LOREN J. KNEPP
Sergeant First Class | Infantry
Winter in Japan was frigid, especially Northern Honshu where snow typically fell heavily and temperatures dropped to freezing. The training there was well worth it, Loren guessed, when he disembarked at Inchon and felt the biting cold of a dry Korean winter. Thermometers read fifteen below zero. He arrived with the first echelon of the 40th Division, slated to replace the tired regiments of the 24th Division on the MLR. Eight days later, on January 19, his 160th Infantry replaced the 19th Infantry. Some of the men with low points stayed and were laterally transferred to the units of the 40th Division that replaced them. Others with around a year in combat left, shook hands, bid good luck, teased those who they felt guilty to leave, and looking forward to returning home or to Japan or anywhere that was away from Korea.
The trails of men vacating their posts wore uniforms that had faded to shades of sage, becoming thin in places from prolonged wear, snagged on barbed wire, and greasy on the cuffs and collars. Despite training for the better part of a year, the dark olive clothing of the replacements still had a sateen sheen and creases from garrison duty.
Hardly any time passed from their transition when an order came from Division for the first patrol. The responsibility fell to A Company, and Sergeant Loren Knepp’s squad. With nervous excitement, they prepared their weapons and gear with great care. They were confident in the motions, having trained for months in every conceivable tactical movement, but knowing they were on the verge of embarking into the fabled no-man’s land left the men quietly fidgeting with their kits.
A sinking sun cast pale rays across the valley, stretching the remains of willowy trees into thin shadows. It was near 3:00 pm when Knepp and his squad began climbing the low ridge 1200 yards from their bunkers on the other side of the valley. The only interruption on the trek was when the sniper, Pete Romas, had to retire from the mission after getting an awful cramp in his leg. He would try to work it out before the rest of the squad returned.
Part way up the ridge, the squad ducked simultaneously at the sound of a single rifle shot and were beyond startled when a body tumbled down the steep slope toward them. Without time to process what had happened, they were pinned down and shooting back at an enemy that had been lying in wait.
The squad was engaged for a full thirty minutes by the time Loren gave the order to withdraw. Their ammunition was dwindling, the Chinese were not letting up, and it would be dark soon. Loren barked the order again over the racket of machine gun and rifle fire and turned his back to keep up rifle fire to cover ther withdrawal until the squad reached safety. With some reluctance, they left their leader alone to fend off the band of Chinese while they navigated down the hard slope into the valley.
One enemy soldier crept within ten yards of Knepp’s position when he jumped up to fire at him, hitting him in the leg. Without any hesitation, Loren squeezed a burst off and killed him before feeling any pain from the bullet that had plunged into his right thigh. Limited to crawling around, he was vehement about not getting anyone else wounded or killed at his expense and when he saw a member of the patrol that had been cut off, he directed the others in order for the stranded soldier to find his way back to his buddies.
Just as Loren was adamant about seeing his men get out unharmed, the aidman on the patrol, David Oliveria, stubbornly refused to leave his squad leader behind. Sergeant Bob O’Connor blew threw some of the last of his ammo as Oliveria ducked over to the squad leader’s hiding spot. He quickly assessed his wound and with great effort, half carried, half dragged Loren down the ridge – the wounded Sergeant’s six-foot frame and solid build not lending to the task.
He did this for a full 125 yards until they reached relative safety and regrouped with Pete Romas, whom they learned had fired the first shot that killed the first Chinese in the ambush party. The distance between him and the patrol voided his hollering, so he pulled the trigger. His cramp, it seemed, was a blessing, and the squad credited him with stopping the ambush before they had fallen into the trap. They recognized Sergeant Knepp for keeping them alive once the bullets started flying.
In only one day – only a few hours on the front lines, Loren was already leaving. After all those months of training and he had not lasted through the first day. He might have been a bit embarrassed, but no one was disappointed. In fact, they were proud of their sergeant and happy to have made it alive back to their lines.
It took forty-four days in the hospital before Loren could return to A Company where he found things much the same as he left them, though the men seemed more comfortable in their new homes. At the end of January he was promoted to Sergeant First Class, and returning to the company as a platoon sergeant felt like another new responsibility he was not quite prepared for, much like the first patrol he led.
He became the subject of some attention during the month he was gone, and the company greeted him excitedly referencing the articles they read about him in Stars and Stripes. Rumors circulated that he would be decorated with a Silver Star, but as the orders came down from Division, he was presented with the Bronze Star for Valor alongside Corporal Oliveria, who he felt deserved it much more for carrying him down that ridge, especially because he knew the medic was terrified and had mustered true courage. They both insisted that they were just doing the right thing and did not need the recognition.
Knepp on right, with cigarette, leaning against wall.
(1) "Hoosier Is Cited with the U.S. 40th Division." Valparaiso Vidette Messenger[Valparaiso] 5 Feb. 1952: 2. Print.
(2) Cpl. Cord, Walter. "Sunburst Corporal Fires M-1, Kills Red, Records 40th First." Stars & Stripes 5 Feb. 1952, Pacific ed.: 14. Print.
(3) "Sniper Saves 40th Patrol." Stars & Stripes 5 Feb. 1952, Pacific Edition ed.: 14. Print.
(4) "40th Gives First Medal" Stars & Stripes 13 Mar. 1952, Pacific Edition ed.: 12. Print.