CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Robert McKnight was born in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1930. At the outset of the Korean War, he was a midshipman cadet at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. McKnight was unable to complete the course and graduate, because he was diagnosed with near-sighted vision in his junior year. He left the school and began working on a vessel delivering phosphate fertilizer to Pusan, Korea, which was diverted to Taiwan due to the Korean war.
McKnight had plans to enroll in a private college and join the ROTC program, but became aware of the fact that his time at the academy had already resulted in enrolling him as a Navy reservist. He decided to enlist for active duty, and was assigned as a machinist to the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain, also known as “The Champ”.
McKnight was a member of the Lake Champlain’s boxing team and represented the ship at the Atlantic Fleet Boxing Tournament. He made the finals but lost to the defending champion. In that fight, McKnight had his shoulder dislocated, and he still has a metal staple in it.
McKnight recalled loading empty coffins onto the USS Lake Champlain before leaving port, which he remembered as a very sobering and morbid experience. Since “The Champ” was too large to sail through the Panama Canal, the ship took the long way to the Far East. While sailing through the Mediterranean Sea, McKnight was able to tour Athens and see the Acropolis and the Pantheon. He recalled that passing through the Suez Canal in Egypt was the hottest experience in his life; crewmen were only allowed to be in the engine rooms for an hour due to the heat. The rooms were at least 100 degrees, and the engine “cooling water” was 90 degrees. On the long trip to the Far East, the Lake Champlain collided with a tanker carrying aircraft fuel. There were no fatalities, fortunately, but McKnight thought the engine room was going to blow up because it couldn’t handle the rapid change from thirty knots forward to reversing.
The USS Lake Champlain was initially stationed near Vladivostok, which was the main naval base for the USSR’s Pacific Fleet. McKnight recalled that the surrounding waters were infested with Soviet submarines, and his ship often used depth charges to warn the Soviets to stay away from “The Champ.” At the time, he was aware of Stalin being an ally and supplier of arms to the North Koreans, and so he was not sure if the Korean War was going to evolve into another World War. From Vladivostok, the carrier moved to a station off the Korean coast.
The Americans in Korea often fought MiG Soviet jet fighter planes piloted by the North Koreans and Chinese. McKnight recalled that, in some cases at least, American pilots countered the MiGs with World War II-era planes, such as the Corsair, which had superior maneuverability. He had little contact with the results of enemy action, since his general quarters or battle station was in a small room far below the flight deck. McKnight was unaware of what was going on at the surface; but, when he went out on to the flight deck at night, he was able to see North Korean rockets launched towards mountainsides. During his tour of duty, he was able to get an R&R leave to visit the “Japanese Alps” and to see Mount Fuji. McKnight recalled the Japanese civilians as being very friendly towards him, and he saw a lot of Japanese children dressed in baseball uniforms.
During his service, McKnight earned the Korean Service medal with one star, the National Defense Medal, United Nations Medal, the South Korean Presidential Medal, and the Distinguished Service Medal from the State of New Jersey. He was also a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of Union Veterans, the VFW Post 2226, and the American Legion Post 346, among other organizations. Following the war, McKnight went on to become a physicist and engineer at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He passed away on December 9, 2015.