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Seabee Killed in Iraq Is 1st From Port Hueneme

Petty Officer Eric L. Knott, 21, died in a mortar attack. The Nebraska native had recently visited his ailing mother.

September 08, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Authorities disclosed Tuesday the combat death near Fallouja of a 21-year-old Navy steelworker, the first sailor from Naval Base Ventura County to be killed in Iraq.

Petty Officer Eric L. Knott was killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack Saturday, said Lt. Ohene Gyapong, a Navy spokesman. Three other Seabees were wounded.

Knott grew up in Grand Island, Neb., where relatives saw him when he was home on emergency leave just three weeks ago.

"I said, 'You don't want to go back, do you?' " recalled his grandfather, Lyle Knott, a retired auctioneer who was wounded in World War II. "But he said he had to go, that the guys needed him."

An expert welder, Knott and four others were working near Fallouja, a Sunni Muslim stronghold, when a mortar shell landed, according to his grandfather.

"The commanding officer said they would rename his post Camp Eric," he said.

At Naval Base Ventura County, Knott's colleagues were stunned.

"We're deeply saddened by the death of our fellow Seabee," said Capt. Steve Wirsching, the base's highest-ranking Seabee. "I personally knew and served with him."

About 425 Seabees from the Port Hueneme base are stationed in Iraq, where they build airstrips, repair power plants and work on a wide variety of construction projects. Naval Base Ventura County is home to about 6,000 military personnel.

In Knott's hometown, a city of 40,000 on the prairie of central Nebraska, his death moved strangers.

"I just couldn't believe it," his grandfather said. "I went uptown and some preacher I never heard of grabbed me and held my hand, and prayed right there in the post office."

Knott grew up with a passion for building things, family members said. He loved to work on huge diesel engines with his father, Randy Knott, a long-haul trucker. At Grand Island Senior High School, he built the backdrops for school plays.

Days after graduating in 2001, he joined the Navy. An older brother, now manager of a Nebraska truck stop, had served for six years. A younger brother, now working at a local Wal-Mart, is awaiting his deployment with the Marine reserves.

In 2003, Knott spent eight months in Iraq and Turkey before returning to Naval Base Ventura County for further training. When he was on the verge of shipping out for Iraq again this summer, his mother suffered two brain aneurysms, and he rushed back to Nebraska.

"Eric was a kid who would give anything to anybody," said his mother, Vera Thorpe, of Hastings, Neb. "He was a super kid."

He was home for 28 days, but his mother doesn't remember his visit because she was ill.

"He left a set of dog tags so I would have a way of knowing that he was, indeed, here," she said.

Before he rejoined his unit in California, Knott was seen off at the airport in Grand Island by his grandparents. A couple of weeks later, he sent them a quick note from Iraq.

"Don't worry about me," he wrote. "I'll keep my head down and return home safely."

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