A Tribute to a Legend

 

 


Lenore’s Interview with her dad (Neil). 

During the month of October 2008 Neil asked us to document his life and memories, and following is what came from those interviews: This is as Neil recalled, most is in his own words.


He first lived on the family farm outside of Disco with his parents Harry and Ragnhild Knudson. When asked about outstanding memories of that time, he told of the bull chasing him and his mother up the tree, and they waited close to forever for help to come so they could get down. He had also shared that his parents often times went dancing in the big town of Disco. Back then the fashion was to have a band of two; a piano player and a fiddle player. When Neil would get tired, he would crawl behind the piano and go to sleep until it was time to go home. 

His first job was that he led a horse for Fred Young while Fred cultivated the corn on Highway C and Young Road. Dave Holcomb’s Dad now owns the place. He was paid 50 cents a day plus room and board. He was about 12 or 13 years old. He also picked strawberries for one-and-one-half cents a quart. At the end of the season was paid two cents a quart. His goal was 100 quarts per day. Another time he rode bicycle to Sturgeon Bay to pick cherries for two days. They stayed in the park at Wisconsin Rapids on the way there. 

About 1929 to 1930 Harry, Ragnhild and their 3 children moved to the current property on Squaw Creek Road. In the conversation he reminisced about the medicine cabinet that hung on the wall next to the kitchen door, where his Dad kept shaving equipment. On the bottom shelf was a locket with a string around it. The locket contained the most beautiful golden lock of his father Harry’s hair. 

He recalled pulling the grain thrashing machine to Disco. It ran via steam engine. Disco had a grainery. The job of the boys was to push the grain away from the area where it was being dumped, and they would play in the grain. The boys wore suspender coveralls and would shove the grain into their overalls until they made “big fat men’s legs”. Under those coveralls --- they wore no underwear. 

He then went to Squaw Creek Grade School which was a 2-room school. Grades 1-4 were in one room, and Grades 5-8 in the second room. The school was made of wood and it burned down in 1953, but was rebuilt. This is next to Dave Holcomb’s residence. They got to school riding their bicycles with the big balloon tires. 

From there he went into town to Black River Falls High School. Although he started driving at about age 13-14, he rode his bicycle to high school for years 1 and 2 along with the Davis brothers. One day his father, Harry, happened to follow them home in his car, and clocked them on their bicycles going 20 mph the whole way. They made it home in 20 minutes. That was fast! 

For years 2 and 3, Neil drove the car and took neighbor George Schlosser’s two daughters to school with him. He didn’t really date in high school, rather he helped around the homestead milking the cows. There were 4 cows: 3 were black & white Holsteins that gave milk, and one brown Guernsey that gave the best cream. 

He told the story of how we walked in the kitchen one day and found his mother, Ragnhild, sneaking a cigarette. He said she was a fun mother to have. 

Then the war started in 1941, and he joined the Navy before the official graduation. He received his high school diploma anyway because of good grades.


Summary of key dates for his military service: 

March 4, 1943 enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
February 5, 1944 attended Air Gunners School in Hollywood, Florida
Completed Air Crewman course for Operational Training Torpedo Planes.
May 6, 1944 earned Air Crew Wings, Aviation Radioman Third Class USNR.
Late 1944 or early 1945 boarded aircraft carrier U.S.S. Franklin.
March 19, 1945 Franklin was bombed.
April 17, 1945 received Purple Heart handed to him personally by Admiral Nimitz.
March 22, 1946 U.S. Navy Discharge.

The NAVY years. The autobiography tells his story. 

Neil O. Knudson ARM 3/c 306 30 57 3/6/43 to 3/22/46 

As a survivor of service in the U. S. Navy during world war II, I will try to record my experiences during that conflict. Perhaps someday my children or their children or children's children may ask what their ancestor did. 

At the age of 17 years and almost 3 months I enlisted in the Navy on Feb. 26, 1943, and was shipped by train to Farragut, Idaho for boot training. After training and a bout with the mumps which was an epidemic there that spring, was shipped to the Naval Air Technical Training Center at Memphis, Tenn. part of speech studies in international Morse code, radio operation and theory, and radar training, then on to Hollywood, Florida for more training in aerial gunnery. 

The work at Hollywood consisted of work with shotguns and 30 and 50 caliber machine guns at moving targets, and included disassembly and maintenance, how to use ring sights to estimate distance and relative movements of aircraft, aircraft identification and survival swimming. As it turned out the swimming lessons are the major reason that I am able to write this history. 

One day at the range we were shooting at targets moving along an embankment when a small sparrow type bird landed between us and the bank. Immediately nearly everyone began shooting 30 caliber ammo at the bird. when the dust had cleared, the bird took off and flew away. 

Another day we were on the beach shooting at a sleeve being towed by an airplane. We had all previously rolled up our belts of ammunition and dipped the bullet tips in paint, and as each person had used a different color of paint, when the sleeve was recovered we could count the number of hits made by the paint residue left around each hole. I guess the reason I remember this incident is because of the name of one fellow, Donald Zuck, who instead of firing short bursts of 5 to 20 rounds, fired the entire belt of 200 rounds in one continuous burst. He then pulled out a cigarette and lit it on the end of his red hot gun barrel. He did get a short and emphatic lecture from the instructor about ruining a gun barrel. 

After completing the gunnery course we were split up and reassigned. Some were assigned to training squadrons for dive bombers, others to flying boats such as the PBY Catalina. I was assigned to torpedo training squadron 13 at N.A.S. Fort Lauderdale, Florida as an Aviation Radioman for the Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber. I later learned that one of the men, George Mellany, was killed in a crash of an SBD Dauntless dive bomber at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. 

The crew for my plane was Lt. Merle Leonard from New Hampshire, pilot, Samuel Tavernit from Pennsylvania, turret gunner, and myself as radio and radar operator and belly gunner. The plane was equipped with a 50 caliber gun in each wing, a 50 caliber turret gun, a 30 caliber belly gun, and was capable of carrying 12 -100 pound bombs, 4-500 pound bombs, or a 2000 pound torpedo. 

The training consisted of daily flights usually over the ocean in the Bermuda Triangle area or Everglades. Often a dye marker would be dropped onto the ocean and we would make bombing runs, torpedo runs, or gunnery runs on the dye marker. Sometimes we would make practice navigation runs using radar. After a 3 to 4 hour. flight the plane would require 300 to 400 gallons of gasoline and 20 to 30 gallons of oil for a refill. 

Upon returning to base after a flight we entered the traffic pattern around the airfield. This was the worst part of the flight at first because we were circling at about 200 feet altitude and the greenery around the airfield was going by at a kind of a green blur and caused me to have an uncontrollable urge to become airsick on the 1st 3 or 4 flights. I don't remember anyone advising us to carry along a sack for this purpose but the white sailor hats served adequately when inverted. Sam had more trouble than I, for he had trouble on the 1st dozen or so flights. The good result of this trouble was that I know of no one who became seasick after overcoming airsickness. On subsequent flights we could see the numerous white hats hanging on the everglade growth. 

Many Pilots and crew were lost in this Training. We were a squadron of 10 aircraft, but there were also many other squadrons in various stages of training. Our worst accident was when one the planes in the landing pattern put down the landing flaps and only one came down causing the plane to roll over on it's back and crash and burn. The pilot, "Big Jim" Hayes, radioman Klingman and turret gunner Allman were killed. After that the landing flaps were eased down more slowly instead of quickly. Two 0f the pilots were unable to finish the training. 

The only way we could communicate during flight was by intercom with our microphones and earphones. On one flight we heard "we're on fire. prepare to bail out". Sam started down from the turret, I pulled our parachutes off the bulkhead "wall" and was preparing to snap it on when Lt. Leonard advised us that we weren't in trouble, some one had their radio on. I don't know who had the problem. 

During this time our daily calisthenics, classes, and swimming training continued of course. One day we went to Miami beach to swim 1 mile north along the beach. That wasn't so bad because if you wanted to rest you could use minimum effort to stay afloat and drift with the gulf stream. The next day we went to the beach again to swim 1 mile south. That was work as every time you slowed down, the gulf stream would carry you north. 

Perhaps now is a good time to explain that, as I write this, almost 53 years have passed since I joined the Navy. Long ago, I made a list of all the places and ships I had been on and it is still preserved in an old photo album. The list has about 28 entries long and I am not sure of the exact sequence or length of each visit, nor do I remember what we did at all places. 

We were on the U.S.S. Ranger aircraft carrier for a few days to get acquainted with carrier operations. I think it was while we were at Ft. Lauderdale. I do remember the sensation of being catapulted from the flight deck on takeoff, and going from standstill with the 1850 horsepower engine at full throttle to flying speed within a very short distance. 

From Fort Lauderdale we went to North Island, San Diego, California C.A.S.U.5. (carrier air service unit ?) and became Torpedo Squadron 5 (VT5), The "V" symbolizing heavier than air and "T" for torpedo. That was a busy place, many planes taking off and landing. we got so that we could identify wildcats, hellcats, corsairs by the engine noise. I think we made only 2 or 3 flights there and then went to N.A.S. Alameda near San Francisco. We were back to Alameda 5 times during our training along the California coast, and it seemed like a home base. 

Other bases we trained at : N.A.A.S. Monterey (twice), N.A.A.S. Vernallas, N.A.A.S. Santa Rosa ( 3 times ), N.A.A.S. Arcata, near Eureka, all in California. 

We tried many things, low level night bombing by radar, dive bombing ground targets, navigating along the coast by radar, rocket firing, and gunnery. We were at Arcata for the pilots to practice night carrier landings. The aircrews didn't fly along as they took off and landed trying to hit a spot on the runway. One of the pilots, Ens. Hawkins, flipped over on his back on landing and was killed. 

Tiny Hill had a band which was popular at that time in the Santa Rosa area. One of the songs played frequently on the radio at that time had lyrics which started out "Rose of Santa Rosa, we must say good bye" which reminded us that we would soon be going overseas. 

In late 1944 or early 1945 we boarded the U.S.S. Franklin aircraft carrier, an Essex class ship which had a flight deck 860 + feet long, several 5 inch cannon and several 20 millimeter cannon along the sides of the flight deck , and headed out into the Pacific with 18 F4U Corsair fighters with Marine pilots, 18 F6F Hellcat fighters, 18 SB2C Helldiver bombers, and 18 TBM Torpedo bombers on board. Our previous flying had been done in the TBF made by Grumman. Now we had brand new TBM's made by Martin. Our 1st. stop was at N.A.S. Ford Island in Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. We trained there and at N.A.S. Kaneohe, also on Oahu. I visited Waikiki Beach when it was only a beach (no build up for tourists), the Arizona Memorial (when it was just a board walk going out to pay respects to a ship and crew sunk by the Japs), visited Honolulu, and had my hair cut by a lady barber. 

Leaving Hawaii, We again headed west, accompanied by tankers, cruisers, destroyers, and whatever else I don't remember. One time a drone (small radio controlled plane) was sent out for the ships gunnery practice. As it came toward the Franklin, the ship's gunners opened up with the 5 inch and 20 mm cannons. When looking in the direction the 5 inch cannon were shooting, I could see the projectile after it had gone out some distance and watch it until it exploded. Anyway, the plane suddenly went into a dive and everyone thought it had been hit and stopped shooting. It wasn't hit, it turned and flew back to the ship it came. 

As aircrew we didn't have any duties at these times so would stand in the catwalk along the flight deck and watch. One day the Marine fighter squadron took off and proceeded to make simulated attacks on the carrier with their Corsairs. They would come in toward the ship low over the water as if on a rocket firing or strafing run and pull up sharply just before colliding with the Carrier. On one run a plane approached from the stern as another was approaching from the starboard. both pulled up sharply and collided a few hundred feet in front of the ship. One pilot got out and his parachute streamed out but didn't open before he hit the water. Both planes hit the water nose down and sank. 

Landing on the ship is another experience. As you fly by in the landing pattern, it looks pretty small. As you approach the deck is moving up and down depending on how rough the ocean is. If you touch down when the stern is dropping, it can be a lot less jarring than when the stern is rising. On a good landing, the tail hook catches one of the arresting wires. On a bad landing you miss the arresting wires and hit the barriers set up to prevent the plane from hitting any thing else. On a real bad landing you can bounce hard enough to bounce over the side and land upside down in the ocean like pilot Milligan and his crew, Hall and Stone, did. All three were able to get out of the plane and were picked up. The plane sank in about a half of a minute. 

Our ready room was just under the flight deck about midship and often we would go out to watch the planes land, sometimes standing on the catwalk, sometimes on the bridge. One day I was watching a Hellcat fighter equipped with an auxiliary belly tank for gasoline come in. Normally, the auxiliary tank is used up first. This one must have been full because as the plane caught the arresting hook the tank broke loose and spread flames along the entire flight deck. I saw the pilot get out of the burning plane, fall to the deck, and become enveloped with flames. 

Our next stop was by the Island of Ulithi in the Caroline Islands, just a few degrees north of the Equator. Here we became part of task force 58 commanded by Admiral Nimitz and proceeded north toward Japan. There were ships on all sides, battleships, destroyers, cruisers, tankers and other aircraft carriers, and seemed to almost reach the horizon in every direction. 

On March 17,1945, half of our Squadron made a run on the southern Japanese Island of Kyushu. All returned safely. On March 18, I ate breakfast about 05:30 A.M. and was in the plane loaded with 4-500 pound bombs at 06:30 ready to take off on a bombing run to Kagoshima, Kyushu. I believe that we were about 100 miles off the coast at this time. We took off, formed up with the fighters and dive bombers and climbed to 18500 feet altitude as we headed east. After what seemed like an hour of being cold and watching for enemy planes (I didn't see any, most of the Japanese air power at that time consisted of kamikaze pilots) we approached the coast of Kyushu and shortly after began a steep dive toward an airfield. Almost immediately we encountered anti aircraft fire from the ground. Black explosions started to fill the sky. Before the flight we had been supplied with tubes about an inch square and 30 inches long, each filled with thousands of squares of tinfoil. The purpose of these were to provide reflections for enemy radar, and hopefully, targets for the radar controlled anti-aircraft guns. All of the way down from 18500 feet until after we dropped our bombs, I was pushing these tubes out the bottom hatch and breaking them as fast as possible to release the clouds of tinfoil. It seemed to work because the flak was exploding further behind us. As we were pulling out of the dive, I could see bombs exploding on runways, planes and buildings. We sped across the Island very low and very fast. Our normal cruising speed was about 180 knots/hour. After picking up speed from the dive we were doing 300+. I got a fast look at some of the landscape, and as we approached the water east of Kyushu and started gaining altitude could see fishing boats in the water. We flew around the southern end of the Island and I picked up the I.F.F. signal of our carrier on radar at about 100 miles. All landed safely. Only one plane in our squadron had been hit. Ensign Goudie's plane had a hole about 3 inches in diameter in the left wing and there were still wisps of smoke coming from it. I had a defective gun barrel which split a casing and jammed every few rounds so I replaced it. 

March 19, 1945 started out to be a repeat of the day before except that we were going to bomb Usa, Kyushu. We had an early breakfast and I was in the plane at 06:30 engines were running and I was turning on the radio and radar gear and checking that everything was secure. Loose objects tend to fly backwards when being catapulted of the flight deck. Suddenly there was a severe jolt and it felt like the plane jumped a foot off the deck. Sam jumped down from the turret and shouted "We're under attack". I opened the door and we left the plane. Looking up at the cockpit I saw that our pilot, Lt. Leonard, had already left the plane. I never saw him again. Thick black smoke was billowing from the flight deck in front of us and made it impossible to see forward. Sam started toward the rear of the flight deck apparently oblivious to the spinning propellers of the planes and I had to yell and point to the propeller spinning in front of his face. When the planes are standing next to each other with wings folded, the propellers come within a couple of feet of each other and you have to crouch down some and walk between the arcs. We went to the right rear of the flight deck first because the smoke was blowing over the left rear. Then the ship changed course slightly and the smoke started blowing over the right rear so I moved to the left rear. I never saw Sam again, but he survived. 

Our plane was parked just behind the second elevator in the flight deck. I heard later that a lone Jap plane had dropped 2 bombs. One went through the front elevator and the next through the second. At this time, 06:30, the chow lines for breakfast form on the hanger deck and go down a ladder to the mess hall. The bombs exploded on the hanger deck. Three fighter planes had taken off before the bombing and shot down the bomber. 

Standing in the catwalk at the left rear of the flight deck, there was nothing much I could do except watch what was happening and try to figure out what to do. The ships crew had already dropped several lines from the rear of the flight deck and fantail into the water, and men were sliding down the ropes holding on with their hands. As the ship was still moving forward, the lines entered the water at about a 45 degree angle. I talked with Jim Strickland, another radioman who had been scheduled to fly that day, and we decided that we wouldn't try the ropes unless we had to because we knew it would result in severe burns to the hands. I suggested we go to the Corsair fighters at the rear of the deck and each grab a one man life raft from the pilots seat. We did so and tied them to our belts. Standing in the catwalk we could see the planes starting to burn. The fighters in front were carrying tiny tim rockets under the fuselage which were the were the first to ignite and streak off. Some fighters were carrying 4 smaller rockets under each wing, which were next to go. We knew that each Helldiver bomber and each Avenger torpedo bomber were carrying 4- 500 pound bombs plus all of the planes were loaded with about 400 gallons of gasoline, and as they started to burn, we decided to leave by dropping free fall into the water as we had been trained to do in some of our swimming classes, although we had not trained from 60 feet high. By this time men were in the water stretching out for what seemed miles, and ships were picking them up. Jim went first. He climbed over the rail and let go. I watched him on the way down, starting out feet first, turning over on the way down and entering the water in a nice clean dive hands first. When I started over the rail when there was an explosion and I was hanging on the rail with one hand so I just let go. Half way down, I was hit by a strong wind current which turned me some and I used my arms to stay upright and entered the water feet first. 

The water rolled me round and round from the churning action of the ships propellers and at first I couldn't tell which way was up so I pulled the strings to activate both CO2 cartridges and inflate my life jacket. Soon I could see light and came up with my head out of water, untied the one man life raft from my belt and was trying to figure out how to inflate it when a man swam up to me and said he knew how and promptly did so. Within a minute there was a full circle of men around the raft and room for me to put my hand only on it. We floated that way up and down on the ocean swells for an hour as ships came toward us, picking up men on the way. A Destroyer, The U.S.S. Hunt, came by and we climbed the rope ladder and were aboard. As I was climbing the ladder I first realized that I had made an almost fatal mistake. It had been so cold on the flight the day before that I was dressed in my dungarees plus a khaki flight suit, and over that another light green flight suit and six inch heavy boots. Also I was wearing a 38 caliber revolver in a shoulder holster and an eight inch knife and sheath. I should have shed some of that clothing before I abandoned ship. If my life jacket had not functioned I would not have survived. It took every bit of strength I had left to climb the ladder with all that water soaked clothing and hardware. The water temperature was only about 60 degrees which also sapped a great deal of strength. Sam wrote later that he was in the water for 4 hours with aircrewman Stone, and that Stone died of exposure during that time. 

Although it seemed like a lot had happened already, the day was far from over. The only one I knew aboard was one of the pilots from our squadron, Lt. Page, who had also been picked up. As we were sitting around he noticed that I had blood coming from my ears. I felt alright so I wasn't worried about it at the time as many of the men being picked up had very bad burns and other Injuries. I had three small tubes of morphine in my flight suit which were turned over to sick bay. Also the japs were sending out one after the other of kamikaze pilots They were making dives continuously on ships in the task force. As I found out later, we were between 40 to 60 miles from the coast of Japan at this time. They were coming down, some near, some further away flying into skies peppered with exploding shells and tracer ammunition. I didn't see any of them hit ships but some of the ships were so far away it was hard to tell. I saw many of them splash into the water. This continued on March 20 also. 

On one of the following days there were two burials at sea which I witnessed. The Bodies were on a slanting table covered with a flag, taps were played, and the bodies were slid from under the flag into the ocean. 

We were headed again for Ulithi in the Caroline Islands. About halfway there we were on the edge of a typhoon for a couple of days. That was an experience on a small ship like a Destroyer. The ship rolled and pitched, water ran over the deck, and when we were eating, coffee spilled over cups and sloshed back and forth across tables which had a raised ring around the edge about an inch high. 

The U.S.S. Relief, a hospital ship, was anchored off shore and I spent 2 to 3 weeks there after being diagnosed with rupture, traumatic, both eardrums, and better off by far than most of those admitted. There were two aircrewmen from our squadron ( I can't remember their names). One, a radioman had flash burns on his face and hands from where his shirtsleeves ended and the palms were worn away and burned from sliding down the line when abandoning ship, and one, a turret gunner, had a broken shoulder plus flash burns. We all smoked 50 cents a carton cigarettes and I was the only one who could light a match. We spent all of the time we could on deck because it was very warm. After sleeping I would wake with the mattress soaked with sweat. 

A word about those flash burns: We all normally wore denim trousers and chambray shirts with the sleeves down in case of fire. The clothing took the brunt of the first flash of fire and helped prevent skin burns. Many of the men on the hospital ship had burns limited to hands and face. 

A few days after we had been on the U.S.S. Relief we were visited by our squadron doctor. We had a conversation, which is the best way I can describe it, about the squadron members. I found out that my pilot, Lt. Leonard had been killed, my friend Ardell Lietzke from Stanton, Nebraska had been killed and half of our squadron including our squadron commander Captain Edmunds and his crew, Fairbrother and Hobbs, had been killed. At one time I had a list of the whole crew and who survived but have not found it at this time. The Franklin had a total crew of about 3200 and there were about 1300 casualties. If I remember right there were 37 major explosions on the ship. I saw the Franklin one more time on its way back to the states when it stopped in Hawaii and the flight deck was twisted like a propeller. There was a huge hole at the left rear where I had been standing before I left. 

I and many others were awarded the Purple Heart at this time for being wounded in action. 

One day we were sitting on the deck as usual watching the ships and seaplanes come and go when the fellow with the broken shoulder noticed a battleship moving in. I don't remember which it was but he recognized it as the one his twin brother was on, so he went up to the signal officer and they communicated with the battle ship with blinker signals. After a while his brother came over in a motorboat and they had a good visit. 

I watched a PB2Y Coronado 4 engine flying boat taking off when it broke apart behind the wing upon hitting an ocean swell just as it was ready to lift off. 

Next I was put on another hospital ship, the U.S.S. Bountiful and traveled to Naval hospital base 28 on Guam. One ear had healed but one was still giving trouble. Some of the men here were very seriously wounded. The man in the bunk next to mine had facial damage including a broken jaw and his upper and lower teeth were wired together to hold pieces in Place. Many of the wounded were survivors from the fighting at Okinowa. 

While on Guam we had a visit by Admiral Nimitz and everyone who was able lined up in formation and were presented awards. An officer came down the lines handing out the medals followed by Nimitz shaking hands with the recipient. When the officer got to me and presented me with a purple heart, I told him that I had already received one. He looked kind of flustered for a moment and told me to just take it. Then Nimitz came by and shook my hand. Later at the hospital one of the men asked me if I wanted to sell it. We agreed on 10 dollars and it was his. 

Next I went to navy receiving station 926 on Guam for reassignment, then to the U.S.S. Pickaway for transport to receiving station 128 on Oahu, then to C.A.S.U. #1 at Ford Island, Oahu to be assigned to another squadron. During this time I had heard that all survivors of the Franklin had been sent home on 30 day leave and after mentioning this to an officer who was in the process of getting me in another squadron, I was on the troop ship, The U.S.S. Fremont heading for California and 30 days leave, then to Memphis Tenn. As all of my records, including pay records had been lost, I finally got some records established in Memphis and got back pay from March through July. 

Anyone who flew 4 hours a month qualified for flight pay which was 50% of base pay, and received an additional 20% for overseas pay. When the paymaster was figuring what I had coming, he allowed me 50% until March 19, but said since I was no longer on flight status after the 19th, I didn't qualify for 50% for the remaining 12 days, which I thought was kind of picky. My base pay at the time was 78 dollars per month. 

From Memphis I went to Pensacola, Fla. and worked on Maintenance of radio equipment on airplanes for awhile, then to N.A.A.S. Saufley, Fla. to work with carrier qualification training squadron # 9. I did manage to get 4 hours of flying time in each month. Since the war was over we were all waiting to accumulate the necessary number of points to be discharged. Many of us were offered an increase in rank to re-enlist. 

On March 26, 1946, at the age of 20 years and slightly more than 3 months I was discharged at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois and became a civilian.


One historic note is that the VMF-214 Black Sheep Marine Corsair Fighter Squadron was deployed on the USS Franklin while Neil was there: 

VMF-214 deployed aboard the USS Franklin (CV-13) on February 4, 1945 to join on-going operations on Okinawa. On March 19, a Japanese bomber hit the USS Franklin. The explosion and resulting fire caused 772 deaths aboard the Franklin including 32 Black Sheep members. Many Black Sheep aircraft were launching for a strike on mainland Japan at the time. One, First Lieutenant Ken Linder, was given half credit for shooting down the Japanese bomber that struck the Franklin. This ended VMF-214 involvement in World War II.


When Neil got out of the Navy, he said he joined the “fifty-two - twenty club”, calling it “some kind of a joke”. This was an unemployment package where he lived for 52 weeks on $20 per week. After all that he had been through in the War, I think that was a well-deserved change of pace. During that time he bought a black 1945 Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This was about the time that he met Al Muth, who was the same age as Neil’s younger brother, Ray. This is when the guys would spend a lot of time riding motorcycle. 

He recalled that late one night he was traveling home from La Crosse to Black River Falls and was running out of gas. All of the stations were closed. Those were the days of the old gas pumps. So he stopped at Melrose and took the hose off the pump and poured in what was left in the hose. He then stopped a few more places along the route, and emptied the hose into his tank at each place. He would have happily paid if the stations had been open. By the time he got home he had a half of a tank of fuel! 

Neil was sponsored to race for Harley-Davidson. He got a big kick out of talking about his crash through the firewall during a field meet on the Southside of La Crosse. 

That Fall he went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison but that Spring he quit college. He doesn’t remember why. Reflecting back he thought it might have been better had he gone to a two-year technical school to be a Tool & Dye Maker. 

Then Ray and Neil moved to Waukegan to work for Johns-Manville making floor tile. Ray wanted to be a carpenter and married the boss’ s daughter, Doris. 

So then Neil moved to La Crosse to work for Bill Borer Harley-Davidson on 3rd Street. The original shop opened in about 1929-1930. Bill had worked for a Harley-Davidson dealer who ended up in Texas with a fireworks factory. Bill bought the business so his brother, Les Borer would have work. Les was interested in Aviation, worked at the airport, and got hit in the head which blinded him. When World War II started another fellow worked for Bill who left for California because motorcycles were big out there. 

Then Bill was ordered into the Army to work on bikes during the war. His first job was to put a bike together that another Army guy had taken apart piece-by-piece and had left on the table. Bill was upset because he was forced to wash all of his tools and parts every day, and this made them rusty. 

In 1946 - back in La Crosse - Bill hired Chink Cleary. No one knows why he was called Chink. Bill also hired Vernon Gydol. Vern was a good, strong guy but didn’t tighten the nuts and bolts. So Bill hired Neil. 

In 1947 the 125cc Popper came out. The frame would break by the steering head. Neil’s first job was to take them apart and put on a better frame. He then put together new bikes. When they came in from Milwaukee they arrived in wooden crates made of the most perfect wood - not a knot in any of the boards. A hammer and crowbar was needed to take them apart. Now you just loosen a few screws and the whole crate falls apart. In 1948 came a new model, the “Pan Head”. His job was to take the motor apart and put in new piston rings. The oil had been set up to restrict the flow, so the cylinders and pistons were scored because they ran without enough oil. He did a conversion so the bike would run at low speeds as well as high speeds. 

By 1949 Hydra Glide they had corrected the defects, but leaked oil. The forks leaked. He made a vent cap for the purpose of altering the springs which were too weak. He spent a lot of time replacing springs and seals. 

It was in this year that he met Lorraine, and they were married in 1950. 

He needed us to know that the really good motorcycles were made in 1950, 1952, and 1953. 

But the motorcycle culture was being influenced in a negative way and he didn’t like the change - singing about black leather jackets, bell-bottom trousers and other nonsense, So he moved on and worked at Trane Company for two years. 

He built a home for his new family with help from his father and others (935 4th Avenue North, Onalaska). Life was always an adventure. He would do motorcycle stunts in the backyard such as building firewalls and brick walls to jump through on the motorcycle. He routinely did handstands on the top bar of the metal swing set. He was always working on vehicles. 

He went on to study Electronics via a correspondence course. If you take a look at his book shelf, the titles are: Qualitative Analysis, Television System Measurements, World of Astronomy, Navy Ships Radar Electronic Fundamentals, Aluminum Casting, Sheet and Plate Welding, Metal Finishing, Electronics Technician Manuals, Modern Machine Shop, Rocks and Minerals, Volkswagon-The Small Wonder, Concrete Pipe Installation. 

Then in 1962 he got two job offers on the same day. One was a job with the government working in radiation for $2.68 per hour. The other was at A.C. Electronics in Oak Creek, Wisconsin for $2.69 per hour. He accepted the position at A.C. because it was a penny more an hour. In those days, this was really big money. 

He had learned years later that an acquaintance had taken the other government job and died within a few years from complications due to working with radiation. 

About this time his father Harry passed away at age 67, and the last words that his father said to him were, “I had a good life”. 

To transition to the new job, Neil became a commuter for a short time going from La Crosse to the Milwaukee area and staying in a boarding house with the Lowden family. He found a very nice 3-acre property in Caledonia, Wisconsin, and the family moved to the other side of State. They met the neighbors when, one day looking out the window, they saw a hand come up out of the ditch. It was the neighbor boy picking asparagus by the side of the road. The neighbors turned out to be life-long friends Andy and Meta Lovrek. Andy played banjo. At that time Neil said he was not very good on the accordion but got better. Well, that was because there were garage dance parties going on all the time in Andy’s big garage with a variety of musicians such as friend Jack Bauer. When Frankie Yankovich would come to play in the area, Andy Lovrek was always invited up on stage to play with him. That was a very big deal. Neil was a huge fan of Frankie, and would say “I saw Frankie Yankovich in his prime.” 

He worked at A.C. for five years from 1962 to 1967. He was in charge, with a staff of 5 to 6 women inspecting transformers, resisters, relay components for the guidance system for the Apollo Space Program which was designed to land a man on the moon. Neil’s job was to “A Q L”. As these items came in, they were to check them for an Acceptable Quality Level. If 100 items came in, he pulled out 20. If there were no defects in those 20, all were accepted. He worked out all procedures for all transactions. 

He worked with Pat Motley who was the General Foreman for the receiving - inspection area. Bob Becker was a peer to Neil and is the legendary friend and electronic genius. Bob worked with different components and was then promoted to General Foreman on the Floor. Bob then quit and went to work for a manufacturing company, and later moved his young family to Australia.


Following is information from Bob Becker (of Australia) regarding his days working with Neil: 

In the 1960’s, Neil and I both worked on Apollo, Minuteman [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles], Polaris, and Carousel guidance systems. Neil was an expert on most of the componentry and could do some strange testing, sometimes accurate to less than 5 seconds of arc measurements (there are 360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes in a degree and 60 seconds in a minute). 

He also could work with Ernestine Fritag and Betty Hip (difficult women) so he usually got them as part of his team when they worked on the S.M.A.R.T. transistor checker in the parametric drift room. 

He also got quite a few "Employees suggestion plan" payoff's because he was always coming up with a multitude of suggestions on improving efficiency, equipment and/or quality. Bob Gruber (General Forman), and Pat Motley mentioned him in dispatches to The USAF and NASA so many times that I suspected he was working for the C.I.A. 

One strange incident comes to mind. We used to chemically strip the nylon/teflon insulation off the wires we used. The 'stripper' chemical came in 5 gallon drums. One day during morning break, Betty Hip decided to sit in one of these 1/2 full drums to drink her coffee. Unfortunately for her, she had on nylon panties and there was some small residual 'stripper' on lip of the drum. Neil discovered how to make girls undress in lightening time as the chemical got hot and started to remove her panties!


Neil was promoted to Supplier Products in 1964 working with suppliers defective products and made their corrections. This was officially was a “white shirt and tie salary” role. 

In about 1965 to 1966 Neil and Lorraine took a big trip together and traveled out to the Boston area. 

As A.C. Electronics’ role in the space program was winding down, Neil took a job at Kearney and Trecker Machinery in Milwaukee from 1967 to 1971 working in quality control on salary. 

He decided that he had enough of the big city life when it was near impossible for him to get to his job because of the race riots. Most of the roads in Milwaukee were shut down. He was traveling on the freeway sandwiched between two semi-trucks and decided that this was not a way to live. 

On a trip back to La Crosse to visit family and friends in 1971, he stopped in to visit Bill Borer at the Harley-Davidson dealership on 3rd Street. Bill told him that Del’s tavern next door was for sale. Delgrave had bought it from the original owner, and Neil was purchasing it from Delgrave. The family moved back to La Crosse. There are so many stories about Del’s Tavern and all the good times it is impossible to say it all here. 

In those days beer was 15 cents and 25 cents a glass. The bar chips were 25 cents, 35 cents, and fifty cents. In the “olden days” beer was 5 cents, and then was raised up to 10 cents. That was too big of a jump, so two-and-one-half cent chips were created to use as change, which made the cost of the glass of beer seven-and-one-half cents. 

The previous house (10414 Seven Mile Road) in Caledonia where they had lived for 9 years had originally been purchased for $14,500. Neil negotiated that the sale price include the tractor, and he felt he had gotten a bargain. He borrowed on the equity of that house to make a down payment to buy the tavern and make a down payment on the house in La Crosse at 11th & Vine Streets. The closing costs for the tavern were borrowed from Lenore. Things were a little rough to make payments on all of these properties at the same time, but the house in Caledonia quickly sold. 

After 3 years Del’s customers changed when the place was discovered by the college kids. He listed the business for sale and accepted the offer from Oscar Swennes. The tavern sold in July 1974. 

He then moved to Taylor and had cash to pay for the 39 acre home. November 1st he started rebuilding the house. Son Rick plowed the field and in the Spring they planted soybeans. 

In January 1975 Al Muth asked him to work part-time in putting together a few snowmobiles. This was the longest part time job he ever had, and he became busy fast. Mark was racing at that time. The employees were Ray Braaten, Neil, and Snicker who worked part-time. 

Also, the 39-acre residence in Taylor quickly became a well-used motocross track. Neil also became involved in the community. For one year was President of the local Lions Club. He played accordion in local polka bands, the most legendary being Sven’s Polka Buddies, playing often at Green Meadows Supper Club. 

1975-1976 completed course in trenching and excavating, plumbing code, blueprint reading, transit. 

June 2, 1976: He was First Aid certified at Eau Claire Technical Institute. 

In 1981 Neil went to Norway to visit family, traveling with brother Ray and his daughter Kaye. Then in 1982 the Norwegian family came here to visit. 

In 1985 - 1986 certified as a Journeyman Plumber: Restricted Sewer, Water Services, Underground Sanitary and Storm, Water Piping, Conversion, Underground piping, wet vent combinations. 

One trip he was very proud of was when he traveled west with Lorraine in Summer 1992. They took the 1984 Ford Ranger pick-up truck and put on about 6,000 to 8,000 miles, getting 24 miles per gallon. This is documented in the Owner’s Manual. They put an inflatable mattress in the back and slept 1 or 2 nights at a campground. A few nights they stayed at motels. They drove through the Dakotas by Sturgis, visited the Mormon Tabernacle Church for genealogy in Salt Lake City. They drove near the coast, stayed at sister Betty’s place in Bullhead, Arizona for a few nights, went through Needles, Arizona, followed the Rio Grande through Las Vegas - not bothering to stop there because they didn’t like it - and drove to Texas to visit daughter Karen and family. During this visit they attended a lakeside party where at the age of 67 Neil was doing back flips off the pier into the lake. They traveled home taking the side roads through Illinois. He heard an engine ticking noise. One piston was cracked. 

In 2004 Neil and daughter Lenore traveled to Australia to visit friends Bob and Judy Becker. Neil was 78 years old and traveled with the ease of a young man. During a day trip to the Antarctic Ocean he took of his shoes and socks and went wading in the water. He said he had always wanted to do that. 

In his senior years he spent about one-and-a-half years serving on the Federal Grand Jury in Madison. 

Up until the very last, Neil was employed at Al Muth Harley-Davidson as Senior Technician and Trainer. He deeply cherished his friendships with everyone at the Shop - staff and customers. The stories that the guys can tell are endless. Again, this was his part-time job that lasted over 30 years. Over the years, the races, hill climbs, and other events were always fun and exciting. No matter what was brought into the shop for repair, Neil could fix it. He restored most of the antique motorcycles on display at the dealership.


If we need one word to describe Neil it would be “duty”. He had the strongest sense of duty. Neil was involved in giving us our national freedom and putting astronauts on the moon. I think we can say in all humility he truly contributed to man-hood and that “he had a good life”. Thus goes a legend.


Did Neil have any vices? He lived life to the fullest in moderation. In his younger years he rolled his own cigarettes. He had an ongoing habit of chewing snuff. And in his semi-retirement years he would have one beer for breakfast.


One of the last things he was looking for was a photo his firewall crash taken during a field meet on the Southside of La Crosse. He thought maybe LeRoy or Don Humm had a copy. Butch and Rilla Manske went looking for it, and found it was on a home movie / video. In viewing it, all that can be seen is a big flash of fire.


Neil's Obituary: 

Neil O. Knudson 

TAYLOR — Neil O. Knudson, 82, passed away peacefully while under the care of Black River Hospice at his home in Taylor on Friday, Oct. 17, 2008, at 5:35 a.m. Neil was employed as a senior technician since 1975 at Al Muth Harley-Davidson in Black River Falls. 

Neil was born on the family farm, in the town of Irving, Jackson County, near Disco, on Dec. 20, 1925, to Harry and Ragnhild (Bakke) Knudson. 

He was confirmed at Squaw Creek Lutheran Church in 1940. He graduated from Black River Falls High School in 1943. 

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943, serving as an aviation radioman, third class. He was awarded “The Purple Heart” in a presentation directly to him from Admiral Nimitz. He helped save many lives during the USS Franklin Incident and for his efforts, he was a decorated hero. 

After his discharge in 1946, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

He married Lorraine Manske in La Crosse on June 24, 1950. 

He then worked in La Crosse at Bill Borer Harley-Davidson and at Trane Co. 

In the 1960s, he worked in quality control on the guidance systems at A.C. Electronics for the Apollo Space Program which was designed to land a man on the moon. 

He then moved on to another phase of his life, owning and operating Del’s Tavern in La Crosse. His accordion-playing kept the place a-hopping. 

After three years, he moved back to his home base in Jackson County. Al Muth recruited him to help in the Harley-Davidson Dealership. This was the longest part-time job Neil ever had. He worked there for 30 years. 

Neil was active in Black River Falls Model Airplane Flying Club. He was past president of Taylor Lions Club. 

Neil’s skills were far-reaching. He was an electrician, journeyman plumber, carpenter, draftsman and welder. He was extremely mechanically inclined. He could fix anything. 

He enjoyed traveling and visiting his family in Norway and his friends in Australia. 

Surviving are his wife of 58 years, Lorraine; three daughters, Lenore Knudson, La Crosse, Diane Zeiler, Black River Falls, and Karen (Doug) Martin, Phillips, Wis.; three sons, Randy, Ricky and Kevin Knudson, all of Madison; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and a sister, Betty (Bud) Ford, Bullhead City, Ariz. 

He was preceded in death by his parents and a brother, Ray. 

Neil was well-loved by family and friends. He will truly be missed. 

Memorial funeral services followed by military honors will be held at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26, at Torgerson’s Funeral Home, 408 N. Water St., Black River Falls. Relatives and friends may call from 1:30 p.m. Sunday until the time of services at the funeral home. 

Anyone who has information to add to this story - please let us know so that this piece of history can be documented.