Among the many things the holiday season inspires is the opportunity to count our blessings.
Bobby Knaus counts his merely by reflecting where he was a year ago in setting, spirit, strength, and soundness.
“I spent last Christmas alone,” the 91-year-old Korean War veteran said. “I was living in a mobile home, (in) failing health, no family or friends.”
A caregiver spent a few hours with him each week, but he needed more help and, equally important, kinship. He yearned to be among those he could relate to, who also had served and fought for freedom. He needed to connect and to be connected.
“My wish was to spend my final days around veterans, get the health and services to live my life out without physical and emotional pain,” Knaus said. “I really wanted to be around my fellow veterans and people that care.”
It turns out that wishes can come true and his certainly did last July 15, when he moved into the Veterans Home of California-Ventura. Indeed, he’ll tell you he is now in a great place, both in life and location.
“I love it here,” Knaus said. “This is my home. Being around fellow veterans and the care I receive from the staff have changed both my physical and mental status. I have gained 22 pounds. I am active again and participate in home activities. I don’t eat my meals alone, and I am surrounded by my fellow veterans that are not only friends, but now family.”
“Bobby Knaus exemplifies why the Veterans Homes of California exist and have for the past 137 years,” said Coby Petersen, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Homes. CalVet owns and operates the Ventura Home and seven others throughout the state. “Just as he feels blessed to be there, we are blessed to make such a difference in his life – to see him among friends, his spirits soaring, and his health improving. This is our passion and our mission for Bobby – for all of the other veterans in our Homes as well.”
That Knaus survived his two major duties in the military to make it to age 91 and the Ventura Home is truly a blessing in its own right.
Born and raised in Kansas, he left school after his freshman year of high school. A few years later as a 17-year-old in 1947, he enlisted in the Army and finished high school through the Armed Forces Institute.
In 1948, Knaus found himself on Okinawa serving with the 8115th Service Detachment. One of the bloodiest battles of World War II, the fighting on Okinawa in 1945 lasted from April 1 until June 22 that year and was the last major battle of the war. Two months after it ended, the Allies dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, compelling Japan’s surrender. The 8115th went in after the war to defuse and remove bombs, shells, rockets and other ordnance – both Allied and Japanese – that failed to explode during the fighting. They loaded it onto ships, sailed them out more than 12 miles from shore, and detonated the ships, sending them to the bottom of the East China Sea.
During a 2017 oral history interview, Knaus said that his detachment alone loaded and destroyed as many as 25 of those ships. It was a dangerous assignment that claimed the life of one soldier and wounded many more. When that duty ended, he went to Japan until October 1949 before returning to the United States.
Just as Knaus was about to end his enlistment in 1950, the Korean War began. President Truman nixed all discharges. Then, Knaus’ initial orders to join an engineering unit to build bridges suddenly changed. He became part of the 2nd Infantry Division, 9th Regiment, joining 30,000 other U.S. soldiers during the invasion of Pusan, South Korea. He fought in several battles throughout the war – fighting the force of 50,000 Chinese communists in the winter 1950 to 1951 – and earned three Bronze Stars.
So bitter was the fighting that he and others had to repel an attack by North Koreans on the airfield before Knaus could board a plane to Japan for a couple of long-overdue and well-deserved days of rest and recuperation.
“We carried our weapons everywhere,” Knaus said. “When we went to the bathroom, or went to sleep; we carried them everywhere – on board all the way to Japan.”
He fought battles during the bitterly cold Korean winters. Knaus suffered one minor shrapnel wound, but otherwise made it out of the war unscathed. He remained in the Army until 1955, his final assignment being as an instructor to the Japanese Army.
Knaus returned home to Kansas but quickly headed west and eventually to California. He worked up and down the state in food service jobs before joining the staff of Bakersfield’s Housing Authority, retiring at age 75 in 2005. While he never married, he helped a woman companion of 38 years raise her four children.
His health on the decline, Knaus in 2015 moved with a caregiver to Lompoc, where he found great joy and companionship in a church group. Over time, however, he found himself in yet another war: a war of attrition.
“Sometimes I wonder why the Lord has let me live this long,” Knaus said in the oral history interview. “My family is gone. My friends are gone. … He must have one more job for me.”
Or perhaps a blessing, which happened last summer when he came to the Ventura Veterans Home.
“Bobby is an exceptional resident,” Administrator Julian Bond said. “He has a fighting spirit and has fond memories of his service during the Korean War. He loves being in the Ventura Veterans Home and being surrounded by his fellow veterans.”
Christmas 2021 will be far superior to last year’s, Knaus said. He loves the decorations, and enjoyed holiday music by an Air Force band at the home earlier in the month. A traditional dinner and goodies, too.
“I am truly a blessed man to go from a sad Christmas to a happy and festive Christmas,” he said. “Most importantly, I get to enjoy it with my fellow veterans, caring staff, and wonderful volunteers.”
Home for the holidays and beyond.