MURRAY — Noble Knight wants it known up front that he is not someone who should be remembered for his service during a war.
However, the war in which he did serve, he believes, is overlooked for its significance. Knight, who resides in Murray, was an airman first class for the still-new United States Air Force during the Korean War, which resulted in that nation being split into separate nations, North and South Korea.
Then southernmost of those nations was left a democracy, meaning its people were free to live as they chose, as opposed to North Korea, a totalitarian state run by dictatorships. That is still in place today with the unpredictable Kim Jong-un in control.
Knight chooses to think about how U.S. forces prevented the entire nation from that circumstance.
“They’re all good people I believe. Down deep, they are good people and they are smart,” said Knight, who will turn 90 in October. “These people in the north have been told the bad part, that everybody but them are thieves and no-good whatevers and they don’t believe more than what the man who’s telling them what to do.
“There’s a lot of educated Koreans and I didn’t know that when I was over there, but they have come over here, in some cases, and gone to different schools. Some have stayed and some have gone back home.”
Knight said there are two examples that show why this war was important. The first of these can be seen in a book titled “Korea Reborn: A Grateful Nation.” In fact, it is found on pages 11 and 12, where photographs show the South Korean city of Seoul in two photographs that flank each other.
One, in black and white, shows Seoul during the early 1950s as the war raged between troops from the U.S. and other nations seeking for Korea to be a democracy, and Communist forces bolstered by China. Seoul is desolate and war torn.
This is in sharp contrast to the color image on the next page, showing a portion of Seoul at night, vibrant with activity and modernized skyscrapers.
“We need to really think about this Korean War, even the Vietnamese War (that came several years later). They all tell us something we need to know,” Knight said, referring to the overall toughness of the people from these nations. “They’re determined. We, as Americans, are free and we just accept what we’ve got and don’t try to do something above what comes easy. They work at it. It’s different.
“They come here and look at what they do!”
Without the help the South Korean people received between the years 1949 and 1953, they probably would not have had the chance to use that determination as a free society who could travel to far-away lands to find success. That leads to the second impression for Knight, which, he said, was emphasized one day a few years ago in Murray.
“I went into (a restaurant) and found out the person who ran it was Korean. She was running the cash register and I went up there to pay and said (something in Korean). It was “Oh! Oh! Oh! How you speak Korean?’ I ended up saying a few things in Korean. I counted to one, she couldn’t believe it,” Knight said. “I never forget that.”
Knight said that he admits he had a rather easy time during the war. He was not on the front lines; he was in the officers’ club helping pilots and officers relax after engaging in their daily trials and tribulations with Soviet-made Mig fighters.
However, he said he did see the war.
“I’ve seen a lot of dogfights, for one who wasn’t a pilot,” he said of the many conversations he had with pilots, some of whom earned the title of ace (five or more enemy kills). “I never wanted to go up in the air. My tent was across from the airport and we would go over and watch them come in and land. Some of them were shot up and we’d also notice the ones that hadn’t come back.
“A lot of times the bullets would just go right through them, but if it didn’t hit the controls or the wings or anything, they’d be alright and could still fly.”
This was also a war where Knight learned that the world was actually pretty small, even though he was thousands of miles from Murray. At least three times, he met fellow Murrayans who were also serving in the military.
“I went to Camp Stoneman in California (on his way to Korea) and I was coming back to my bunk and met three officers, all second lieutenants, and I snapped a salute and they saluted me back. I turned to keep walking and I heard somebody yell, ‘Noble Knight!’ I stopped and turned around and it was Billy Payne Thurman (who had lived across the street from Knight’s family).
“He was a second lieutenant and that was a big deal. I didn’t see him anymore until we’d both gotten out and he told me he had been at Kempo (Air Base in Korea) and I told him that I was at Kempo and if he enjoyed any of that good whiskey and beer there, I probably was the one who brought it to him.”
Thurman flew F-86 Saber fighters in the war. Among his teammates was an ace named Lt. Jim Lowe, one of the Americans’ top pilots. Knight also recalled meeting another Murray neighbor as he departed the troop ship that had carried about 10,000 Air Force members from San Francisco to Tokyo, Bobby Joe Carson.
“He lived a block from me and he was the guy who, when I was driving a truck in the summer, my dad (Noble Sr.) had hired to go with me just so I would have somebody to ride with me. He gave him $1 a trip to go with me,” he recalled. “Here I was and I didn’t know he was in Japan. So I see him at the bottom of the gang plank and he didn’t have time to talk because he was getting everybody unloaded.”
Later, Carson was able to have a more friendly meeting with his neighbor. Later, Knight said his unit stayed one night on a deserted air base in southern Japan that had been used to house kamikaze pilots during World War II.
Knight served just shy of a year at Kempo, departing just before the truce to the end the war was signed in June 1953. That happened when Knight was aboard another troop transport headed back to the U.S. And while he had not himself experienced any of the rough memories of this war, such as the uncertainty of flying into Mig Alley or the deadly cold at the Chosin Reservoir, he said he had a full understanding of why Americans were there when he arrived at Seoul, and saw firsthand the image he described in the black-and-white photo of the book.
People were searching discarded American military cans that had contained imported food and were seeking whatever morsels they could find as the food supply had become nearly non-existent.
“It was so sad to see those little kids eating out of those cans. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was talking to a friend (in Murray) one day and this guy comes up to us and said, ‘I’d been hearing you guys talk about Korea,’ and he said he went back there every other year or so. He worked for the federal government. He said ‘you wouldn’t believe the difference in Korea now and when you guys were there.’