Flying with Grandpa: Family learns more about Marine's achievements during and after two wars
By KELLY MONITZ | Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa. | Published: December 4, 2017
HAZLETON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — The late Marine Corps Maj. Harry Glen Knickelbein had a wonderful life.
A Drums family recently got to learn more about their relative, who flew planes and helicopters in two wars, worked for commercial airlines, met and flew for celebrities, and continued to fly well into his golden years.
And it all started with a photograph at an air show.
Blaine Rampulla and his wife, Shannon, and children, Brayden, 13, and Shaylee, 10, attended the Northeastern Pennsylvania Air Show at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in Pittston Twp. in August.
A World War II Grumman TBM Avenger was on display. It’s the same plane that Shannon’s grandfather, Knickelbein, flew in the war. The family talked with the flight crew of the Capitol Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, which brought the plane, Doris Mae, to the show.
Shaylee pulled out a photograph of her great-grandfather in his Marine Corps uniform and showed it to the crew. The crew was astounded, because he flew in the same squadron that their plane was painted, Blaine Rampulla said.
They immediately invited the family to their home air show, the Culpeper Air Fest in Virginia, he said. Rampulla didn’t take it too seriously, as they talk to hundreds of people at these shows, but still gave them his contact information, he said.
A few weeks later, Rampulla got an invitation for the family to be the crew’s special VIP guests at their air show, Oct. 12 to 15.
Dr. Thomas Malone, who pilots the Avenger, flew his own plane into the Hazleton Regional Airport to pick up the family, and the crew arranged for them to have a rental car for four days, booked hotel rooms and took them to dinner.
“They were more than generous. They blew us away with their hospitality,” Rampulla said.
The family spent the next day at the air show practice, when the field wasn’t open to the public, he said. They got to talk to air show crew members one-on-one, access that most people don’t get, Rampulla said.
“We were getting their individual attention,” he said.
The family had unlimited access during the air show as well, Rampulla said.
“The kids spent a lot of time with the pilots and ground crews, and got extensive tours of their aircraft that was not offered to the general public,” he said.
They even got to meet a World War II veteran who was an Avenger crew member, Rampulla said.
“And we watched the air show,” he said.
The caveat was they wanted someone to talk about Knickelbein’s military career at a dinner attended by 250-plus pilots, ground crew and corporate sponsors. Rampulla said his wife didn’t want to speak publicly, so he took on the task, as well as researching Knickelbein’s life.
His wife’s family didn’t have a written family history going back hundreds of years, as his own family did. But he found recorded interviews and found pictures of Knickelbein in a Marine book and pieced together his military career, he said.
“He was a pretty neat guy,” Rampulla said. “I only got to meet him twice.”
Had he known about Grandpa Knickelbein’s extensive aviation career when he met him, Rampulla, an aviation buff, said he would have talked to him for days on end.
Knickelbein had a 55-year career flying various aircraft in World War II, the Korean War and for commercial airlines. He always wanted to fly, Rampulla said, and worked all one summer to save up for five hours of flying lessons.
Knickelbein wanted to follow his older brother into the Army Air Corps, but a timed test in a room without a clock was his demise. He spent his money on flying lessons, not a watch, Rampulla noted.
Knickelbein went down the street to a Navy recruiting office and they signed him right up with five hours experience in the air. After earning his wings, he began having second thoughts about landing on carriers and transferred to the Marine Corps, where he was promised to fly fighters.
It didn’t happen. The Marines, yes. The fighters, no.
Instead, Knickelbein was assigned to the VMTB-143, known as the “Devil Dog Avengers,” a Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber squadron, on a small escort carrier, which was half the size of a normal fleet carrier which he had worried about landing on, Rampulla said.
After a couple take-offs and landings, he got it.
“He was quite a pilot,” Rampulla said.
He researched Knickelbein and the squadron for just over a month. On the day of his talk, he found another interesting nugget — the squadron changed its logo while still in combat, a move that rarely happened, he said.
Flash Gordon comic strip creator Alex Raymond, who was a Marine on their carrier and an honorary member of the squad, redesigned the logo and renamed the squad “Rocket Raiders,” Rampulla said.
Knickelbein was wearing the Devil Dog Avengers patch in the photo that Shaylee showed Malone at the air show in Avoca that led to the invitation to the Virginia air show, Rampulla said.
The family is thankful to the folks at the Capitol Wing of the Commemorative Air Force for the opportunity to learn more about what they do and more about Grandpa Knickelbein, Rampulla said.
“They told us that they were honored to have descendants of a pilot that flew in that squadron,” he said. “And they liked the kids. They wanted to get children excited about aviation.”
They also asked the family for photographs of Knickelbein to display with the plane.
“They’re just good people,” Rampulla said.
He said no one would know about Knickelbein or his service because the squad didn’t have any famous missions or notoriety.
But Knickelbein knew a few famous people in his post-military career.
Among them were Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr., John Denver, whose father was a pilot, and Cary Grant. Knickelbein was working for Qualitron Aero, which was located in General Aircraft Terminal in Burbank, California, where business jets would pick up celebrities.
Grant even asked Knickelbein to co-pilot his plane, which Qualitron had modified for him, and they flew to Las Vegas, where Grant put him up in one of the casinos and gave him money to gamble.
Knickelbein also met Jimmy Stewart, who was also a pilot, and they talked about work that needed to be done on his plane.
Not all of the people with whom Knickelbein served were touched by fame.
“They were regular guys doing what they had to do,” Rampulla said.
Most squadron members would be in their mid-90s today.
“Their stories are being lost,” Rampulla said.
But Knickelbein’s lives on — thanks to a 10-year-old and a picture at an air show.
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