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Reader column: 'Papa' fought the Great War, built our country

By BY PATRICK HUBBELL - Special to the Advocate
Nov. 10, 2013 at 5:10 a.m.

Knipping in 1985

Joseph William Knipping Jr.

Born: Dec. 17, 1896

Rank: Coxswain, U.S. Navy

Enlisted: April 10, 1917

Discharged: May 5, 1919

Reason: special order of secretary of U.S. Navy

Ratings: AS - able-bodied seaman

S2c - Seaman, second class

Coxswain/gunner

The Greatest Generation is dying out.

The generation of my parents is now great-grandparents. It was the generation that faced the Great Depression and World War II and emerged from both bowed but not beaten.

Go to any bookstore, and you'll find shelves groaning with our exploits in the battle to defeat Hitler and Tojo. But curious minds may wonder what became of World War I? What begat the one that came before?

I was fortunate to have lived during a time when Doughboys still lived to tell about their experiences in the Great War, as it was called before it got tagged with a Roman numeral.

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Galveston. "Papa," as we called him, would regale us with stories of his life growing up in Louisiana and the time he spent during the "woah."

At some point, I thought I should record some of the information. I took out paper and pen and set to work, asking him some questions and recording his clipped recollections. I tucked it all away in a folder and forgot all about it.

The folder re-emerged during an excavation of "Stuff I Need to Sort" in a cardboard box with all my undergraduate notes and letters from my future wife. The paper was fragile but still intact.

The notes about my grandfather inspired me to cobble together a story in his memory and the memory of all those who fought one of the world's most prolonged and bloody conflicts.

The following is based on the recollections of my grandfather and my mother.

Joseph William Knipping Jr. joined the Navy on April 10, 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany. Henry, his brother, joined the Army.

Joseph was the older of the two and was not allowed to join the military at first because of his puny weight. He stocked up on bananas until he thought he was going to turn into one. He weighed in at just the cut-off limit on his second attempt.

Joseph was 17 when he enlisted. Henry, two years younger, was a more convincing recruit because he was bigger than his older brother. Recruits were easier to find than accurate parish records.

The Knipping family straddled both sides of the Atlantic. My grandfather was the first of a two-continent family born in the United States, the older ones having been born in Germany. My great-grandfather gave his approval to joining the side fighting Germany. Wartime hysteria resulted in sauerkraut becoming liberty cabbage - as if that would make it taste any better.

The pronunciation of the family name changed as well, with the K in Knipping becoming a silent letter, like knot.

He was sent to the Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Va., for training. They called for volunteers, and he went aboard a ship bound out. But the ship's boilers were defective. Many at the time believed Germans had tampered with them.

He got on another ship and became part of the "suicide fleet" between England and Europe, crossing the English Channel to bring coal from Wales to soldiers in France. It was in the danger zone at all times, dodging submarine attacks. The convoy, depending on the weather, always traveled at daytime, heading for Brest, France, under the chief boatswain's mate Captain James Leonard.

My grandfather said the gunfire from 3-inch guns overhead firing at a German submarine damaged his eardrums.

"It was coming up; boat was firing at it. The submarine was too close. It was so close, we couldn't train the guns on it. Came up alongside. The destroyers came and dropped depth charges. Our gun was on a platform. We wasn't scared. Never did think of death at all. We were thinking of winning the war.

"There was some oil that came up. But the Germans were so smart they let oil up to make us think we sank them. There was a bunch of destroyers that would follow the convoy.

"After they fired that shot, I couldn't hear very good. They took me to the hospital in Baisance. They examined me and offered a medical discharge and a free passage on a passenger liner. The captain admired my spunk. I said I'd go back all together or not at all. I wanted to stay with the gang and finish the war.

"I was there from the beginning of the war until a couple months after the armistice was signed. I guess you'd call losing my hearing an injury. Don't you think so? I'm all crippled up now, anyhow. I'm practically deaf now, anyhow."

My grandfather described one incident with a 34-ship convoy from the U.S.

"We got caught in a storm. Had to pull into Halifax (Nova Scotia). Broke some of the halyards that held the lifeboats. Some of the boats that carried TNT ran into each other and blew up. Killed about 1,000 people. There were ambulances from New York. Our boat left New Orleans and went to Mobile, Ala. Picked up pig iron and portable houses."

His brother, Henry, fought in the Battle of Argonnes as a foot-soldier. Henry didn't like to talk about his experience. During the battle, he and his best friend took different sides in a field. Henry went into a field that had been mowed down, exposing himself to hostile fire. His friend thought his chances of survival would be better in the tall grass. His friend was killed, and Henry survived.

Finally, the end of the "woah" came. In one of the great cosmic coincidences of that time, Joseph and his brother, Henry, departed for service on the same day and returned on the same day. Neither one knew if the other was alive.

While Joseph came home with a hearing impairment, his brother suffered from an innovation of warfare that would become more common.

My grandfather recalled how his brother's life ended. "He was gassed. Mustard gas. It's what killed him. He died in a government hospital in Kerrville. Ate his lungs up. Went to see him before he died. He wanted some drugs to alleviate the pain."

He died in 1945 at the age of 47. Henry was interred near his parents in Rayne, La.

Interestingly, Papa saw the same ship he sailed on, the Louis K. Thurlow, docked in Texas City after the war.

"I didn't care much for going back on it, though." Ever the understated man, my grandfather. He was always proud of his service to the country and his Purple Heart medal.

Joseph William Knipping Jr. died peacefully at home in Galveston in 1988, age 92 years. He survived the Great War, the Great Depression, a yearlong union strike, several hurricanes and all of his 10 brothers and sisters. His last words were spoken to my grandmother, Anna, when he asked her to hold his hands because they were getting cold. He is now at rest next to her in Lafayette, La.

Patrick Hubbell lives in Victoria and is a Spanish teacher in the Victoria school district.

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