Among the most famous names of World War I history were aces, the nickname for pilots who gunned down five or more enemy planes. |
Five aces hailed from Illinois, though only one was from downstate. That man was Howard Knotts, who shot down six planes in the span of a month over the skies of France in 1918. The second-youngest of America's 63 aces, he became a foremost authority on aviation law after the war.
Born in the Macoupin County village of Girard on Aug. 25, 1895, Mr. Knotts moved with his family to Carlinville at age 8. His father, Edward, was appointed U.S. district attorney by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.
Like his father, young Howard pursued a career in law, studying at Blackburn College before completing his degree at Knox College in Galesburg. He then enrolled in the law school of Harvard, but when the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, he fancied a spot in the air corps.
He shot down his first enemy plane on his 23rd birthday. It was the first of six he would take out in the next month. Lt. Knotts flew a Sopwith Camel, the plane made famous a half-century later by the "Peanuts" comic strips that featured Snoopy's "battles" against the Red Baron.
Lt. Knotts' luck ran out on Oct. 14, 1918, when he was shot down behind enemy lines. However, the plucky pilot was still full of fight. Accosted by a German soldier, Lt. Knotts struggled mightily with the man, who accidentally killed himself with his own gun.
Germans stripped him of his personal effects and flying boots before a marathon forced march that caused blood poisoning in his feet. Still, Lt. Knotts fought back. Loaded with other captives on flatcars for transport a prison camp, he managed to creep onto an adjacent car and destroy three German Fokker airplanes. Some reports claim that he tossed a lit cigarette that ignited the planes.
On Nov. 2, Lt. Knotts wrote his mother from captivity in the basement of an old tannery that "we do
get enough to eat, but it's the same old thing every day. ... I've got lice all over me and thus I sit and pick them off all day long." He subsequently developed gangrene, leaving him unable to walk.
Awarded both the American Distinguished Service Cross and the British Distinguished Flying Cross, Lt. Knotts led a procession of more than 2,500 returning veterans in a parade from the Capitol building to Springfield's Washington Park on June 24, 1919. He was described by one journalist as simply a "blond, eager boy ... terribly embarrassed by all the fuss made over him."
His humility belied a brilliant mind. Eventually, he established a law practice in the old Lincoln-Herndon offices near the Old State Capitol. However, he retained an interest in aviation for the rest of his life. He co-wrote the Illinois Aeronautics Act in 1931 and was general counsel for the National Aeronautics Association. In addition, he revised aeronautical laws and regulations into the country's first complete aeronautical code.
Along the way, Lt. Knotts made the acquaintance of America's foremost aviators, including Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, a frequent Springfield visitor. Veteran reporter Malden Jones recalled that Lt. Knotts and Mr. Lindbergh would "pal around" whenever the future Atlantic flyer was in town.
Knotts' influence led to calls to name both Springfield airports, the old Commercial Airport as well as today's Capital Airport dedicated in 1947, in his honor. Neither movement succeeded, and he never lived to see the new airport. He died on Nov. 23, 1942, at age 47, never having fully recovered from his war wounds.
Howard Knotts, the man that Mr. Jones succinctly described as "100 percent hero," was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
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