World War II Veterans Reunite at an Airport After 66 Years
James Penney and Bill Knapp served in WWII and formed a close bond. In March 1946, after the war, the veterans separated and went their own ways, only to reunite 66 years later.
Several years ago, U.S. cities honored WWII veterans by flying them to Washington D.C. on Honor flights to witness the memorials. Knapp, chairman emeritus of Knapp Properties Inc. and founder of Iowa Realty, chartered a plane holding 300 veterans. He shelled out $250,000 of his own money for the flight. Penney also experienced the memorials and traveled for free to embark on an experience he deems priceless.
Both veterans hailed from poor families and volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy. They were stationed on the USS Catron and fought together during WWII. After the war, they parted ways. Knapp became a wealthy businessman graduating from the American Institute of Business and becoming the subject of the book, “From Less Than Nothing to More Than Plenty.”
Penney returned to his hometown and retired as a crane operator. He spent many days on his prize vegetable garden sharing his harvest with friends and neighbors.
The news media published numerous articles about the Honor Flights. Knapp’s nephew happened to read a piece in the Gadsen Times about the USS Catron which prompted him to show it to his uncle. Much to Knapp’s surprise, a man who served with him on the USS Catron was still alive. That man’s name was James Penney.
Susan, Knapps’s wife, was instrumental in reuniting the two veterans.
“After we read the article, and realizing one shipmate was still living, Bill said he wanted to call him,” said Susan. “So we got a number and phoned. Bill gave his name and asked if James knew who he was. James answered back, ‘You are the short guy who was as tough as a pine knot.’
“‘Bill said, ‘You got half of it right,’” Susan said. “We have a place in Florida where we go in winter, so it was decided that we’d just stop in Gadsden for a visit.”
Knapp took his private jet and met Penney at the airport. The veterans hugged in a sweet embrace and did not waste time sharing old Navy stories.
Penney recalled the story of their first encounter on April 1, 1945 during the war. Knapp chimed in adding that the landings seemed easy but Japanese soldiers would hide in caves and come out of hiding once American soldiers were close enough. The battles resulted in violent hand-to-hand combat. Soldiers would run back and forth to the ship located five miles from shore to obtain supplies. After the battle raged on, they would carry the dead bodies and the wounded away from the site.
The battles also occurred aboard the ship. Kamikaze or suicide planes would crash at the starboard. Knapp was at the same location maneuvering a 20mm machine gun shooting wherever his eyes could take him. Though Penney was stationed on the port side, he could still get a glimpse of the action.
“I think Bill hit the first plane and it crashed in the sea,” Penney said.
“I remember watching the fighting on the island and that no matter how much we shelled it, when the bombardment stopped, the (Japanese) would come out of those caves and tunnels fighting to the death. It was a horrible battle and cost us 250,000 lives,” he said.
Knapp was scared of the fighting but more frightened by the chance of falling out of the ship.
“When the waves got up and the sea was rough, the ship would start rocking,” he said. “If you were in the crow’s nest, you would be swaying all over, from one side to the other. That was awful. If you fell out, you would just disappear in the water.”
The two veterans continued to share stories of heartache and triumph and where their lives had taken them after the war. Susan Knapp noticed something interesting about the 86-year-old men.
“They have shared the same experiences, went through the same things, so they have an awful lot in common,” she said.
Knapp desired to re-live some of his young memories of the war. “I want to return to Okinawa and I want you to go with me,” Knapp said turning to Penney. I want to go back and see the beaches, caves, tunnels and what the island is like today.”
Penney’s eyes lit up in excitement. “Yes, I’d love to go,” he replied.
It came time for the men to depart. The veterans met in an embrace and Penney promised to bring his family to Des Moines to visit Knapp. As the Knapp family boarded the plane, Penney prayed for their safe trip home.
Penney waved to his cherished friend in the plane as it flew away. His eyes welled up with tears.
“When I saw that plane coming in and knew I was going to see a guy I had served with 66 years ago, tears came to my eyes,” he said.
“I can’t describe how I feel,” Penney said. “I know everything went well. I know that it was like going back in time and reliving our life together again. The mission of our meeting again for the first time in 66 years has been accomplished. That was very special.”