach in Central Germany in April. Nearby are the Thuringian Forest and the Rhön Hills. Its major claim to fame, however, is the salt mine. That’s where a remarkable discovery was made.
“Our infantry ran into two women [French prisoners of war] and they started asking them questions and they said . . . ‘over by that factory — you should see people working like mad putting stuff . . . storing gold and paintings down that shaft.’ And these were a couple of, you know, not heavy ranked [soldiers]. So they got somebody with authority to look into it. And they said, ‘Call the troops back and get the tanks back here.’ . . . So we had to block various places where you go down there into the mine. And then they found half the gold of Germany had been put there and a lot of paintings from their country, their museums and all the stuff that they looted from every place.”
Inside the Merkers mine were 400 million Reichsmarks worth of Nazi gold (equivalent to over $1 billion), 98 million French francs, thousands of crates with art from the Berlin State Museum, records, books, ammunition and more.
Merkers was one of several hidden caches where the Nazi Party stored gold, art and other treasures — much of which had been stolen or looted. In 1943, the Allies established the Monuments, Fine Arts and Artifacts Program to help find and protect this cultural property, and return it to its rightful owners where possible. The 2014 film The Monuments Men was based (with creative license) on the work of the MFAA.
Don was not a “monuments man,” but his tank battalion was in charge of guarding the mine while the treasure was being removed and evaluated by the MFAA.
“All the generals showed up — three generals, [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, Patton and [Omar] Bradley,” Don recalls, “and they’re taking that shaky elevator down into the mine, not very well built and it had been handling all that heavy gold . . . and General Patton started counting the stars on the shoulders on those officers. . . . And [it’s] 2,000 feet of black shaft, couldn’t see anything, and Patton looked up at that flimsy one cable [for the elevator] and he said, ‘If that clothesline should part, promotions in the United States Army would be considerably stimulated.’ And . . . Eisenhower said, ‘OK, George that’s enough. No more cracks until we are above ground.’ ”
Germany officially surrendered to Allied Forces on May 8, 1945. The 712th tank battalion was stationed in Amberg, Germany, for a time as part of the Army of Occupation; Don was by now a staff sergeant. He returned home to Springfield and Evelyn in the fall of 1945. He resumed working at Indian Motorcycles until it was bought out.
“I bounced about a bit. I went to work at Pratt Whitney — that was in Springfield and 25 miles south into Connecticut. . . . It was too much travelling. Through somebody I got in with a little toolmaking outfit and I worked my way into becoming a toolmaker and then an injection mold maker.”
Their son, Donald Joseph, was born in 1957, and shortly thereafter, Don went to work for Northern Tool, where he worked until retirement in 1986. Donald Joseph became an engineer, and moved out to California to work for Northrop Grumman. After retiring, Don and Evelyn joined him and his family, moving to Ventura in 1987. They attended reunions for the 712th from time to time, and for many years kept in touch with some of the men with whom Don served. He has outlived most of them.
Today, the centenarian and his bride continue to enjoy an active retirement. An avid golfer, Don takes pride in the fact that he “celebrated” his 94th birthday with a hole in one at the Buenaventura Golf Course — although he had to give up the sport shortly thereafter due to back problems. In 2017, he and Evelyn even posed for pictures included in a calendar created with other members of The Patrician, the senior community where they live. It’s a good life, filled with a loving family (that includes two grandsons, now in their 20s) and numerous friends.
Reflecting on his wartime experience, Don says that even now, he can’t really talk about the battles he faced.
“You know, I read a statement, maybe a year or so ago — a combat veteran says something . . . if you’re trying to explain combat to somebody, you’re wasting your time.”
Words may be inadequate for combat itself, but Don Knapp’s recollections of World War II offer a glimpse of what life was like for an American soldier traveling through a land engulfed by conflict. These memories are all the more valuable as the generation that held them succumbs to time, the gap between then and now ever widening. The stories of all our veterans are precious indeed, and we are grateful for any they choose to share.
The experiences of Don Knapp and other members of the 712th tank battalion are related in two publications: Below the Salt: How the Fighting 90th Division Struck Gold and Art Treasure in A Salt Mine by John A. Busterud (2001) and The Armored Fist: The 712th Tank Battalion in the Second World War by Aaron Elson (2013).
“I’m no hero, I just did my job!”
Staff Sergeant Calvin L. Havekost, Anti-Aircraft Automatic Weapons Battalion
Like many young American men, the life of Calvin L. Havekost changed dramatically on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I was squirrel hunting when my father came to me and said Pearl Harbor had been bombed,” Havekost recalls in an email communication.
Havekost was born on May 19, 1924, and raised on a farm in Monroe County, Michigan. He was drafted a mere eight months after graduating from high school, and set out for basic training on March 23, 1943. He was just 18 years old.
After training in Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina, Havekost was selected as an Administrative NCO (noncommissioned officer) in the Anti-Aircraft Automatic Weapons Battalion and shipped out from New York soon after New Year. His unit was in Kent, England, where the soldiers could hear London being bombed 40 miles away. He remembers gliders carrying men, jeeps and provisions filling up the sky, heading for Normandy.
Twelve days after D-Day, on June 18, Havekost’s unit moved to Southampton, where troop ships bound for Normandy were loaded. The landing docks in France, however, were blown away in a storm, and the fleet was halted for 15 days in the English Channel.
“I felt like a sitting duck!” he recalls.
The unit made it to Omaha Beach, near Saint-Lô, which Havekost describes as “a crossroad for German supplies.” Bombed by the Allies, he saw pieces of German equipment, animal corpses and human bodies littering the streets of the pulverized town. It was a sobering experience.
“That was our first exposure. The really tough facts of what was going on hit us at that point.”
The Germans promptly retreated from the area and the unit left for Paris, going through many towns along the way.
“The people were so kind to us,” Havekost says. “They’d throw us loaves of bread. Sometimes you’d get a bottle of champagne!”
The unit arrived in Paris at the end of August. Rapidly assigned to the 29th Infantry Division, it then traveled north through Belgium and stopped in the Netherlands.
Setting up camp on the Dutch-German border for most of the winter, the unit became the lead division in the north for the United States. Havekost remembers it as a particularly frightening and uncertain time. “Should the Germans have been successful in winning the Battle of the Bulge and taking Liege, we would have been completely cut off!”
Nevertheless, the soldiers, as they say, stayed calm and carried on. “They say that it takes 50 people to service one combat person,” he explains. “You’ve got truck drivers, people delivering gas and supplies, intelligence people trying to decipher the German codes. I’m no hero, I just did my job!”
When spring came around, the unit marched through industrial towns in Northern Germany. At one point it stumbled upon a discovery that would shake Havekost to the core: a German ammunitions plant where prisoners from all over Europe were forced to work. “There were very high fences as people were trapped. You couldn’t identify much of them, they were just skin and bones. Life had gone out of them.”
The unit liberated them, but Havekost’s emotions at the time were dark: “Sad. Just hatred for what the Germans had done and I’m German, my ancestry!”
The unit eventually moved on and met with the Russians at the Elbe River. “We entertained them. Our guys jitterbugged for them, they did their Cossack dance. They drank our whiskey, we drank their vodka, but we didn’t trust them completely.”
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. In August, Havekost — by now a staff sergeant — and the rest of his unit were sent to Bremen, Germany, where the soldiers awaited orders to go home.
“We were on a point system as to when we would go home. The guys with the Battle Star and [those] with the Purple Heart, they had a lot of points and I didn’t have enough. I didn’t leave until January.”
“I came back to my home town and married my sweetheart. It wasn’t a hard transition as my family and friends were there with me,” he continues. “I went to work [in the auto industry], my wife and I bought a house, we raised a family and I’ve lived a blessed life.”
Havekost, who now lives with his daughter in Oxnard, notes that what stands out most about his time in World War II is “how much I grew up by what I saw and experienced. I’m proud to have served and happy that I have lived this long so I can share my story with my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
“I am a proud Veteran who honors all who have and continue to serve for our liberty and freedom.”
Portraits and interviews of Calvin Havekost and other veterans will be included in Pictures for Heroes, a new coffee table book by photographer Zach Coco, which should be available by Veterans’ Day in November 2019. For more information, visit picturesforheroes.com.