Joe Knupp says his luck in World War II is the reason he's alive today.
As a member of the Army's 97th Infantry Division, Knupp traveled thousands of miles and served in both the European and Pacific theaters. But every time he expected to head into a deadly situation, fate dealt him another hand.
"I was very fortunate," Knupp said from his Glen Ellyn home. "I only had about six weeks of combat experience, and it was enough."
Fortune has smiled on Knupp again by giving him the opportunity to join 90 other World War II veterans on Wednesday for an Honor Flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C.
His son, Mat, from Bartlett, will accompany him on the trip to see the World War II memorial.
"I'm 88 years old," Knupp said. "I don't have too many years left in order to do it. It's one of those things that's going to be nice to do."
Knupp and his family aren't the only ones happy he's part of the 54th trip organized by Honor Flight Chicago.
Even though 4,612 World War II veterans have made the trip since 2008, the group's top goal is to sign up as many veterans as possible for future flights. That's a priority, given the Greatest Generation's advancing age.
"With each passing day, there's more of a sense of urgency," said Mary E. Pettinato, co-founder and CEO of Honor Flight Chicago. "There was a sense of urgency six years ago when we started flying."
The veterans and their guardians will board an early morning flight at Midway Airport. Once in Washington, they will spend the day visiting the memorial and several other locations. They will return to Chicago later that same evening.
"For many veterans, the trip provides the closure that they've always wished for," Pettinato said. "It's also a chance for them to be with other vets."
The Honor Flight, which is free for the veterans, also is an opportunity for "many, many people" to thank the veterans for their service, Pettinato said.
Knupp's service to our country began in March 1944 when he joined the Army at age 18.
Growing up on a farm in northeastern Missouri, Knupp never traveled more than 120 miles from home. In the Army, he went to Camp Roberts in California for basic training.
He was assigned to the 97th Infantry Division, which was being trained to fight in the Pacific.
"We were probably headed to be in the invasion of Okinawa, Saipan and Iwo Jima," Knupp said. "It didn't turn out that way."
That's because the Battle of Bulge, which happened between December 1944 and January 1945, convinced U.S. military leaders that the 97th Division was needed in Europe.
"They had this fully trained division in California ready to go to the Pacific," he said. "They changed their plans and shipped us to Europe instead. So we went over there just in time to finish the war up in Europe."
After arriving in France in March 1945, the 97th Division started making its way into Germany.
Knupp's first experience in a combat zone came a month later, when the 97th Division participated in the Battle of the Ruhr Pocket. Allied forces encircled the Ruhr valley, which contained an industrial area, and spent several weeks gaining control of the area piece by piece.
"We were part of the troops that were to clean that out," Knupp said.
He was part of an anti-tank platoon. But the Germans didn't have many tanks left by that point in the war, he said.
So one night, he was among several soldiers tasked with taking telephone wire across the Sieg River. The nighttime mission didn't go well when the paddle boat Knupp was in got caught in the current and started floating toward a dam.
"Pretty soon somebody said, 'You better jump. We're going over the dam,'" Knupp recalled. "I said, 'I'm not going to jump. I can't swim.'"
The boat went over the dam, but the water was chest-high at the bottom. He and two other soldiers made their way to the enemy side of the river, where they were able to hide in a house until morning. Then they found another boat, crossed the river and made their way back to camp.
Another time, Knupp had to flee during a mortar attack. "They came pretty close," he said.
Knupp says he believes he seldom was in any real danger because he happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Even the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped change the course of his life.
"The most terrible thing that ever happened was the atom bomb," Knupp said. "But if they hadn't dropped the atom bomb, I would have been right in the middle of the invasion of Japan. And that would have been terrible. So I just lucked out all the way around."
After serving six months of occupation duty in Japan, Knupp was discharged on April 26, 1946.
He went on to marry his wife, Doris, and moved to Illinois to attend school. After graduation, he worked for a string of technology companies and eventually got a job at Hewlett-Packard as a sales manager. He retired in 1986. Joe and Doris Knupp raised two children, Mat and Patricia, and celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary in February.
Knupp's family members say he doesn't talk much about his time in the Army. He even downplays the fact he was awarded a Bronze Star.
"I can only speak for him and the other men I know who came back from World War II," Doris Knupp said. "They never talked about it."
She said she believes the Honor Flight will give her husband the opportunity to talk about the war with other veterans.
"They may not have been at the same place at the same time, but they will have comparable stories," she said. "They will have a bond."
Mat Knupp agrees with his mom.
"My reason for going isn't to ask questions or to pry into what he does or doesn't want to talk about," Mat said. "I want him to have the experience. I'm hoping he'll have some good conversation."