Champaign woman's heart beats true for the red, white and blue
CHAMPAIGN — Jill Knappenberger recently received what many of us would consider an unusual request.
Her niece asked, on behalf of her son, for the Nazi flag his great aunt had brought back from World War II, where she was an American Red Cross Clubmobile driver.
"I'm sorry, but it's already spoken for," Knappenberger told her. "I had only one, and a lot of people wanted it."
Actually, the 93-year-old Knappenberger once had two huge Nazi flags. American servicemen had given them to her after "liberating" them in Germany toward the end of the war.
Knappenberger, who used to sew many of her clothes, transformed one of the Third Reich banners into a blouse because her favorite colors are red, black and white — she avoided incorporating the swastika in her shirt, which she no longer has.
She gave the other Nazi flag to another nephew who's her oldest godchild. She and United States military officers had written on it.
Knappenberger wouldn't think of writing on an American flag. Or turning one into a piece of clothing.
In fact, when she sees a U.S. flag Knappenberger still feels a lump in her throat. She's traveled to all 50 states and 98 countries and believes the U.S.A. is the best.
The proud American was to see lots of the red, white and blue on the Fourth of July as she rides in the back of a Corvette as part of the Daughters of the American Revolution entry in the Champaign-Urbana Freedom Celebration parade.
She joined the D.A.R. in 1981 because her mother's family is related to a child who was born on the Mayflower. Knappenberger's patriotism goes beyond that, though.
Besides serving in the Red Cross during the war, she was once active in politics — first Democratic and then Republican after she married. McLean County Democrats even asked her to run for Congress after she returned home from the war in 1945.
She was not interested in running for offices. Once a Republican precinct committeewoman for 15 years, she's no longer active politically. That's mainly due to her age — but like many Americans, she's fed up with politics, too.
In the war, Knappenberger served nearly two years as an American "doughgirl," from 1943 to '45. She drove a 2.5-ton, double-clutch GMC truck, or "Clubmobile," basically a club on wheels, in the European theater.
Clubmobile women had some of the most extraordinary experiences of anyone in World War II, George Korson wrote in his history of the Red Cross in the war.
"They had a ringside seat at one of the greatest dramas of all times, moving with more freedom than many soldiers. Even war correspondents could not drive in and out of battle lines as they did everyday," he wrote. "In and out of the rain and mud, they moved with the headlines, from hedgerows to plains, from orchard to orchard, amid bomb craters, shell holes and crumbled towns.
"To the boom of artillery and the whistle of shells, they took their freshly made doughnuts and steaming coffee right to the GIs on the highways, in hospitals, rest areas, and even to the edge of foxholes."
Korson wrote that the young women did it with enthusiasm and a contempt for personal danger.
"You adjust to circumstances, to any condition you're in," said Knappenberger, who has many black-and-white photographs of the places she saw, among them bombed-out buildings and concentration camps that the Allied Forces liberated too late for many.
She admitted to some fear, particularly early on. Her knees literally knocked as she experienced her first air raid in early 1944 in London. She was stationed at Glatton, the largest B-17 base in England.
As her time overseas went on, she seemed to deal with the fear factor better.
For example, she was not afraid when she heard enemy planes suddenly go quiet before they dropped their shells.
"We figured if they hit you you would never know about it and if they don't why worry about it? I lost weight, but I didn't get hit.
"I'm a survivor."
Indeed. Of the 15 Clubmobile doughgirls she kept in touch with after the war, only one other survives. Most of her other contemporaries are gone as well.
Knappenberger, who lives in a condo overlooking West Side Park in Champaign, attributes her longevity to luck.
But it's obvious she's also taken care of herself. She's tall, slender, well-groomed, with an upright bearing and a distinguished but not haughty demeanor. Mentally, she's sharp. Unlike many folks her age, she does not take prescription drugs.
"No pains, no pills," she said.
Knappenbeger remains active by playing bridge and mahjong and spending long summers at her home near Hess Lake in Michigan, where the Pitts family has had homes since the 1890s.
And she continues to give to the community, though she no longer serves on the boards of places like the Spurlock Museum and Champaign County Historical Society.
But she's still doing one long-term project: transforming hard-boiled eggs into "really delightful little characters" for the sole fundraising effort of the Altar Guild at her church, Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal in Champaign.
From 1962 to '72, after she had married and left the work force, Knappenberger sold real estate to raise money for her church's new education wing. The church set a goal for her; she met it.
And even at her advanced age Knappenberger gives blood every 56 days. Hers is rare, the only type given to premature infants.
"I figure if I can help I can do it," she said.
She's also given money to the University of Illinois and Stephens College — both her alma maters. One of her most recent gifts, to the Champaign Park District, paid most of the renovation costs for the beloved Wurlitzer organ at the Virginia Theatre.
She gave that gift in memory of her late husband, T. Gaillard Knappenberger Jr., a lawyer who loved music. He was an alto saxophone player, led his own combo and sang in a barbershop quartet.
Spreading the word
Knappenberger sometimes gives talks about her war experiences. She'll do that July 12 for the P.E.O., an organization that provides educational opportunities to women. The title of her talk: "Battle Stars and Doughnuts." She has five Army battle stars. She'll also tell of her recent trip to Washington, D.C., on the Central Illinois Honor Flight.
Though she is not a military veteran, her Red Cross service qualified her for the Honor Flight. It takes area veterans to Washington to see the WWII monument and other sites.
"I just thought it was wonderful," she said.
While she was there, a National Public Radio reporter interviewed Knappenberger for a Memorial Day story. She told listeners of her time overseas serving coffee, doughnuts, cigarettes, candy and chewing gum to combat troops. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had requested the Clubmobile service.
"He said there's nothing worse than a homesick G.I., which is true," she told NPR. "And we were primarily morale builders, and we loved doing what we did, and they loved having us. So it was very satisfying."
She also told NPR of how her twin brother, Jack Pitts, died during the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, shortly after visiting with her in Germany. He was with the 106th Infantry Division and is buried in the military cemetery in Luxembourg.
With U.S. troops, Knappenberger and two other doughgirls made a harrowing escape from the Battle of the Bulge. "There was much confusion," she remembered.
A UI alumnus living and working in Germany heard the NPR report and sent Knappenberger a four-page handwritten letter. He told her of how Germany has changed since the war and thanked her for her services.
She was surprised — and delighted. She views his having heard the NPR report from halfway across the world as just one example of how much communications technology has changed during her life.
Claim to fame
Even with all that she's seen and done, Knappenberger considers her "only claim to fame" to be that her parents, four grandparents and all her aunts and uncles were college graduates. She said she knows no one else of her "vintage" who can say that.
Knappenberger grew up in Bloomington, where her father was a farm implement dealer. During the Great Depression, her family moved to the Pitts family farm in McLean to make ends meet. After graduating in 1936 from McLean High School, she went to Stephens College, then a two-year women's school in Columbia, Mo.
She was one of 10 graduates in the class of '38 who were voted representatives of the "10 ideals of perfect womanhood," for her self-discipline. She then transferred to the UI. Like her mother before her, she majored in home economics.
She dropped out after a year to work before signing up for the American Red Cross.
"I wanted to be part of the World War II effort because the idea of going overseas was exciting," she said. "Doing recreational work was more appealing than joining the WACS (Women's Army Corps). The Clubmobile seemed really appealing to me."
The best years
Even with all the excitement and camaraderie of those war years, Knappenberger does not consider them the best years of her life.
Those came while she was married to Mr. Knappenberger, whom she first met in 1949 while finishing her degree at the UI. They married in 1953; he died in 1988.
"He's been gone a long time, but we did have 35 years," she said. "I still dream about him a lot."
The two didn't have children, by choice.
"Our life was complete, the two of us. I was glad he waited for me. It was not love at first sight, but it was a great attraction."
Souvenirs from their trips around the world as well as a few from her war years decorate her home. So do her landscape paintings.
After she took an art appreciation course at Stephens, she took up painting and loved it. She does stitching as a hobby now but no longer paints or sews. She no longer travels as much, either.
"I've been there and done that. Circumstances change and you change what you do," she said simply.