Honoring Veterans: A War Story

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

Names on a list. They were just names on military lists and then, later, they were names on golf leaderboards.

Mangrum, Lloyd. Staff sergeant, Patton’s Third Army. Battle of the Bulge, Omaha Beach on D-Day. Four battle stars. Two Purple Hearts. U.S. Open champion, 1946.

Burkemo, Walter. Infantry sergeant, U.S. Army. Battle of the Bulge. Two purple hearts. PGA champion, 1953. U.S. Ryder Cup team, 1953.

Kroll, Ted. U.S. Army, World War II. Three purple hearts. Won eight times on PGA Tour, three in 1956. Leading money winner, 1956.

 burkemo
Walter Burkemo, who won the 1953 PGA Championship, was awarded two purple hearts. (USGA Museum)

Dettweiler, Helen. Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). One of 17 women pilots who ferried the B-17 bombers, the famous “Flying Fortresses,” to Europe. Founding Member of the LPGA. 

Burkemo, Kroll and Mangrum were among 350 PGA members who served during World War II, some of whom endured action on the bloodiest fronts. Others served in later wars. Larry Nelson (Vietnam) comes to mind. Dettweiler and Patty Berg, a Marine recruiter, helped pave the way for women in the military.

There was also Knapp, Tom. Private First Class, U.S. Army. Infantry. Vietnam.

Knapp was a golfer with a powerful game. He wanted to be a professional. At 18, he got a job at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., wrestling golf bags, picking up the range. A fine-looking man with an ebullient outlook, he won a job as assistant pro to professional Bill Ventresca at Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, Ill.

“My job here is terrific,” Knapp wrote from Rolling Green to friends. “The club has just been remodeled and is really beautiful…we’re closed in January and February, so we’re going do a lot of work on the members’ clubs, change the shop around and do a lot of cleaning up.”

Knapp was one of 11 children. He was one of those fresh-faced American men with boyish features who had a wonderful future, a hard worker with a “can-do” spirit. Rolling Green members were fond of him. Then, in 1966, he was drafted. The draft and, later, the draft lottery, hung over the head of every young, healthy American male, interrupting lives and breaking up families. Some who were drafted fled to Canada. Most acquiesced, but they knew where they were headed.

After a stint at Fort Leonard Wood, U.S. Army Private First Class Thomas L. Knapp, infantry, would become part of the burgeoning forces in Vietnam.

“I’m glad I’ve learned to shoot straight,” he wrote from Leonard Wood, “I’m going to need it.”

Knapp went over in October, 1966 for a 12-month tour of duty. He celebrated his 20th birthday with his buddies in The Rattlers. He was still just a boy, really. Like all of them.

Ron Seabolt, one of Knapp’s friends, wrote of Firebird and Rattler action: “Hundreds of men served 12-month tours, participating in some of the fiercest combat ever entertained by American forces. A large percentage of their flight crews were injured, 55 were killed, and three became prisoners of war … these men lived in constant danger, effectively on the front line for the entire 12-month tour. Their casualty rates were four times that of the average for European Theater combat units for World War II.”

Seabolt wrote a book, he said, “to dispel the bogus image of the whacked out, drugged up veterans of Nam. The Americans who served with the Rattlers and Firebirds were valiant, courageous, and honorable.”

Knapp was on the Rattler One Zero helicopter. On the night of June 18, 1967, Rattler One Zero accompanied two gunships trying to locate a missing chopper, illuminating flares. At 700 feet, Knapp’s pilot pulled back violently on the stick and the chopper went straight up as an F-4 Phantom streaked beneath them, just 10 hair-raising feet away.

“Did you see that?” yelled the commander.

“See it?” yelled Knapp, “I could count the rivets on that son-of-a-gun!”

That evening, Knapp had loaded flares onto the chopper, 3-foot-long canisters, 6-inches in diameter with a two-stage firing system. Knapp thought the wires hanging from the canisters could be a problem, so he took along a pair of wire cutters.

In that night’s operation, Knapp would pull the pin on the flare and a fellow soldier would toss it out the cargo door as the attached cable jerked free. A small parachute inflated and, 10 seconds later, the flare  ignited with one-million candle watts of burning magnesium. One flare at a thousand feet would light up a 3-square mile valley.

On the mission, the gunships were engaged in a fire fight with Viet Cong. Tracer bullets and rockets lit up the sky. Knapp and his crew kept chucking flares out the chopper door. Suddenly, a parachute inflated inside his ship and Knapp knew a flare was going off in the chopper. He and his buddy shoved the remaining flares out the door and tried to release the wire tying the flares to the chopper, but the wires were entangled in the parachute. The lit flare dangled from the chopper skid, swinging back and forth within a few feet of the fuel tank. If the flare touched the tank, it would explode.

Knapp grabbed the wire cutters as the captain radioed, “Firebird Nine Five, this is Rattler One Zero on fire going down!”

Knapp hung out the cargo door, holding on to the skid with one hand, wire cutters in the other hand, his foot hooked around a small bar in the ship. “It was like when you were a kid,” he said, “and you hung from a jungle gym without holding on.”

They were descending so fast that Knapp couldn’t cut all 36 wires from the chopper. He would have to let go of the skid and hang by his foot to save the ship and the crew. Dangling from the descending chopper, he hacked at the wires. Only the air flow kept the flames from his face. After nearly dropping the cutters, he finally sliced the wires just as the chopper was 500 feet from the ground. The pilot quickly ascended out of increasing Viet Cong gunfire, with Knapp dangling outside the chopper. Seabolt was able to grab him by the belt and pull him aboard.

Knapp was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross: “For heroism while participating in aerial flight as evidenced by voluntary action above and beyond the call of duty…Specialist Knapp’s heroic action and determined effort in the face of great personal danger were in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, the American Division and the United States Army.”

He was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor after being shot down in Operation Junction City, and he received a Purple Heart and two Air Medals for Valor. Discharged in April 1968, Knapp went home to Florida.

He went to college on a soccer scholarship, kept playing golf. He had wanted to be a club pro, but he had that wonderful and powerful game. He got his amateur status back and played in a number of USGA championships. Knapp won the Florida Amateur in 1983 and ’84, and then secured victories in the Florida Mid-Amateur in 1987 and ’90. He turned pro again and made several close runs at qualifying for the PGA Tour and Champions Tour.

Knapp and his wife, Kathy Peterson, live in Tequesta, Fla. He has four children and four grandchildren. He owns an estate planning, insurance and annuity business in South Florida. He’s 63 now. Knapp still plays golf, still works hard, and suffers from battle fatigue. “It’s alright most of the time,” he said. “As long as I can have the television set on all night.”

Like millions of others, he served his country. Entire generations have gone to war and in the line of duty they have seen things that no one would ever want to see. They fought for us. They’re all heroes. Some of them play golf.

Knapp, Tom. U.S. Army. Vietnam. Golfer. Hero. Those who know him expected nothing less.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of Communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org.

 

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