CHAMPAIGN — A gold necklace with a small replica of a two-and-a-half-ton military truck from World War II hangs around Jill Knappenberger’s neck as she sits in her recliner in an apartment that looks out onto Hessel Park.
Knappenberger wears the necklace all the time, but she can’t remember exactly where it came from or who gave it to her. At 101 years of age, certain memories have slipped away.
Some memories, though, are ingrained in Knappenberger’s mind, no matter how much time has passed. That truck that she wears around her neck is emblematic of the ones she drove as captain of a Red Cross Clubmobile in World War II, for which she’ll receive a Red Cross Legacy Award on Dec. 4, and she remembers the exhilarating feeling of stepping off the ship that took her across the Atlantic to England, where she was stationed at an Air Force base.
“I wanted to be a part of the action,” she said, “and I got it.”
Knappenberger was one of the women with foremost driving skills, she said, after she was taught to by her father as a teenager, so she was charged with teaching other women how to drive the trucks.
She traveled across Europe in one of those trucks, which was named the Cheyenne, with two other women, doling out coffee, doughnuts and other refreshments to servicemen. They’d also give out newspapers and had soldiers sign a registry so they could find each other.
“It was exciting and stimulating,” she said, “and they loved doing it and they loved having us. It was rewarding.”
Knappenberger admits that she doesn’t leave her recliner much these days, and that seems to frustrate her. After all, throughout her life, she enjoyed being in the thick of things and traveling.
World War II wasn’t her last trip to Europe. She’s been back a few times since, and each time she went to the American military cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg.
That’s where her twin brother, Jack, was buried. She met an English-speaking couple when she stayed there during the war, and they became close friends. Regularly, they’d put flowers at the base of his grave.
The last time she saw Jack is another memory that hasn’t been washed away by time.
It was Dec. 13, 1944, and she had made the trip from Bastogne, Belgium, where she was stationed, to Schoneberg, Germany, where he was set for active duty, to surprise him. He introduced her proudly to his fellow soldiers.
“He was proud of them and they were proud of him,” she said.
After returning to Belgium, she headed back to meet him in Germany, where she planned to have a party for her crewmate’s birthday. But when they arrived, they were surrounded by enemy troops. She was given the news that Jack died that morning after shrapnel pierced his skull in what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge, a 10-day German offensive.
After several days, one road was opened for her escape. Although the vehicle leading her was totaled after it crashed into an ammunition truck, she was able to drive the Clubmobile to safety, according to her 2011 interview with the Pacific War Museum.
Some days, she can recall details of her harrowing escape. But as she sat in her apartment on Wednesday, she couldn’t recall the story.
Some details from seven decades ago are difficult for her to remember. Plenty of names, dates, locations and platoons readily come to the tip of her tongue.
And she remembers what it felt like to be youthful. When asked whether she was exhausted upon her return from war, she answered succinctly.
“No,” she said, brushing off the question. “We were young and vital and in good health and full of pep and energy.”
“Which is hard to believe now. But no, we were just glad to get home under normal conditions. But we loved the work we were doing.”