Despite working most of his life for the Department of Defense, Tooele resident Pete Knaus still defines himself largely by his early years, growing up on the largest tomato farm in Utah.
“We sold tomatoes at home and to the factory where they made ketchup,” said Knaus, 91. “I’m a farmer at heart.”
His father, an apprentice shoemaker in Austria, and mother, from a “reasonably comfortable family” in Northern Italy, both came to the United States in the first part of the 20th century. They met in Wyoming, where his mother had gone to be near family and his father was working as a miner, and hit the trail to find land in Utah.
“They happened to come in the wintertime, with snow on the ground, and they came by sled,” he said.
Knaus and his siblings grew up on the Tomato Ridge Farm in Magna, where, he said, the family all worked toward the common good.
“What was mine was the family’s, and what was theirs was the family’s,” he said.
After graduating from Cyprus High School in 1940, Knaus first got a job at Utah Copper, and then at what is now Hill Air Force Base, where he began training as a machinist — just before America was thrust into World War II.
Knaus was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. Because of his experience as a machinist, he was sent to machinist training at New Briton, Conn., where he trained at a high school machine shop during its off hours.
From there he was transferred to Chanute Field in Illinois, where his older brother, Ed, also happened to be stationed, before being shipped off to Europe.
On a cramped British freighter, Knaus and the thousands of others on the ship slept in hammocks while the vessel rode ever choppy waves across the Atlantic Ocean for 15 days, as part of a fleet that included destroyers and carriers.
“Every wave, we’d go up to the top, and then down to the bottom, and you’d be able to see the other ships, and then you’d go back again and you couldn’t see any of them. But all of those waves and no one got sick,” he said.
They landed in Scotland, and took a train down to an airfield in Kent County, England, near the English Channel, where Knaus and his fellows were to be stationed. V-2 rockets would be flown from across the English Channel toward London, Knaus said, and during downtimes, he could lay on his back and watch them soar in the night sky.
Their proximity to the English Channel was handy for the pilots, too, said Knaus, who primarily worked on the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes — pilots who had completed a trip without finding a target to bomb used it as a somewhat unusual means of preparing for landing.
“If you went and you did not find a target, you didn’t land with bombs on, you dropped them into the Channel,” he said. “I imagine there’s 8 or 10 feet of bombs in the Channel.”
While Knaus’ station helped keep him from many of the dangers of the front lines, the horrors of war were not alien to him. During the Battle of the Bulge, fighter planes from Knaus’ field were sent to help combat German troops in the bloody battle.
“On Christmas Day 1944 we sent up five planes. Four never came back,” he said. “I’m not really partial to Christmas Day. It’s not happy. I always remember [that Christmas].”
On the trip home, Knaus sailed the Atlantic in a much more celebrated, up-to-date ship, which crossed the ocean in a mere three days in a much smoother fashion. Ironically, Knaus said, that trip made virtually everyone seasick, whereas no one was sick on the rougher ride to England.
Knaus, as well as his brothers also serving in the military, sent much of his pay home to his mother, who was running the farm with his youngest brother, who had been given a compassionate deferment because of the family’s circumstances. When they returned home, his mother gave them all back the amount they had sent to her, an act that to this day still touches Knaus. With his returned wages, he bought a new car, and was the first person in Magna to have a new car after the war.
After the war ended in Europe in 1945, Knaus was sent home on furlough while awaiting orders to the Pacific, and worked around the house and farm while he waited. A troop of recent boot camp graduates one day marched past his house while he was working outside, and some of the soldiers called out accusing him of being a draft dodger. Knaus, a staff sergeant, grabbed his uniform coat and took the troop on a fairly rough march along the highway.
“I thought I’d teach them something about military respect,” he said. “I had a bit of a mouth back then.”
Another troop of recent boot camp graduates, though, proved to be far different as they marched past the Knaus farm on the highway — seeing the four stars in the house’s window, he said, the soldiers cheered for his mother.
Knaus’ orders to the Pacific Theater never came, as the dropping of the hydrogen bombs had brought a swift end to most military action in that region. He also discovered sliding back into the civilian life he had left behind was more easily said than done.
“My job at Hill Field no longer existed, but there was a recruiter for Tooele Army Depot who said, ‘Why don’t you be a machinist out here?’” Knaus said.
Although he started at the bottom of the totem pole, Knaus said, he made more than he had ever before — $1.50 per hour. It was also at Tooele Army Depot that he met his wife, Jennie Paglione. The two married in 1950. Knaus continued working at Tooele Army Depot until retiring in 1981, ending up considerably higher on the chain than he began.
During his military service, Knaus and his unit, the 373rd Fighter Group, were given the Croix de Guerre, and he was among a handful given the Bronze Star Medal, which he downplays. There were real heroes in the war, some of whom he worked with, like Halbor Jones, a gymnast turned fighter pilot with an uncanny sense of direction who was later seriously injured in a farming accident. But Knaus? He said he was just doing his job.
“I was a good soldier, as were 200 other people,” he said. “However the system works, the local powers that be said, ‘Well, Pete stands out a little bit, let’s give it to him. There’s nothing heroic about what Pete did. It’s a nice thing that looks good on the mantle. I don’t brag about it because it’s not something big to brag about.”