Alton W. Knappenberger, 84; Won Medal of Honor

Alton W. Knappenberger, shown with hs mother, was called "one-man army" for holding off German forces in a battle near Rome during World War II.
Alton W. Knappenberger, shown with hs mother, was called "one-man army" for holding off German forces in a battle near Rome during World War II. (Courtesy Of R.l.williams Funeral Home)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008

Alton W. Knappenberger, 84, a Pennsylvania farm laborer who received the Medal of Honor after using his exceptional marksmanship to hold off two German infantry companies near Rome during World War II, died June 9 at Pottstown, Pa., Memorial Medical Center. He had five heart attacks during the past 30 years.

Mr. Knappenberger single-handedly disrupted a German attack Feb. 1, 1944, near Cisterna di Littoria, a market town with a medieval castle about 30 miles from enemy-held Rome. Armed with a Browning Automatic Rifle, Mr. Knappenberger was credited with killing 60 German soldiers during a two-hour span that day.

An American general called him a "one-man army."

His handiness with a gun won him the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, but he dismissed the publicity that came with the decoration as "the worst darn ordeal" of the war.

Mr. Knappenberger, who had a fifth-grade education, honed his riflery skills in rural eastern Pennsylvania during the Depression, when his meals often depended on his hunting ability.

He had almost a pathological shyness about discussing the medal or the events leading to it. "I was scared all the time I was over there," he told the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call in 2004. "I just did what I had to do. You go in there and just try to get them guys before they get you."

Pfc. Knappenberger had landed at Anzio, on Italy's west coast, in January 1944 as part of the effort to dislodge the Germans from Rome. His battalion pushed inland about five miles when a heavy German counterattack pinned down the group Feb. 1. He was caught on a knoll that exposed him to enemy machine guns, several of which he silenced.

After his ammunition ran out, he crawled to the American casualties in front of him and took enough rifle clips to kill many members of an advancing German platoon.

"Finally, his ammunition supply being completely exhausted, he rejoined his company," the Medal of Honor citation read. "Pfc. Knappenberger's intrepid action disrupted the enemy attack for over 2 hours."

Only six of 200 soldiers in his company survived the barrage, according to the Allentown newspaper, which credited Mr. Knappenberger's survival to his physique. At 5 feet 6 inches and 118 pounds, he "presented a scant target to the Germans," the newspaper said.

Alton Warren Knappenberger, known as "Knappie," was born Dec. 31, 1923, in Coopersburg, Pa. His father was a moonshiner during Prohibition and died of a heart attack when his son was 5.

As a child, Mr. Knappenberger supported the family in odd jobs at farms around the area. He was working on a pig farm when he was drafted in 1943.

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