For Dr. Vernon Knight, now a resident of The Buckingham senior living community, the historic drama of the D-Day invasion isn’t something he learned about from a grainy newsreel. He was there—part of a monumental wave of young men who sought to wrench Nazi-occupied Europe from the grip of Adolf Hitler.
Knight’s ship was one of several responsible for removing American wounded—and
there were many. Hundreds were cut down by German machine guns as they wade
ashore. Others were riddled with steel shrapnel from artillery and land mines on the beach. The young doctor made his combat debut on the war’s deadliest day—June
6, 1944 — with 6,500 Americans killed or wounded by day’s end.
Though well trained, nothing could have prepared Knight for the sights and sounds that erupted on Omaha Beach. Both sides knew that ultimate victory was at stake—and neither pulled any punches. It was a bloody brawl, fought by thousands of well- equipped soldiers—both Allied and Axis—over the soul of Europe. Knight and his men sailed in their LST “floating hospital” ship up to that beach and loaded the wounded for the trip across the English Channel to the safety of an Army hospital—and a chance to grow old. Until airstrips could be established on land, evacuation by air was impossible.
Throughout that summer, Dr. Knight and his team of 20 Navy Corpsman would make 21 round trips, evacuating at least 1,000 wounded. They carried back ship loads of brave young men, broken in body but not in spirit.
It was an improbable situation for the young Harvard medical graduate who first reported for military duty at Long Island in January, 1944, along with a few dozen other doctors and hundreds of corpsmen. He remembers the train trip to New York City, marching his men through Grand Central Station, and then boarding a bus for Bayonne, N.J., where they embarked overseas on an LST for an unspecified mission. After all, the details of the Normandy invasion were the best kept secret of World War II.
“You can imagine that we were mystified as to our future assignment,” said Knight. “The next day we left New York City for Nova Scotia, where we joined a large convoy for England. After about two weeks of very rough travel in the North Atlantic we landed in Plymouth, England. During the trip, we had threats of German submarines, and we dropped depth charges which, at least once, seemed to destroy an enemy submarine.”
Knight’s crew spent the next few months in early 1944 training for invasion landings and methods of taking large numbers of casualties from the French shore to a U. S. Army hospital in Southampton. A few days before the invasion, he and 20 corpsmen were transferred to the U. S. LST 75. They became very busy with preparing for the invasion.
“I knew the invasion was imminent,” Knight said, “when we were given a large supply of the new antibiotic penicillin, sulfadiazine, lyophilized human serum albumin, a dozen flasks of type O blood, and many other medical supplies.”
On D-Day, crossing the English Channel, they moved in convoys protected by U. S. Navy destroyer escorts trailing long cables that magnetically attracted floating mines dropped by the Germans. But the greatest danger lay ahead—in concrete fortifications.
Dr. Knight kept the required detailed summary of the wounded, and wrote in his medical notes how proud he was at the calm and courage he witnessed. And what he saw and learned during WWII would serve as a foundation for a medical career that eventually helped to save thousands of lives from the ravages of infectious diseases.
As a medical intern, Knight had been one of the first to use the new wonder drug, called penicillin. When he saw it’s near miraculous effects during WWII, he decided to specialize in research on the newly discovered antibiotics and their value in curing infectious diseases. That choice launched him on a lifetime mission that resulted in several major medical achievements.
Perhaps most notable was his work involving the development of aerosol treatment for respiratory viruses, such as influenza—usually referred to as the “flu.” This led to the successful treatment of some Texas A&M students who had caught the flu, and proved the efficacy of the aerosol borne antibiotics for treating infectious diseases.
Knight’s long and distinguished career as a leader in the field of epidemiology is a fascinating story in its own right. But it’s one predicated—in part—on those desperate days of World War II, when the difference between life and death for hundreds was the healing touch and skilled hands of battlefield medics. It was then—on Normandy’s killing field--that a young doctor saw most clearly how the medical arts could rob death.
Today, Dr. Knight and his wife of 64 years, lives at The Buckingham in Houston among a number of other WWII veterans with equally compelling stories. Who knows how many other gray headed men are alive and laughing with their grandchildren because men like Vernon Knight—bona fide members of “The Greatest Generation”—carried out their missions of mercy.
The “Greatest Generation” is passing daily though many have lived long and productive lives after risking all to ensure our freedoms. To them—and to all those whose young dreams died on D-Day—our nation owes a debt of gratitude that it can never repay.