It was getting late in the day. First Lt. Leon Kneebone was getting concerned.
It was December 1944, and American forces had started the campaign to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation. The 11th Airborne Division, Kneebone’s unit, was on the island of Leyte and had been given the task of going through the dense vegetation and mountains in the center of the island.
Kneebone, then 24, was tasked to lead a patrol to scout a mountain to the front of his company. He thought the column was moving too slowly and he did not want to be in unfamiliar terrain when darkness fell.
To facilitate faster movement, he took the point position. About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, he stopped and knelt at the base of a tree to get his bearings and let the rest of the 60-man patrol close some distance in the thick jungle brush.
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He was not alone: Hidden in the foliage directly above was a Japanese sniper.
“He fired straight down at me,” said Kneebone, now 94. “Missed my head by 2 inches and the bullet went in my shoulder and out my elbow.”
The shot started a long journey back to the United States and to recovery. His journey to the Philippines began just a short distance from where Kneebone now lives at The Village at Penn State.
He came to Penn State in 1939 and joined the ROTC. After graduatingin 1942 with a degree in biological science, Kneebone went to Fort Benning, Ga., for officer candidate school.
He was then sent to North Carolina and assigned to the 11th Airborne Division. While there, Kneebone and the rest of the 11th underwent glider and parachute training, the beginning of yet another journey.
Another officer had a girlfriend who had a roommate, Kneebone said, and the officer had asked Kneebone for weeks to go on a blind date with the other girl. Kneebone declined, he said, until the other officer told him that the Penn State football team was going to be in Raleigh to play UNC.
The other officer suggested they go on a date before the game and if they hit it off, they could go together.
“Now that was an extra incentive,” Kneebone said, smiling.
Kneebone agreed. The girl’s name was named Elizabeth Morgan. They married in 1945, raised three children together and were married for 68 years.
In the 18 months leading up to deploying, Kneebone volunteered for specialized training. He became a jumpmaster, demolitions specialist and expert infantryman. The extra work was part of his leadership style, he said.
“I would never ask my men to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself,” he said. “It’s just the way I was raised.”
Kneebone and his unit next traveled to Louisiana for maneuvers in the swamps. They were confused as to why they were there, he said, but the swampy terrain should have served as an indicator of where they were headed. The 11th was the only Army airborne unit sent to the Pacific theater during World War II.
A stop in New Guinea was first for “the Angels,” as the 11th Airborne was nicknamed. Then came Leyte and the patrol.
After being shot, he dove for cover in underbrush. He remembers being shot again before ending up by a stream bed before passing out.
When he came to, he was at the company command post. A sergeant carried him back to the rest of his company, Kneebone said. The next day, 16 men working in shifts carried him on a litter back to the battalion command post for more treatment.
Other brushes with death occurred in quick succession. He was taken to a field hospital for surgery, he said. Japanese soldiers charged the position and were so close he could see their faces. Immobilized from the wound, there was nothing he could do, but American machine guns mowed them down before they could get to him.
It was then determined that he would need more medical attention than could be provided in the mountains. A pilot volunteered to fly the severely wounded to the beaches, where greater care could be administered. Kneebone was one of his passengers.
Years later, Kneebone learned that the pilot had been shot down the next day.
“That was three times in five days I nearly lost my life,” he said.
A pleasant surprise awaited Kneebone at the beaches, however. Ray Parsons, his childhood best friend from his hometown of Bangor, was a member of the medical unit that treated Kneebone. Parsons saw Kneebone’s name on a roster and had to see if it was the same man.
“He hurried over to my tent and it was the first time we saw each other in six years,” he said.
After that, he went to a hospital in Saipan before ending up in Hawaii, where he spent five months recuperating and was granted leave. He married Elizabeth and became an instructor at parachute school.
Kneebone left active service as a captain in 1946 and returned to Penn State for graduate studies. He eventually became a faculty member and stayed until retiring in 1978. He stayed in contact with several of the men he served with and hosted a few reunions in Happy Valley.
Looking back on his service time and injury today, Kneebone still ponders a question. He joked that he’d like to meet the Japanese sniper who wounded him and thank him for being a “lousy shot.”
After laughing a minute, Kneebone acknowledged his good fortune.
He was the first of many casualties on the mountain he’d been sent to reconnoiter — a mountain that would earn the grisly nickname “Purple Heart Hill.”
The unit later took heavy casualties on Luzon. There were seven officers in his company, he said. Four were killed in action; Kneebone and another nearly lost limbs. The only one not wounded contracted malaria.
There was a pause as Kneebone became emotional. He revisited the Phillippines twice since 1944 and recalled visiting the military cemetery there.
“I’ve knelt at their graves, the guys I knew so well,” he said. “You ask the question hundreds of times. ‘Why him and not me?’ ”