Half a world away from the attack on Kwajalein on February 1, 1944 where Marines Richard B. Anderson and John V. Power were distinguishing themselves above and beyond the courage and fighting spirit otherwise expected of warriors, Americans were also locked in combat with our Nazi enemies in Italy.
Alton W. Knappenberger was born on December 31, 1923 in Cooperstown, Pennsylvania. He left school after the fifth grade, and worked in a variety of farming jobs until he was drafted into the United States Army when he was 19 on March 4, 1943.
As he was growing up, Knappenberger honed his skills as a marksman by hunting for food to help feed his family. His keen aim and skill would serve him well in combat.
Knappenberger was posted as a replacement with the 30th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. His first combat action was Operation SHINGLE, the landing in Italy at Anzio on January 22, 1944.
For two hours on February 1, 1944, just his eleventh day in combat, Knappenberger relentlessly poured fire at counter-attacking Germans during the Battle of Cisterna with his M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle. His accurate shots knocked out multiple enemy machine guns and other weapons. When he ran out of ammunition, he gathered more and also used the weapons of fallen comrades around him. His solo stand turned the tide of the battle, and eventually saw him decorated with the Medal of Honor.
From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):
KNAPPENBERGER, ALTON W.
Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, 3d Infantry Division
Place and date: Near Cisterna di Littoria, Italy, 1 February 1944
Entered service at: Spring Mount, Pa.
G.O. No.: 41, 26 May 1944
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action involving actual conflict with the enemy, on 1 February 1944 near Cisterna di Littoria, Italy. When a heavy German counterattack was launched against his battalion, Pfc. Knappenberger crawled to an exposed knoll and went into position with his automatic rifle. An enemy machinegun 85 yards away opened fire, and bullets struck within 6 inches of him. Rising to a kneeling position, Pfc. Knappenberger opened fire on the hostile crew, knocked out the gun, killed 2 members of the crew, and wounded the third. While he fired at this hostile position, 2 Germans crawled to a point within 20 yards of the knoll and threw potato-masher grenades at him, but Pfc. Knappenberger killed them both with 1 burst from his automatic rifle. Later, a second machine gun opened fire upon his exposed position from a distance of 100 yards, and this weapon also was silenced by his well-aimed shots. Shortly thereafter, an enemy 20mm. antiaircraft gun directed fire at him, and again Pfc. Knappenberger returned fire to wound 1 member of the hostile crew. Under tank and artillery shellfire, with shells bursting within 15 yards of him, he held his precarious position and fired at all enemy infantrymen armed with machine pistols and machine guns which he could locate. When his ammunition supply became exhausted, he crawled 15 yards forward through steady machinegun fire, removed rifle clips from the belt of a casualty, returned to his position and resumed firing to repel an assaulting German platoon armed with automatic weapons. Finally, his ammunition supply being completely exhausted, he rejoined his company. Pfc. Knappenberger’s intrepid action disrupted the enemy attack for over 2 hours.
PFC Knappenberger came through the battle unharmed. February 1 was actually his last day of fighting, as the Army decided to evacuate him and use him domestically as a war hero on tour for morale building or in other mundane, stateside jobs that he wound up resenting.
The same day Knappenberger and his BAR broke up the Nazi attack at Cisterna, the Army and Marines stormed Kwajalein in the Pacific. Two Marines, PFC Richard B. Anderson and 1stLt John V. Power, earned the Medal themselves.
After being discharged from the Army, Knappenberger returned to farming and also later worked for a paving company. He died at age 84 on June 9, 2008 after previously having survived five heart attacks and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
The 1st Battalion of the 30th Infantry is a present component of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia. The 2nd Battalion of the regiment is part of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York.