Every couple of summers, we'll have a visitor to Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park who gives us a direct link to World War II Kodiak. This year it was Albert C. Knack, Jr., of Santa Rosa, California, who visited the Park the second week in August. Knack was stationed at the Kodiak Naval Air Station here during the war years. He was assigned to PatWing 4, the Navy patrol wing that flew PBYs out along the Aleutians.
He and his daughter, Diane Pallo, of Petaluma, California were here to visit Knack's early history. Of course, in the attempt to get here, they'd experienced several plane delays because of weather. After the visit to Kodiak, they planned on flying back to Anchorage to catch a flight out to Dutch Harbor. Knack actually met his wife of 60 years during the War, but her health didn't permit her to make the trip.
It was fairly recently that Knack started coming to terms with his wartime service. He went through a period when he wouldn't talk of it, and would often wake from bad dreams. His wife would worry. An event that got him speaking of the war and actually writing down some of his experiences was when a teacher told his granddaughter's class something to the effect of: "Most Americans weren't so deeply involved in WWII because it wasn't on American soil."
He was wearing a PatWing 4 baseball cap, and both he and his daughter excitedly told how people up here, people with the Coast Guard Base, the State Historical Park and the Military History Museum recognized it, and could realize right away what it represented.
PatWing 4 was in the thick of things during operations in the Aleutians, and Knack was Plane Captain and 50-caliber machine gunner in X-2, the PBY flown by "Wild Bill" Thies, one of the most decorated pilots of that campaign. "He'd fly anywhere!" Knack relates. The plane flew out and back along the whole Aleutian chain, operating from seaplane tenders like Casco and Gillis when no land bases were available. When they'd land at Army posts they'd sometimes have to camp out in the plane (there were four bunks) and under the wings, because there were simply no facilities for them-Knack has memories of strong interservice rivaly; almost hostility. The Army and Navy just wouldn't talk to each other.
Knack was manning a 50 caliber machine gun emplacement at the base of the PBY beaching ramp at Dutch Harbor when the Japanese attacked with carrier-based planes on June 3 and June 4, 1943. One of the sights that stays with him from that first day was "four planes in beautiful diamond formation" dropping bombs on two ships in the harbor. The ships headed for the shelter of the shore. The men knew one was an ammunition carrier and thought they'd all be dead if it was hit. He and his crew moved their PBY into a hangar under construction after the first attack, and flew it out on second day. Zeros fired at a following PBY which crash landed into a spit extending into the harbor. He feels they escaped only because the Zeros were distracted by that second plane.
Knack's plane and crew took part in the "Kiska Blitz," a period when the PBYs were the only aircraft available to bomb the Japanese-held base on Kiska. The PBY was a sturdy plane, but slow and not maneuverable. Many were lost to anti-aircraft fire and Japanese fighters. The long flight out to Kiska got to be known as "Visiting the PBY Elimination Center." Bill Thies, the pilot of X-2, developed an effective bad weather technique for those bombing missions. The plane would orient to the top of Kiska volcano projecting above the clouds, then would fly in a set course and drop the bombs after a set time. "We'd be somewhere near the target." Knack says his closest call was when the lumbering plane was being flown like a dive bomber in an attack on a Japanese submarine. One of their own bombs exploded too close to the plane, knocking out one of the engines. They had to nurse the plane the 400 miles back to base on one engine. The flight took six hours, a time that both Consolidated and Pratt & Whitney, the manufacturers of the plane and the engines, said was far beyond the longest duration possible.
The PBY was on night patrol over Akutan Island on July 9,1942. Knack was at his station in the starboard machine gun blister and spotted an upside-down aircraft on the tundra. "I saw the red meatball and knew it wasn't one of ours. It was a Zero!" A copy of Knack's flight log makes note of the sighting almost casually, but the event was one of the great intelligence breakthroughs of the War. The only slightly damaged Zero was salvaged, shipped back to the United States, reconstructed, and flight tested. Flight characteristics of the Akutan Zero were used to develop fighter combat tactics against what was turning out to be one of the most formidable fighter aircraft of the war.
On the salvage operation, the crew lifted the tail of the overturned aircraft. The Japanese pilot had attempted a wheels-down landing on the tundra with his disabled aircraft. The wheels caught in the marshy ground and the plane flipped over, breaking the pilot's neck. Knack was the smallest crew member, and was designated to reach into the cockpit through a hole cut in the plane to unbuckle the dead pilot. He was successful, but the body wouldn't fall free because the pilot's feet were also strapped to the rudder pedals. Knack than had the unenviable task of snaking into the cockpit beside the corpse to release the feet, after which the body fell out. He added the macabre detail that the pilot's head had been submerged in cold water, which preserved him over the several weeks that had passed since the crash.
While he was reflecting on his experiences, he wondered whether operations like the 24 hour-per-day bombing schedule through wicked anti-aircraft fire of a Kiska Blitz were really necessary. From 60 years out, it seems like we could have just "let the Japanese rot there." They were at the end of their supply lines, and had to divert needed transportation to supply their troops. It was US soil, though, so the presence was not to be tolerated. Not many of PatWing 4 are left. There are only three remaining from his crew of nine. And the indestructible Wild Bill Thies has problems remembering those times.
His daughter Diane found a photo of her father in the collection at the Kodiak Military History Museum. He was the shortest figure in line at a commendation ceremony. She beamed and said "There's my little Dad!" This has clearly been precious time for both of them. They'd been talking about this trip for a while, they're happy they decided this was the year to DO it.
One of the visitors to the Museum listened a bit to the quiet conversation going on while Knack's comments were being taped. As he left the Ready Ammunition Bunker he took me aside and whispered, "He's the real deal, isn't he!"