- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

Peter Kniskern recalls with amusement the time he was mistaken for a German spy when he was serving as an Army Air Corps officer in Algiers during World War II.

After all, he was only 14 at the time. And he was no spy kid.

“I was arrested several times because officials couldn’t figure out why someone so young was wearing the uniform,” the 76-year-old marketing executive says.

Before the start of the war, Mr. Kniskern moved with his family from Hinsdale, Ill., to Tunisia, where his stepfather ran a soil-renewal project.

Germany invaded the North African country in November 1942 and forced his family to flee to Algiers, the capital of Algeria, where Allied troops had established themselves.

His youthful energy, fluency in French and other languages, and knowledge of the region and its people caught the attention of Army Air Corps officials, who signed him up as an interpreter and local liaison.

He was 13 years old and designated as a “civil affairs” officer.

“Since I was underage, they had to give me some sort of a title in order to be able to wear the uniform that I was given and not to be mistaken for someone who shouldn’t be wearing the uniform,” Mr. Kniskern says.

Mr. Kniskern said he was big for his age and “fearless.”

Sometimes fearlessness is simply a lack of common sense. Instead of hiding in a building’s cellar during an air raid, the then-14-year-old civil-affairs officer ran to the roof to view the scene.

One bomb exploded very close to him, and he was surprised by a “ping” against his helmet. It was shrapnel.

“Afterwards, the commanding officer heard about it and said, ‘You’re no longer to do this,’” he says.

Mr. Kniskern’s overseas adventures began in 1934, when his divorced, French-born mother moved him and his sister from the United States to Europe, then Tunisia.

They joined about 10 other relatives on a plantation near Sidi-Bou-Zid, where his stepfather and uncle, who were agronomists, were assigned by the U.S. government and given tracts of land to revitalize the country.

He volunteered for the Army Air Corps without much resistance from his mother, who had her hands full working with the Red Cross, he says. The underage officer served as an interpreter, apartment hunter and errand boy — and spent part of his off-duty hours sneaking into the officers club.

In 1944, he returned stateside to a hero’s welcome and a “whole new can of worms.” He resumed school but found that he had outgrown his peers.

“I was emotionally too old,” Mr. Kniskern says. “And I got all the girls. Of course, the other boys didn’t like that.”

He attended Tennessee Military Institute Prep School for two years before volunteering for the Marine Corps at 16, graduating from the U.S. Armed Forces Institute during his two years of service.

For 30 years, he enjoyed a successful career with Sun Life of Canada, now known as Sun Life Financial, specializing in assisting diplomats. Today, the Oakton resident is owner, president and chief executive officer of Hemispheric Business Network Inc., an international network marketing firm he has owned since 1989.

A peerless storyteller, he has shared his war tales with a Library of Congress oral-history project and is writing a book based on his experiences in North Africa. He still revels in his boyhood exploits.

“One time, I was supposed to go and visit family who had escaped Tunisia and settled in the mountains of Algeria, which was really the only place were you could be safe from the Germans.”

After encountering some Allied soldiers and accepting an offer to travel the rest of the way by train, he noticed that the train was heading in the wrong direction. He asked authorities where the train was going.

“And they finally told me, ‘You’re being arrested for being a German spy.’ Of course, I just knew this was a big farce, so I laughed and laughed. And then it got to be worse and I got to worrying, ‘This isn’t exactly the way it should be.’ And sure enough, we got to Algiers.”

He was shocked to see four military policemen with machine guns waiting to take him to military headquarters.

“I said, ‘You guys are absolutely nuts. I’m not a German spy. Capt. Stuart Bill Mockford will testify to this.’

“And we went to look for Capt. Mockford — who was the commanding officer of the 12th Air Force that gave me the job — and they tracked him down … And when they called and told him what they had told me, all they could hear on the other end was him rolling on the floor in laughter.”

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