Cattleman Knust, an Army vet, still tough as tank

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Lifelong Ferdinand cattleman and farmer Clarence Knust leaned against a U.S. Army deuce and a half (2 1/2-ton truck) in this 1955 picture from Fort Lewis, Washington. Basically the only time Knust left his birthplace farm was when he was drafted in 1954 to serve a stint in the military working on battle tanks.


FERDINAND — The realization a lifelong cattleman who is still busy farming off State Road 264 is tough as a tank is apropos because the only time Clarence Knust was ever off his farm was when he was drafted to work on U.S. Army battle tanks in the 1950s.


Clarence is 89 but folks tell him he could pass for 75. He lives alone on the same farm northeast of Ferdinand where he was born. It is where his grandfather started making a living in 1900.

Nephews David Knust and Kenneth Knust are around to check on him, do the planting and assist Clarence’s efforts to keep his historic barn in tip-top shape.

“This is what they call a bank barn,” Clarence explains. “It’s got a basement under it. My cattle are underneath.”

Back in the day, when mechanical balers were a luxury, Clarence and his late father, John Knust, loaded loose hay into the barn’s main level.

“We put in 100 wagon loads one summer,” he says.

Clarence calls his beef cattle from pasture into the barn daily and sees to it they have a little ground corn in a trough waiting on them.

His 1970s-era trucks — one hauls cattle, the other grain — have manual transmissions. Clarence hauls livestock for other farmers and, as his nephews bring in the harvest, he trucks shelled corn to market.

“Tomorrow morning I’ve got another load to take to St. Meinrad,” he said the day of one interview for this story.

On Wednesday, when the temperature the first part of the day was in single digits, he was in the barn supplying water to a half dozen young calves he was fussing over. The rest of the cattle could get to running water from a nearby creek. Inside the farmhouse, he put together a cherry pie and had it baking in the oven.

Twenty years ago, he spent three months in a nursing home after a steer pinned him in a loading chute and shattered his pelvis. He had to lie flat on his back for the first eight weeks of that recovery.

“You get weak in your legs in those eight weeks,” he says.

Nine years ago, he had hip replacement surgery. He went in at 11 a.m. on a Thursday and was back home by 3 p.m. the following Sunday.

That surgery was significant in a good way, Knust says. Ever since his earlier pelvis injury, he said, he had had to wear a 2-inch lift on the sole of his right shoe. During his hip replacement, his surgeon lengthened his shorter right leg to get to within a half inch of being equal to his left leg.

Some folks might not suspect any of that if they see him walk today, he says.

His father died in 1950 of a malignant brain tumor at the age of 53.

From left, a fellow Indianhead Division soldier named Hayashi from Minnesota and a troop named Schmid from Pennsylvania joined Clarence Knust aboard an Army jeep in this 1955 photo from Fort Lewis, Washington.

In 1954, while in his mid-20s, Clarence was drafted into the U.S. Army.

After basic training and mechanic schooling at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, he was sent to learn tank maintenance at Fort Knox, Kentucky, before being stationed with the 2nd Infantry — the Indianhead Division — at Fort Lewis, Washington.

Knust’s job was to diagnose what was ailing any of the M48 Patton tanks at Fort Lewis. Certain repairs were his responsibility but, if it was a complicated matter, he’d fill out some paperwork and shoo the tank up into the shop for repairs.

“There were civilian people (in the shop) who did the main technical work on them,” he says.

Clarence says the battle tanks he worked on had fuel-hungry V-12 gasoline engines and 300-gallon fuel tanks. He still has some repair manuals stuffed in a trunk in his upstairs.

All of the tanks at Fort Lewis during his time there were equipped with shock absorbers, except one. It had coil springs.

Clarence wasn’t thinking about that anomaly that made that particular tank more bouncy than the rest when its commander asked him to take it for a spin to diagnose an issue.

“I drove it out on a road with dips and everything and I had it going pretty fast,” Clarence says.

Thankfully, he was wearing his helmet because, if not for that, the recoil from the first big dip in the road would have sent Clarence’s unprotected noggin instead of his steel pot against the thick steel of the turret.

It still hurt a little bit, Clarence confides.

Clarence Knust’s job at Fort Lewis, Washington, was to diagnose what was ailing any of the M48 Patton tanks there. Here one is loaded onto a trailer to be taken for repairs.

While stationed in Washington, he could pass time during some weekends shopping Tacoma’s downtown. But what Clarence really remembers about his time in the Pacific Northwest was the weather.

He arrived at his duty station in October 1954 during a steady rain.

“It rained every day and night until March,” he maintains while showing a photograph of a tent where he spent two months in the mountains during an extended field training exercise.

Frequent rain helped erase frequent overnight snowfalls, he says.

“You could wake up in the morning in the wintertime and you’d have 7 inches of snow. By 3 p.m., it would be all gone. The next morning, the 7 inches would be back again.”

Clarence made the rank of corporal during his two years in Washington State. After his discharge, he came home and bought a square baler for the farm.

He kept in touch over the decades with some soldiers from his old unit, especially one friend in Wisconsin and another in Minnesota.

One year, that friend from Wisconsin and his wife popped in on Clarence. Unbeknownst to them, Clarence and a Dubois County friend, the late Ernest Lange, had been planning a surprise visit to Wisconsin the very next week. Clarence and his local pal went ahead with their plans, visiting Wisconsin.

“From there we went up to Minnesota to visit my other buddy,” Clarence says.

In May, Clarence joined 80 other veterans and their guardians on an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. His nephew Kenny served as his guardian.

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