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The Battle of the Bulge - An Interview with Dr. George Knaphus

George Knaphus was a private in Company B of the 112th Infantry Division during World War 2. He first saw combat 55 years ago today -- in The Battle of the Bulge. Lisa Mullins of NPR chats with Dr. Knaphus on Thursday, 16 December 1999, about his World War 2 experiences.

Listen to the Interview Listen to the Interview (RealMedia File)

Transcript of Interview

On the 55th Anniversary of the Battle of Bulge, veteran George Knaphus from Iowa spoke about fighting the Germans and being in combat for the first time.

This is The World. I'm Lisa Mullins...with another Voice of the Century.

[Mullins] Today, fifty-five years ago, George Knaphus (Ka-NAP-hoos) wrote these words: I gave my heart to Christ, 16 December 1944. Please see that mother gets this. I'll see her in heaven." George Knaphus thought he was going to die.

While the tightening up program goes on, American daylight bombing continues to hammer at enemy installations...

Throughout 1944, American forces in Western Europe were on the move. The United States had been in the war for three years. On 6 June -- D-Day -- 1944, 150 thousand GI's, commanded by General Dwight Eisenhower, stormed France's Normandy Beach. All summer, Allied forces drove the Nazis across France and Belgium and back into Germany. It was the final push toward an Allied victory in World War II.

Our fighter planes take care of straggling Nazis. And Nazi planes that never get into the air. But Adolf Hitler's army rose again for a mid-December battle in Belgium.

But Adolf Hitler's army rose again for a mid-December battle in Belgium.

There's no doubt about it...This is a major German effort. Some of the best units in the German army are involved in this penetration. He wants to make it hard for us to assemble troops to meet the main threat.

Hitler was implementing his final strategy. He deployed thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks along the Allied Forces' most vulnerable point on the Western Front -- the Ardennes region -- along Germany's border with Belgium. It was there that Hitler would try to force the Allies out of Germany by wedging through the American front. It became known as the Battle of The Bulge ... Hitler's last great gamble of World War II. In the early hours of 16 December 1944, twenty-year-old GI George Knaphus saw combat for the first time.

[Knaphus] The first sergeant called me corn belt because I was from Iowa, and that's corn country.

[Mullins] Private First Class George Knaphus was stationed in Lutzkampen, a German town near the borders of Belgium and Luxemburg. He was a member of the 112th infantry division -- one of the units assigned to guard the fragile line separating Allied and Nazi forces. And that's precisely what he was doing on the morning of the 16th...standing guard duty.

[Knaphus] At 3:15 AM, Knaphus's first sergeant approached him and said, 'Cornbelt, how are things going?'. 'It's awfully quiet," he told the sergeant.

And he suddenly stopped, and he turned back and said, 'how quiet?'. And I said, 'no machine gun, no mortar, no artillery, no nothing. 'he said, 'how about the guy before you?'. I said, 'he said the same thing. 'he said, 'they're up to something. I'm going to get everybody up.'

[Mullins] George Knaphus's fellow soldiers in Company B were green as could be. There were only about 150 of them, mostly recent arrivals. Knaphus had been sent in less than a month earlier.

But Knaphus's sergeant ordered him and the other GI's to prepare artillery shells, load their guns, and check their hand grenades.

The men of Company B took defensive positions inside their foxholes -- and waited. A little after 5:30 AM, they saw what they were waiting for -- German soldiers.

[Knaphus] Why, here they came, the whole regiment of Germans. Somewhere around 1000 people came right down that road.

 [Mullins] The Germans were yelling. A lot more than you would expect in this kind of case.

[Knaphus] Yeah, one of them said, 'Yankee sons of bitches’. And then the other one said some nasty things about babe Ruth that I better not say on the air.

[Mullins] The Battle of the Bulge was the largest ever fought by the U.S. Army. More than 600 thousand American soldiers battled the Germans. As George Knaphus recalls, the members of Company B had two goals ...staying alive and keeping German tanks away from a strategically important bridge.

[Knaphus] It was a heavy bridge that would take the heaviest German tank. And it was only about 20 kilometers or so from a place called St. Vith, which was north of there.

[Mullins] There were huge fuel supplies at St. Vith.

[Knaphus] Oh yeah. It was the big fuel supplies in the western front. And whoever got that was going to be glad they got it. And the Americans had it, and they wanted to keep it.

[Mullins] After tanks and infantry made the initial breach, the enemy moved his artillery in. He means to consolidate and hold everything he takes and to sustain the position. Behind the front right now, he has more divisions ready to follow up.

[Knaphus] I didn't have a watch, but I would say the basic battle was over just soon after daylight - 7:00-7:30. And then it was quiet.

[Mullins] - What do you do when there's a quiet in what seems to be a hellish situation?

The first battle of the day was over. Private George Knaphus took a look at the battlefield.

[Knaphus] You sit there and wonder. You sit there and wonder.

[Mullins] The first battle of the day was over. Private George Knaphus took a look at the battlefield.

[Knaphus] Just 200 - 300 bodies were lying there like they were sleeping... sleeping peacefully.

[Mullins] One hundred thirty of Company B's 150 men were either wounded, missing in action, or dead in the first battle. And there was another battle to come. Later that day, German tanks attacked Knaphus' company. An anti-tank gunner named Paul Rosenthal shot back.

He shot once ...To the end of the war.

After eight days of fighting, a group of American Sherman tanks arrived at the scene...and drove the Germans back with shellfire. The American gunners offered the GI's of Company B a ride out from the battleground... George Knaphus hopped in and was driven to an empty barn, away from the fighting.

[Knaphus] I can't explain what it meant to me to be back there in a dry barn and to realize that I was safe for an hour, or a day, or a week or whatever. It was so much stress, which I didn't realize was that bad. And then to be safe.

[Mullins] For Private Knaphus, the Battle of the Bulge came to an end on Christmas Eve 1944. But elsewhere on the front, it raged through 6 January, before the Germans finally retreated. In the Battle of the Bulge, victory came at the cost of 77 thousand casualties...the heaviest toll for one battle in American history. For Germany, it was a disaster...with 120 thousand deaths and hundreds of lost airplanes and tanks. For George Knaphus, now 75 years old and suffering from lymphoma, his combat experience was a turning point in his life.

[Mullins] I don't know if you're a spiritual man. But I wonder if an event like this has to lead you in either direction. Perhaps to be cynical on the one hand or spiritual...Or both. I'm wondering in part because of the note you wrote to your mother 55 years ago.

[Knaphus] Well, as you know, the note says to be sure my mother gets the note that I've given my heart to Christ. And I will admit that part of that was to assuage whatever grief she had about it, but yeah, it's enhanced my spiritual thoughts.

For More Information

Brief Biography of George Knapus (1924-2000)

George Knaphus was born on 31 August 1924 in McCallsburg, Iowa.  He graduated from McCallsburg High in 1942 and entered the Army early the following year, earning a bronze star for his service during World War II. He lived on the same farm south of McCallsburg for 70 years until moving to Ames in October 1998.

After the war, Knaphus enrolled in Iowa State Teacher's College (University of Northern Iowa). He graduated in 1949. While in Cedar Falls, he married Marie Gjenvick. In 1951, he earned a Master's Degree in Plant Pathology from Iowa State College (Iowa State University). 

He then returned to McCallsburg, where he farmed, held various leadership positions in Bethany Lutheran Church, served on the school board, was a Warren Township trustee for 50 years, and was an active member of the American Legion. In 1958, he became principal and teacher in the McCallsburg High School and taught science classes at Nesco High School until 1962. 

In 1962, he returned to Iowa State University, completing his Ph. D. in Plant Pathology in 1964. Iowa State employed him to work in the teacher education program and as Instructor of Botany and Plant Pathology (1962-1965), Assistant Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology (1965-1968), Associate Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology (1968-1972), and Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology from 1972 until his death in May 2000.

George Knaphus was a member of the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Family, married to Marie Gjenvick, daughter of Ludvig Kristian Gjønvik, a Norwegian immigrant to the United States in 1913.

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