ROSWELL, New Mexico — Dick Knowles moved to Roswell around the time I became editor of the Roswell Daily Record in the summer of 1974.
I knew little about Dick, aside from friends describing him as a retired general who had opened an antique shop. “Guess what he named it?” they would ask. Before I had a chance to guess, they would blurt out: “The General’s Store.”
I began to know Dick after a group of Republicans asked him to run for election to the New Mexico Legislature. Dick agreed to seek office. As editor of the local newspaper, I would see him frequently. First, he came by the newsroom to be interviewed and have his photograph — or mugshot — taken. I would see him at political rallies and parties, giving speeches and shaking hands.
|Lt. Gen. Richard T. Knowles|
He and I also joined the same Rotary club, so each Thursday we joined some 150 other people for lunch.
Dick stood out in a crowd. He was 6-foot-4. He also was very soft-spoken. I noticed Dick was a good listener and I could tell he weighed what he was told. When people talked to him, they had his attention. I’m sure this helped him win the seat in the state House of Representatives.
He did well in the Legislature, earning the trust and respect of fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Dick had served in enough military staff and command positions to know there were multiple sides to any issue.
Dick rose high in the Legislature for a minority member, eventually becoming House minority leader. He treated each colleague the way they treated him and his wife, Betty Kay. Once, after he had voted for the election of Democrat Raymond Sanchez as speaker of the House, I asked him why he had supported Sanchez over the more conservative candidate. Dick’s reply made excellent sense. “The other guy was rude to my wife. Raymond has always been a gentleman to her.”
Raymond also was a shoe-in for House speaker. He never forgot Dick’s support and valued Dick’s friendship. If Dick Knowles got behind an issue, he generally received as much support from House Democrats as members of his own party.
Dick also told me on several occasions a legislative body existed by compromise. This did not set well with a group of partisan Republicans from his hometown and his legislative district. They wanted a barroom brawler in the State Capitol, not a statesman. So members of this group began looking for someone to run against Dick in the next Republican primary election.
After 16 years in the state Legislature, Dick decided against seeking re-election. Though he never said so within earshot of me, I think he was unhappy with the prospect of running in a campaign holding the promise of mudslinging. Dick believed in the political process and did not want to see it denigrated by a nasty campaign.
Over the years I would visit with Dick about his time in the Army. Both of us had been helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War, so we had a common topic we could discuss. Our reminiscing sometimes would lead to other stories about military experiences. Gradually, I learned more about Dick’s background.
One story he enjoyed telling me was how, earlier in his career, he had saved Camp Wolters from being closed. Dick, of course, knew I had trained at the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter Center at Fort Wolters. This was where all Army rotary-wing aviators received their initial flight training during the Vietnam War.
|Dick Knowles and wife Betty Kay|
Dick shared other stories with me. Slowly I was learning the major role he played in developing the helicopter’s role in combat.
In the late 1980s, I learned even more from another source. During a Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association reunion in Fort Worth, the former pilots and their wives were bused to Fort Wolters to look around and eat lunch. Helping give the welcome was retired Lieutenant General Harold “Hal” Moore. I did not know anything about Hal Moore at the time and thought he might be Colonel Howard Moore, who had commanded the 145th Combat Aviation Battalion, to which my unit — the 118th Assault Helicopter Company — was assigned.
After Hal Moore’s welcome address, I approached the stage, introduced myself, mentioned my hometown of Roswell, New Mexico, and asked if he had commanded the 145th. “No,” he replied, then asked: “Do you know Dick Knowles?” When I said I did, Moore told me what a great commander Dick had been when they served together in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
“Please give him my regards,” Moore said as I walked away.
Hal Moore and former United Press International reporter Joe Galloway later would co-author the book “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” about the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the major engagement between the 1st Cavalry Division and the North Vietnam Army. Moore had commanded the ground forces in the battle; Galloway stayed with the 1st Cavalry throughout the fighting, covering the battle for UPI.
Later the book would become a major Hollywood film, with the titled shortened slightly to: “We Were Soldiers Once.”
I met Hal Moore again and Joe Galloway, as well, when they came to Roswell on separate occasions to speak before the New Mexico Military Institute cadets. Each time they would renew their friendship with Dick Knowles.
Once, when I visited with Dick about the battle, he told me he had selected the initial landing zone used by Hal Moore and his troops.
When the Roswell Rotary Club and NMMI honored Dick for his achievements in the Legislature, I offered to produce a video. I worked closely with Dick on the project. He would bring me photographs of his past. Then we would work on the dialogue for the video.
The guy who had represented me for years in Santa Fe during legislative sessions, my fellow Rotarian, the former aviator who had swapped war stories with me was a major player in what led to the most eventful year of my life — flying helicopters in combat during the Vietnam War.
On September 18, Dick died, preceded in death 10 months earlier by Betty Kay.
Dick’s son Richard called me several days after to ask if I had photos of his father for use at a memorial service planned for September 26 at New Mexico Military Institute. I attended the service.
|Dick and his dog Sarge in Roswell|
The next day, Richard sent me a note saying he had found his father’s slides from the Vietnam War while he and his sisters were cleaning up Dick’s home. “Would I like them?” Richard asked me to call the following morning so we could get together and he would give me the boxes of slides.
I called the next day. “Can you come to the house right away?” Richard asked. “I’ll be there in 5 minutes,” I told him.
As Dick’s home, Richard led me to the office. Richard told me to take anything I would like. With the offer of the slides, I had decided to offer them to the Vietnam War Center and Archives at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Now there was a great deal more of Dick’s career and life. Eight boxes more.
Later that day I called my friend and fellow chopper pilot Tom Baca in Albuquerque. “I have a job for you and I know you will love it,” I told Tom, and then explained I had boxes of photographs, records and memorabilia that belonged to Dick Knowles.
“I can think of 5 or 6 museums, as well as the Vietnam War Archives at Texas Tech, that would be interested,” I told Tom. He said he would drive to Roswell on Monday and help me sort through the materials.
Then I sent an email note to Joe Galloway and members of the David Westphall Board of Directors, who oversee support for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Chapel at Angel Fire, New Mexico. One of the directors is Ron Milam, associate professor of history at Texas Tech and a Fulbright Fellow who taught in Vietnam and China. Ron served as a Marine in Vietnam during the war. I also serve on the Westphall Foundation board, so I knew there was a place at the Memorial for some of the items.
Joe wrote back immediately and suggested giving some of the items to the 1st Cavalry Museum at Fort Hood, Texas. Good suggestion.
After Tom arrived at my home last Monday, we began dividing Dick’s keepsakes up among 7 museums and archives. As I had promised, Tom enjoyed the work. I did, as well. We were learning of Dick’s roles at the center of the helicopter war in Vietnam.
We found one document on pink, onionskin paper of particular interest. It was Dick’s invitation to a 1965 briefing on lessons learned from the 11th Air Assault Division. Colonel Dick Knowles headed division artillery.
|As Task Force Oregon commander|
Later, these lessons would be put into practice after the 11th Air Assault Division became the 1st Air Cavalry Division, which then deployed to South Vietnam with Dick Knowles as its assistant commander.
Tom and I would term the document the birth certificate of the airmobile concept introduced during the Vietnam War.
There was much more, from photographs of General William C. Westmoreland pinning general’s stars on Dick Knowles' uniform to a newspaper article about Dick being shot down while piloting his helicopter.
Paperwork and certificates showed Dick at various points in his military career: Attending the artillery officer career course during World War II, his graduation certificate from the War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, a report on receiving the Silver Star Medal during the Korean War, books of photographs taken when he served as chief of staff at II Field Force Vietnam, commanding general of Task Force Oregon (Americal Division) and commander of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
Later he would command I Corps in South Korea and then serve as deputy commander of the 8th U.S. Army. A year after beginning that assignment, Dick would retire from the Army and move to Roswell, New Mexico.