Multiple Conflicts

William Knox

World War II / Korea / Vietnam Oral History Interview
US Army, 2nd Infantry Division
Date: August 12, 2002
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Macartan McCabe
Veterans History Project


William Knox was born in February 1920 and grew up in Washington DC.  He was always interested in military service. After entering college, Knox joined the Howard University ROTC program, while simultaneously working at the U.S. Naval Gun Factory at night. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, he attempted to volunteer for Officer Candidate School but was turned down, seemingly due to his race.  Knox was drafted into the service in July 1942, however.

William Knox

After completing basic training, Knox attended the Advanced Non-commissioned Officer (NCO) Supply Course at the Camp Lee, Virginia, Quartermaster School, where he was one of six African American soldiers in the class. Following his training, he served in the Philippines as an Ordnance and Supply noncommissioned officer.  Knox remained in the army after the end of the war.

In January 1951, Sergeant Knox received orders to go to Korea.  He landed at Pusan, located on the tip of South Korea, which was the last foothold held by the American army on the Korean peninsula. Knox was transported to the front lines on a train that got stuck in a tunnel on the way, but was freed by Korean train workers with some help from American soldiers.

Knox recalled that, although he was a supply sergeant, he was assigned to an infantry outfit, Company I, 3rd battalion, 9th Infantry regiment, part of the battle-battered 2nd Infantry Division, which was “in a shambles.”  The soldiers had very low morale, and the battalion’s officers were either incompetent or indifferent. He remembered that the company’s sergeants could not read the detailed maps they were issued, as well as they did not bother to brief soldiers before they went out on patrol, which often resulted in platoons getting lost and/or ambushed by the Chinese and North Koreans.

Knox’s company also had racial problems in the recently partially integrated army.  The white battalion commander wouldn’t speak to his black troops, and he had a book about the “inferiority of Negroes.” Knox was placed in charge of I company’s 1st Platoon, an all-black unit. The platoon had low morale, and many soldiers placed themselves on sick call to avoid patrol assignments.

Knox had to reform and reorganize his platoon quickly. He made sure to brief his men on every task they were assigned, and he stopped soldiers from going on sick call unless they were ill. Knox was also able to read and interpret the highly detailed topographic maps, which were copies of original Japanese maps, and the performance of his platoon improved dramatically.

The enemy would sometimes slip hand grenades in the sleeping bags of US soldiers during raids. One of these attacks resulted in the deaths of ten soldiers. To counter this tactic, Knox created rotating three man sleeping bag teams, specifying that one man must always be awake.

Knox had many interesting experiences in Korea.  On one occasion, his platoon entered an abandoned town and discovered a 19-month-old child.  They adopted the child as a mascot, supplied him with proper food, medicine and a miniature uniform; and, Knox told his men to not curse in front of the child.

As time went by, things generally improved; although, during one battle, Knox’s men were nervous about American artillery fire over their heads. The gunners were using surplus shells from World War II that occasionally fell short of the target. On the upside, dogs with the ability to detect enemy soldiers hiding in the brush were assigned to the unit, as well as ordnance men came to the front to repair weapons.  In one battle, Knox’s platoon was surrounded and couldn’t receive air support due to low clouds. The situation improved when the sky cleared, and Marine aircraft drove off the enemy. Knox’s performance as platoon leader earned him a promotion, and he became a Warrant Officer. By the time his tour in Korea was over, the 1st Platoon had two soldiers who had earned Distinguished Service medals, and morale was high.

William Knox in Vietnam

Following his time in Korea, Warrant Officer Knox returned to the United States but remained in the service. He was stationed in various posts across the country and served in Germany and Taiwan. When the Vietnam War broke out, Knox was stationed at Fort Monmouth, and wouldn’t be sent over until 1971. Once in Vietnam, his role in the Military Assistance and Advisory Group was to advise Vietnamese village local forces on how to defend themselves against the Viet Cong. There were still racial issues in the American army in Vietnam. Black soldiers weren’t being promoted at an acceptable rate. It became such a big issue that Knox wrote to Colin Powell, who was able to resolve the problem. Knox then became a race relations consultant on General Cushman’s staff, where he would give talks to NCOs all over Vietnam about race relations, as well as investigate complaints about racial discrimination.

Knox was subsequently promoted to lieutenant and then, after leaving active duty, a captain in the Army Reserves. During his service, he earned the Bronze Star Medal, two Army Commendation Medals, the Presidential Unit Citation and the Good Conduct Medal. Knox was also the recipient of numerous community service awards. After his service in the military, he completed his education at Kean University, where he was on the Dean’s list, earning a degree in Social Work. Knox was a social worker for the Monmouth County Board of Social Services and the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, as well as a longtime member of the NAACP. He gave talks on African American military history to numerous groups until his retirement. William Knox passed away at the age of 80 on January 17, 2011 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.