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Korean War vet receives Purple Heart, POW medals 61 years later

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brandon Valle
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs
When walking through the Whispering Chase Retirement Home, you meet some very interesting people, each with a unique story to tell. One of the stories comes from a man named Paul Kniss.

At first sight, 86-year-old Kniss resembles Santa Claus and tells amazing stories and tales of days gone by. Between the stories of his life, Kniss joked and played, showing that regardless of age, people are never too old to be happy.

Kniss' story begins more than 70 years ago. Kniss came from a family deeply entrenched in the military. Each of his four brothers were enlisted in a branch of the military. Kniss decided to follow suit.

Kniss enlisted in the United States Navy in 1944, where he spent six years of his military career. He spent 16 months fighting in World War II in the South Pacific, during those years, where he earned eight Combat Stars.

He separated from the Navy after six years of service. Six months later, he became an enlisted Airman in the recently established United States Air Force.

Kniss was a flight instructor at Craig Air Force Base, Ala., and Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, where he taught on a number of aircraft, including the P-51 Mustang.

"One of my students was Jim Low," Kniss said. "He was famous back then as one of the first lieutenants to get an ace in combat. He also held the record for the most aces, nine in total, which he held for quite a long time."

After two years of being an instructor, Kniss received his orders to become a student in the flight school himself and become an officer in the Air Force.

"I always wanted to fly," he said. "It started when I was young. I continued to work hard until I became a pilot."

Kniss became a pilot on the P-51 Mustang. After his training, Kniss flew in the Korean War. After 29 successful missions, Kniss was shot down over Namsi, Korea, May 31, 1952.

"There was no ejection seat in a P-51," he said. "I remember standing up and looking at the ground and thinking 'that's a far way down.'"

After surviving the crash, Kniss was immediately captured by North Koreans and placed in solitary confinement. A year and a half later the war ended and with it, Kniss received his freedom and came home Sept. 6, 1953.

"Many prisoners of war did not make it home," he said. "So many lost their lives. I was glad to be able to return home."

Kniss recounted that 1,200 pilots in his unit were shot down during the war, and only 200 of them returned home at the end of the war.

"I get extremely emotional when I think about everything that happened," he said. "I don't talk much about my life in the military and what I went through. I can't help but cry when I remember the friends who I lost in the war."

Upon returning home, Kniss received a job as a public information officer where he arranged the funerals for people who had fallen during the war.

A year later, on Dec. 16, 1954, Kniss officially separated from the Air Force, just 16 days before he was to be promoted to Captain Jan. 1, 1955.

"To this day, I think more about my military life than anything else," he said. "It wasn't all sad. There were a lot of laughs with my unit. It was a great life and I really enjoyed it."

After his career in the military, Kniss refused to stay grounded. Instead of flying in combat, Kniss became a commercial pilot with United Airlines.

He stayed with United for many years, until he suffered a heart attack and was forced to leave his pilot days behind. Kniss retired to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he lived for 20 years before moving to Cheyenne, his wife's hometown.

After such a long life, Kniss now spends his days in the Whispering Chase Retirement Home. But his age has never slowed him down. Every year during the holidays, Kniss spends the time as "Santa" for the children of Cheyenne, spreading joy and smiles.

Sixty years being away from the military, Kniss was pulled back in for one last ceremony. On Dec. 6, 2013, Col. Tracey Hayes, 90th Missile Wing commander, presented Kniss with a Purple Heart and POW medal, officially recognizing Kniss for his devotion and commitment for his 10 years of service.

"Today, we have the privilege to honor a hero who has sacrificed so much," Hayes said during the ceremony. "The recognition for his actions is long overdue, but we have the opportunity to make it right by presenting these medals."