By Elizabeth Keys
At the Flying 40’s Aviation Ball benefiting the American Red Cross, dancers costumed in vintage clothes jived to the big band era music of World War II. The American Red Cross has played an important role in assisting families in the military throughout modern history.
Vintage costumes at the dance in the Stillwater Regional Airport hangars ranged from $3.50 thrift shop finds to Barbara Wells’ Army attire with her uncle’s uniform crest proudly adorning her hat to honor his military service and dance in his memory. Wells’ uncle, Lee “Roy” McKnight was killed in action on Dec. 12, 1944 in Germany. McKnight’s heroism came to light again when a detective contacted the family to find out what happened to him. The detective had been hired by the sister of McKnight’s sweetheart, Elizabeth, who had kept his letters and mementos all her life hidden in a box, only to be a mysterious discovery after her death recently.
“I always knew that my Uncle Roy McKnight of Ripley, Oklahoma, was killed in World War II,” Wells said. “My mother had a faded photo of him in uniform that she had framed, together with a tiny photo of his grave in Holland.”
Sgt. McKnight landed on Utah Beach in Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. With the 90th Division, he fought through the hedgerows of France and was in some of the most horrendous battles of the war, including the hard won Battle of Foret de Mont Castre in July 1944.
In the Battle of Falaise Gap known as “The Valley of Death,” McKnight’s division took 13,000 prisoners and killed or wounded 8,000 enemy soldiers while suffering only 600 casualties. Many battle horses were killed in this engagement and thousands of enemy vehicles, tanks and guns were destroyed. In the fall of 1944, McKnight’s division crossed the flooding Moselle River at night.
“They had waged battle not only with the enemy but with torrential rains — mud, cold and hunger,” Wells said.
McKnight was one of the last original soldiers from his company by December 1944. All of the approximately 200 men had become wounded, killed or taken as prisoners of war. During the war, the American Red Cross played a vital role for servicemen and their families, supporting and coordinating communication.
Roy’s parents, Jasper and Georgia McKnight, received word on Dec. 29, 1944, that Roy was missing in action as of December 12. It was April 27, 1945, before they received notification that he had been killed in action on Dec. 12, 1944.
“My Uncle Roy was one of 500,000 who died during World War II. He was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism on June 23, 1944, when he led a patrol through intense fire behind enemy lines and located mortar positions,” Wells said. “The information he obtained enabled supporting artillery to destroy five enemy mortar and three machine gun positions.”
Although Roy did not get to fulfill his dream to come home and dance with his sweetheart and forge a life together, Wells said she remembers to honor his ultimate sacrifice on Memorial Day — and whenever she has a chance — dance a few extra steps in his memory today and always.