American Legion Post 141 Adjutant Brian Gillette received a phone call May 21 that resulted in the wish of a 96-year-old World War II veteran being granted, as well as an added surprise.
MediLodge nursing home called Gillette asking if resident Norbert “Norm” Knappman could receive a ride to the Post 141-sponsored Howell (Mich.) Memorial Day Parade. Knappman’s wish was to see one last Memorial Day parade to honor his comrades.
“That’s all he wanted, was a ride to the parade,” said Gillette, who oversees the parade for the post. “I said, ‘Absolutely. And I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you one better – I’ll put him in the parade.'”
Gillette spent the following days acquiring a wheelchair-friendly vehicle to transport Knappman in for the downtown parade route, as well as contacting his family to receive permission to drive Knappman.
On Friday, May 25, Gillette dressed in his Legion uniform and visited Knappman at the nursing home to share the exciting news of his Memorial Day plans. It was the first time Gillette had met the U.S. Air Force veteran.
“He was absolutely ecstatic. He cried for the first half hour of our meeting,” Gillette said.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when he said I was going to be in the parade,” Knappman told the Livingston Daily. “I want to express my feelings toward my comrades. I want to honor my buddies.”
Knappman traveled in a Mustang convertible that had his name plaque on the side for the Howell Memorial Day Parade on May 28. Prior to, he had a photo taken with his family that included two children and about 15 grandchildren. Two of his children have passed away, along with his wife, Betty, of 68 years.
The parade route ended with a ceremony at Lakeview Cemetery where Congressman Mike Bishop and Mayor Nick Proctor, a member of Post 141, provided remarks and personally addressed Knappman. Then members of the Howell High School Air Force ROTC serenaded Knappman with the official song of his military branch. “It made him feel really good,” Gillette said. “He got a lot of attention. Oh he was the happiest man.”
Gillette took Knappman to Post 141 after the parade for a luncheon where he “wanted a Miller Lite to toast to all of his comrades.”
Knappman was born in 1921 in Germany but moved to the United States two years later with his parents and brother. He was raised in Brighton, Mich., and joined the U.S. Air Force after the United States entered World War II. During the war he was stationed in England as an ordnance handler where he told the Livingston Daily that he was “nervous but never afraid. I was in charge of small arms firing. My specialty was a .50 caliber machine gun; they were powerful.”
When Gillette brought Knappman back to his room at the nursing home a copy of the Livingston Daily paper with his story on the front page was waiting for him on his bed. “We talked for a few minutes and he was just ecstatic, but tired. I asked him if he had fun, and he kept saying, ‘Oh yes, yes,’” Gillette said.
Of all the veterans service organizations in Livingston County, Gillette said by sheer luck the first people MediLodge called was The American Legion and they immediately got a hold of him. “And of course, I’m not going to let a World War II veteran just sit on the side! He will be in the parade again next year.
“If there was a happier human being on the planet, I’ve never met one until (Memorial Day). That’s how happy Norm was.”