Aviation was a new and exciting technology during World War I, and many men from Knox became involved in the Air Corps. One alumnus, Lieutenant Clifford W. Lott, even had the opportunity to take a practice flight with the pilot Captain Vernon Castle. The Knox Alumnus of 1918 reported that "The death of Captain Castle a short while later failed to disturb his [Lott's] purpose and he is now studying to fly." Castle was later famously immortalized in film by the actor and dancer Fred Astaire.
Additionally, The Knox Alumnus of April, 1918 noted that the first Knox student known to be wounded in action was Arthur Edgar Lyon, who served as a truck driver for the aviation corps.
A member of the Knox College class of 1917, Paul Smith, wrote a poem, "Arman the Aviator," published in the April, 1918 edition of The Knox Alumnus. The poem is most likely about Arman Merriam, Knox College class of 1917, who did train as an aviator. A Galesburg newspaper article from October 3, 1917 reported on his training:
Arman Merriam, Knox senior, who has been training at the Rantoul ground school, writs from the U.S. army aviation field at Belleville, Ill.: "Two of us were recommended for flying in France, but sudden changes in orders turned the luck. However, I am glad I stayed here, because since talking to a French flying instructor here, I find that the system of training in this country is much more satisfactory than abroad. At any rate, we'll all be in the trenches by spring--rather over them. I'm nutty about aviation."
"Illinois Aviators May be Sent to Italy"
Arman Merriam wrote to the Knox Alumnus magazine detailing his time in training as an airman at a facility in central Illinois.
"With the Colors! The Flying Corps"
Howard Knotts, Knox class of 1916, was Knox College's most famous and accomplished pilot. Knotts is believed to be the only Knox College aviator to achieve the "ace" rating. His plane crashed behind German lines three weeks prior to the armistice, but he survived and was not severely injured. He was credited after the war with shooting down "five German planes and a couple of observation balloons," and was decorated with the distinguished service cross, silver star medal, purple heart, and Britain's distinguished flying cross.
Howard C. Knotts in 'The Knox Alumnus'
Lt. Howard C. Knotts and Sgt. Lowell Sutherland
The Story of Lieut. Knotts' Thrilling Experience
Howard C. Knotts' war record
Robert Midkiff, a member of the class of 1920, had a distinguished military career. He wrote a brief diary entry about a nearly fatal airplane accident he endured during World War I, and was tragically killed in a plane crash after the war ended.
A writer for The Knox Alumnus described Midkiff: "Nor was Robert Midkiff a boaster. As he passed you on campus, always with that happy smile, he gave no outward sign that he, of all of us at Knox, most nearly had a national reputation.... It was difficult to get him to talk of himself. He was more interested in you, than in himself. Those of us who have had the rare privilege of reading his diary account of the flight along the Atlantic coast, when he was lost for many hours and the papers of the land flashed the news of the danger he faced, know that even death itself did not make him lose that spirit of unselfishness, of meekness, that pervaded his character."
Additionally, according to Midkiff's adopted mother, Madame Schumann-Heink, a renowned opera singer, Midkiff "had the greatest natural voice I had heard since Caruso."
Photograph of Robert Midkiff
Midkiff detailed his work as an aviator in a diary excerpted here:
COPIED FROM ORIGINAL WRITTEN AT PLAINFIELD, NEW JERSEY, ON FRIDAY, JULY 18, 1919
Friday, July 18, 1919
I have never written a diary in my life, but I am going to write down the experiences of one day with the hope that the act of writing will serve as a safety-valve or relief to a condition of nerves, that for me, is far from normal....
Aviators are not afraid of death. When we were young pilots, and later when I was instructing, it was unwritten law for a man to take to the air as soon as possible after he has seen a crash. All aviators, as well as any men who are placed in a position of hazard, have a mind which fears many other things more than death.
This is not the first time I have come near “going west”. The approach to that event has come to me enuf [sic] that I have been fatalistic. I did not think death could terrify me. It isn’t the dying that gets a fellow. It’s the waiting, the expectation. To expect this moment to be the last, and then to have yourself jerked away from what you thought was the ending – only to stare at death again, and then when you saw no way out, to be pulled away again, that’s is exhausting.
Four of our seven ships left Holling Field at Washington D.C., yesterday morning at 11:30 A.M. Weather conditions [were] decidedly unfavorable, as it appeared to me, and I did not want to leave. The formation was led by Major J.W. Simons [wi]th passenger Sgt. Allman and he was followed on the left by Lt. Ben Adams, carrying Sgt. Smith, on the right by Lt. Jack Duke with passenger, Captain Fluegel and in the rear of the diamond formation by my ship.
While still over the field, I noticed unusual vibration of the motor and turned to Sgt. Neville to see what he thought about it, asking him by signs if he thought that we should land. He indicated that he thought it best to go ahead, and as my inclination was to finish the journey, we continued....
It seemed to me that it would be wise to come below the clouds at this point, and follow the shore up to New York City, staying beneath the clouds, and crossing to Long Island from New York City. We were over 5000 feet high when we started our glide towards the earth. I realized that it would be unpleasant to glide down over the ocean, so I kept the ship banked in towards the shore. With motor constantly cleaned out, we glided down. As the altimeter registered less than 1,000 feet, I became very watchful, as I realized that there might be some difference in the altitude above or below sea level at Bolling Field, where my altimeter had been set, and this place where I was coming down, and in addition the altimeter lags in recording.
All the way down from 5,000 feet, we had constantly [been] in the white midst of the cloud, seeing no farther ahead than the nose of the ship.
Suddenly, without any idea that we were in such a position, I saw the blackish-grey water, hardly ten feet below, and ruffled by white-caps. The fog was resting down on the face of the ocean.
I jerked the control stick harder than I have ever pulled a stick in my life, but I did not pull the ship up before our wheels had hit the water, and I believe that the tail-skid hit also as we reared upward.
With the momentum of a fairly steep glide behind us and with the motor making 1300 revolutions in the glide, the jerk which I had given the stick sent the ship straight upward and started it over on its back.
The motor stopped. Both Neville and myself were thrown violently against our safety belts as the ship started to tail-slide, about 200 feet over the water, I should judge.
Whether the motor was dead or had simply stopped for the instant because the gasoline would not feed in the half-upside down position, I did not know.
I shoved the stick forward and a bit to the right, as hard as possible and gave the motor full throttle. It took, and with a roar, the 400 H.P. Liberty motor pulled us over, out of the tail-slide and again towards the ocean. Neville said that my face looked awful at this time, but that I began to smile later.
We saw the black water again but this time I pulled up more gently. Again we went up into the mist and again I pulled the ship to the point where it would stall and fall, only to shove it forward into another dive at the sea.
With no horizon to guide me as to the flying angle and with water only a few feet away, it was difficult to get the ship in a natural position. I tried to turn the ship to the left or west, hoping to get inland where the fog would be higher.
Then I thought of little Neville in the back seat, how helpless he was - - and how I had talked with his mother when we stopped at Oklahoma City; of her fears for him because he was flying.
My thoughts ran fast - - terribly fast.
“Just how steep can I pull this up”, was the thought always on my mind.
“Gee! I’m young - - so very young to die now. I hope it won’t break my dad. Neville’s mother. I’ve got to get him back to her.”
And all the time, the ship was tearing, plunging, dipping, skidding, as if the motor had gone mad and all my attempts to straighten out the ship only made the motor the madder.
I tried to turn west, but the pitching of the ship had the compass spinning every which way.
Out of the mist, just ahead I saw a house, and another jerk just kept us from crashing into a line of cottages on the beach.
In another moment, we were out over the ocean again, with the motor racing one moment, stalling the next. A pull of a quarter of an inch will pull the nose of the ship up more than fifty feet. It was hard to find that delicate touch which would make us level, guiding the plane only by feel.
The right wing fell over and dipped into the water. Nothing but the Liberty motor could have pulled us out of that position. With throttle open full and stick completely to the left, the ship was righted.
Then we got our balance, and started a gentle climb up into the clouds, away from the water. We had to get up, head to the west towards land and find a place to come down, as the gasoline was running low.
But I did not know whether the compass were right. Could I trust it to take me to the west? We had reached the ocean by following a NE course indicated by the compass, so we should be able to get over land again by flying West. All that I wanted was to get back to land. It mattered not whether we wrecked in landing. I would gladly set the ship down in trees, just to get down.
Gently climbing, we had reached an altitude of about 6000 feet when I saw a hole in the clouds. There was time for no more than a fleeting glimpse as we shot past it, but in the moment I looked down and saw what I thought was a boat in the water.
If that were right, we were headed out towards ocean again; I didn’t know which way to go to land.
I looked back at Neville.
“Ocean?” I asked.
“Ocean?”, I asked again.
“Land!” his lips said.
I could not believe him. But there was nothing to do but hold a westward course. For about twenty minutes we flew, when decided that we should be over land, or else far enuf [sic] out in the ocean, so I nosed the ship down.
Then a hole in the clouds at an altitude of about a mile, I saw a road and farmhouse below. My relief was so sudden that it was painful. I tried to spiral down to the spot below thru this hole, but the wind soon blew other clouds over it. We continued our spiral until we came out below the clouds, about three hundred feet above the trees. We circled about for a short time, found a good open field and landed safely.
Now we are waiting for good weather so that we may continue our trip.
We both find it hard to realize that we are alive. Perhaps the fall in the ocean would not have gotten us, but we both tho’t that it would. It is so hard to believe - - we are here - - walking - - talking, just as always.
Both of us admit freely that we said some strong prayers to God Almighty in those most desperate moments.
We figure that we are each just one life ahead, at least.
-- Robert Midkiff
Letter from Robert Midkiff to Dr. W.E. Simonds
Letter from Dr. W.E. Simonds to Robert Midkiff
"Schumann-Heink Adopts Knox Boy"
Walter Ross Livingston wrote to Dean W.E. Simonds to thank him for "the liberal attitude which the college has taken toward my finishing my work there," and expressed hope that he could resume his studies quickly.
Photograph of Walter Ross Livingston
Letter from Walter Ross Livingston to Dr. W.E. Simonds
Walter Ross Livingston's service information
John H. Lienhard wrote to Dr. Simonds for a letter of recommendation. He noted that "It is rather late in the day to be making applications but I havn't [sic] realized that we were really in a serious war until recently." Interestingly, it was noted in a newspaper article entitled "Knox Graduate Enlists in Aviation Corps," published in Galesburg, that "He is of German parentage," suggesting the ethnic tensions that surged to the fore in America during the First World War.
Photograph of John H. Lienhard
Letter from John H. Lienhard to Dr. W.E. Simonds
George A. Rogers wrote often to Dr. Simonds, stating that the "hard work" associated with life in the military "agrees with me" - although the state of Texas, where he underwent his training, did not.
Letter from George A. Rogers to Dean W.E. Simonds
Excerpt from a letter by George A. Rogers to Dr. W.E. Simonds
Excerpts from a letter by George A. Rogers to Dr. W.E. Simonds
Excerpts from a letter by George A. Rogers to Dr. W.E. Simonds
Letter from Dr. W.E. Simonds to George A. Rogers
"Two Knox flying cadets have had miraculous escapes from death in 2,000-foot falls.
Lieutenant Lloyd Davis, ex-’14, was in an airplane with Lieut. Joseph E. Rose at Barron field, Fort Worth, Texas, on June 18, when their machine dropped. Rose was killed. Davis suffered serious injuries but he will recover. Both his jaws were broken and his face was bruised but the rest of his body escaped unharmed.
Lieutenant John Simpson, who attend Knox in 1913 and 1914, was on a cross-country flight at Belleville, Ill." -- The Knox Alumnus, June 1918