When the Exeter Kiwanis Club asked Don Knudson to talk about his upcoming Honor Flight a few weeks ago, he wanted to make a formal presentation about his time in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The 89-year-old World War II veteran asked fellow Kiwanian Randy Groom if he could borrow one of his military jackets because he could not find his own.
“If we are going to do something for Don, we are going to do it right,” Groom said.
Groom, somewhat of a military historian, met with Knudson who shared a box full of medals he had received. Not having a jacket that fit the 50-year member of the Exeter Kiwanis Club, Groom found the right size uniform on e-Bay. He then spent a few weeks more finding both originals and duplicates of all of Knudson’s medals. The B-26 flight engineer received the Air Medal twice, a Presidential Unit Citation, Good Conduct Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Theatre Ribbon, Marksmanship Medal, and Campaign Stars for both the Northern France and Central Europe. Groom said one of the most interesting things about Knudson’s service was the fact he was a corporal serving on a bomber crew.
“Normally only officers flew on the bombers and he was still a corporal,” Groom said. “As the war went on, they often didn’t have time to get all the details in order before missions. He probably should have been promoted before the war ended.”
Groom presented the jacket complete with medals, ribbons and cords all in their correct order of display just before Knudson gave his presentation at the Sept. 10 meeting of the Exeter Kiwanis Club.
A few days later on Sept. 15, Knudson as well as another Exeter WWII veteran, Robert Sheldon, left Fresno Yosemite International Airport as part of the Central Valley Honor Flight, a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. The program transports WWII veterans to Washington, D.C. free of charge to visit and reflect at the memorial in their honor. It’s a privilege many WWII veterans will never get because they have passed as the youngest WWII veterans are now 86 years old. The World War II Memorial itself didn’t even open until 2004, long after many of the brave men who fought in the war died of old age. And WWII veterans are passing at a rate of more than 500 each day, according to the U.S. Veterans Affairs.
“I’m the only one left from my crew,” Sheldon said. “It’s sad to think these other guys probably never saw the memorial.”
Their flight over into the East Coast probably looked much different than it did more than 60 years ago in B series bombers. Knudson, who was a mechanic on a B-26 bomber, remembers hop scotching down the East Coast before jumping to a small island to cross the Atlantic to northern Africa. He said the large bomber was unable to carry enough fuel for longer flights.
“It was so small we were afraid we would fly right by it,” Knudson said. “And the fuel consumption on those things was just tremendous.”
Knudson B-26 bombers did not have oxygen because they only flew at an altitude of 10,000 feet. He recalls one instance where one of the gunners said his hands were turning blue and going numb and he couldn’t feel the gun grips anymore. Knudson went to tell the pilot, who didn’t believe him at first. So Knudson told the gunner to come up and show him his hands.
“He started a gradual dive after that,” Knudson said. “Everyone knew if we continued at too high of an altitude we could be unconscious before we knew what hit us.”
Robert Sheldon was a top turret gunner on a B-17 bomber. He said the B-17 was a little slower but could fly a little farther and at higher altitudes than the B-26. Sheldon said most of his missions were to hit munitions factories in Germany’s Rhine Valley.
“There was a lot of activity on both sides [of the turret],” Sheldon said. “The anti-aircraft flak and smoke made it hard to see so we would release chaff to throw off their targeting, because once they got locked in, planes started dropping out of the air.”
Both men agreed there were some scary moments in the air but also admitted their youth helped them get through it.
“We were all just a bunch of kids,” said Sheldon who will turn 90 in January. “That’s why soldiers are young. When you are young you feel invicible.”
“We thought we could live forever and you and I just about are!,” added Knudson, who will turn 90 in November.
The Central Valley Honor Flight is currently raising funds to charter planes that will send our veterans to Washington D.C. in commemoration of their sacrifice, and in honor of their service to our country. One hundred percent of all donations go toward funding these flights. Please join us in giving back to those who gave it all so that we could be free.
Those interested in donating can go to www.cvhonorflight.org or make checks payable to Central Valley Honor Flight c/o Fresno Regional Foundation, 5250 N. Palm Ave. #424, Fresno, CA 93704.