World War II paratrooper with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star talks about the war

Chris Koleno
November 14, 2019

This is the final story of a three-part series profiling a few World War II veterans who graduated from Penn State.

On Dec. 4, 1944, in the jungles of the Philippines during World War II, Penn State alumnus Leon Kneebone, now age 99, found himself leading a platoon of 50 to 60 men on a scouting mission to help locate the Japanese position. With two of these soldiers working as scouts, picking their way through the terrain on the island of Leyte, the group moved very slowly up a hill, surveying their surroundings for any possible signs of the enemy.

Kneebone -- who grew up poor, working for 25 cents per hour for two years before college and then working his way through college -- was now a qualified parachutist and jumpmaster with 29 jumps to his credit. He already had one Penn State degree (1942) under his belt, and he had been commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant after serving in advanced ROTC while in college, eventually training in New Guinea for six months in preparation for this jungle combat. Nothing, however, could completely prepare him for the harsh realities of war.

World War II veteran holding a gun

World War II veteran Leon Kneebone, shown during training exercises in New Guinea in June of 1944, was commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant after serving in advanced ROTC while at Penn State. Kneebone survived three near-death experiences during his military service.

IMAGE: Provided

As the group of soldiers held a slow pace through the jungle, now 1st Lt. Kneebone, serving with the Army’s 11th Airborne Division, became concerned about the possibility of nightfall before the mission would be complete and, out of fear for the safety of the group under his care, he took action to speed up the pace and, in the process, put himself in harm’s way.

“At the rate we were going, I figured that our two scouts were moving a little too slowly, said Kneebone. “We would not get back to company headquarters before dark. So, I did what you’re not supposed to do, I volunteered to lead, and I got up ahead of the two scouts.”

Sniper in a tree

A short time later, unbeknownst to the group, at least one enemy sniper had become aware of their presence in the area and Kneebone was literally in his sights.

“I have often thought, night after night for 50 years or more; I have asked myself -- I have trouble going to sleep -- and I have asked myself: How is it that I got out alive and Sgt. Neusome, who was 20 or 25 yards away from me, didn’t make it?”

-- World War II veteran Leon Kneebone, professor emeritus of botany and plant pathology at Penn State

“I knelt at the base of the tree two-thirds of the way up the mountain (later known as Purple Heart Hill) and he (the sniper) was in the tree above me,” said Kneebone. “If I would have looked up, I would not have seen him. He was completely covered with branches. He fired straight down at me.”

The sniper’s bullet connected with Kneebone’s shoulder, missing his head by 2 inches, and a firestorm of enemy artillery subsequently began to rain down on the scouting mission.

“I dove for the underbrush, my arm was useless to me because I had been shot in the shoulder, said Kneebone. “I wiggled my way down the hill, meantime they were firing additional shots at me, but I was not hit again. I got down to the bottom of the hill and there’s a swift mountain stream and a very big stone and I hid behind that stone, and that’s when I passed out from loss of blood and pain. And one of my wonderful sergeants picked me up and put me over his shoulders and carried back to company.”

During this enemy action two soldiers from Kneebone’s platoon were killed – Sgt. Elvey Neusome and another man.

“The next morning I was operated on in a cornfield in a tent,” said Kneebone.

Field operating room

Photo shows actual field operating room, which was constructed in a cornfield, used to operate on World War II veteran Leon Kneebone after he was shot in the shoulder. The bullet missed Kneebone's head by two inches. 

IMAGE: Provided

Faces of the enemy

On the third morning, the Japanese followed their pattern of attacking at sunrise.

“And so they came within 10 or 15 feet of my cot,” said Kneebone. “I could see their faces coming through the brush, but Sgt. Welc’s machine guns cut them down. They didn’t get to me.”

“That was the second time in those two days that I nearly lost my life,“ he said.

Flown to safety

“And two days later, it came my turn to be flown from up in the mountains down to the beach," Kneebone said. “The pilot was flying a little L-5 Stinson plane, bumping through the cornfield and just clearing the trees. He flew me down to the beach from up in the mountains, because I weighed less than 150 pounds.”

Two soldiers in a tent

Lieutenant Lanier, right, works with another soldier to load up his plane. Lt. Lanier, flew Lt. Leon Kneebone, Penn State alumnus, to safety during World War II. The next day Lt. Lanier would be shot down and his body was never recovered.

IMAGE: Provided

The plane carrying Kneebone landed and he was now out of the heart of the fighting thanks to Lt. Lanier, the pilot of the aircraft.

“The next day the same pilot -- flying another trip up to the mountain, flying another injured person down to the beach -- was shot down and his body was never recovered,” Kneebone recounted.

“So, that made three times in less than a week that I nearly lost my life,” he said. “I was very, very fortunate.“

Kneebone would undergo four separate surgeries and spend five months in a hospital in Saipan and Hawaii recovering from his injuries, but his thoughts turned to his fiancée, Elizabeth Morgan, and whether his leave for the injury he suffered would extend long enough for him to attend her college graduation. Kneebone was able to attend the graduation after conveying his concerns on to an assigning officer, who literally put him on a slow boat home.

Married couple

Leon Kneebone poses with his wife Elizabeth after he returns from combat during World War II and before he is discharged from the military. 

IMAGE: Provided

The couple was married on May 5, 1945, and later had three children – Patricia, Steve and Eileen.

While awaiting reassignment back to his original unit, which would place him back in the middle of the fighting, Harry S. Truman had become president of the United States.

“One of the first things he (Truman) did was sign a proclamation which said that anyone who had been injured in combat overseas would not need to go back over (and serve),” said Kneebone.

Truman’s action related to the war’s injured veterans marked the end of Kneebone’s involvement in World War II.

Completing his military career in the United States, Kneebone served six months at Fort Benning, Georgia, in a parachute school, and then was reassigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before being honorably discharged from the 82nd Airborne Division in 1946 as a captain.

Years after that fateful day in the jungles of the Philippines, Kneebone is still very emotional when he thinks about the death of one of his sergeants.

“I knew him for two years. He was a big kid from Texas. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. We thought the world of Sgt. Neusome. I have often thought, night after night for 50 years or more; I have asked myself -- I have trouble going to sleep -- and I have asked myself: How is it that I got out alive and Sgt. Neusome, who was 20 or 25 yards away from me, didn’t make it?”

Man at grave in front of cross

Many years after Sergeant Elvey Neusome's death during World War II, Leon Kneebone went to visit his grave at a cemetery on Fort William McKinley, south of Manila, Philippines. Kneebone visited seven graves from Company F during his trip. 

IMAGE: Provided

Kneebone, who according to his daughter never spoke about the war while his wife of 68 years was alive, went on to reflect about what Neusome had meant to him and broke down as he recalled the details of that day nearly 75 years ago in the jungle on an island in the Philippines.

“You don’t have favorites, but Sgt. Neusome was one of my favorites,” he said. “He was a wonderful, wonderful soldier, and he died that night from shrapnel in the tree above us. The mortar shell burst in the trees overhead and a part of the shrapnel hit Neusome in the head and he died that night. I know that because Sgt. Shearer, one of my really good sergeants, was holding Sgt. Neusome in his arms and he died.”

Kneebone, professor emeritus of botany and plant pathology at Penn State, would go on to become one of the top mushroom experts in the world, serving as the first director of the Mushroom Research Center at Penn State after earning his bachelor’s degree in nature education and his doctorate in botany, both from Penn State. And later was elected president of the International Commission on Mushroom Science with headquarters in the Netherlands.

As Kneebone ended his conversation about his time in the military, he reflected on Neusome’s death as a microcosm of the many lives lost during World War II.

“As is true, for tens of thousands of guys and girls who didn’t make it,” he said.

Previous World War II stories:

-- World War II pilot discusses his 69 missions flying C-54s over 'The Hump'

-- World War II B-29 navigator talks about his role in the Pacific

Penn State has a longstanding and proud tradition of serving the men and women of our military through education benefits, resources, support and more. This year's Military Appreciation Week from Nov. 8 to 16 honored America's "Greatest Generation" with a weeklong series of campus events, including a football game, Veterans Day ceremony, speaker series and more. Visit militaryappreciation.psu.edu to learn more. 

 

 

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Last Updated November 14, 2019