When the U.S. entered World War I, many Kendall County residents were eager to participate by serving their country. For some, however, physical limitations prevented them not only from joining up, but even from being drafted. One of those was Lisbon Township farmer Charles “Timmy” Howell.
Although Howell was in perfect health, he lacked one thing the Army and the other armed services definitely required – a trigger finger. When a youngster, Howell accidentally shot off the index finger on his right hand during a hunting accident. It wasn’t that Howell couldn’t shoot – he was a crack shot even without his index (or trigger) finger. But regulations were regulations.
So Howell, several of his neighbors and others in Kendall County looked around for some way to support the war effort, eventually hitting upon forming their own company of the Illinois Reserve Militia, the state’s home guard. The Illinois National Guard had been federalized and was busy fighting the Germans in France, so the IRM took over its duties to assist during civil disturbances, emergencies or disasters until the National Guardsmen returned from Europe.
The group was organized as Company K the 5th Infantry, Illinois Reserve Militia. It was furnished with surplus military equipment by the U.S. Army, and armed with Spanish American War-vintage Springfield Model 1892–99 Krag–Jørgensen .30-.40 rifles.
Company K drilled weekly at the old City Hall on Courthouse Hill in Yorkville, and was composed of Yorkville and Plattville men in a about 50/50 mix. Within a few months, the group moved its training and meeting place to a small building next to Corrigan’s general store in Plattville, and that’s where it stayed until the war ended and Company K was mustered out.
Although Company K was gone, Howell had gotten bit with the military bug, and he and a couple of his neighbors got to thinking that it might be a good idea to establish a real ING company in Kendall County. In about 1920, he met with the ING’s commander, Gen. Milton J. Foreman, and got a brusque rebuff. But Howell kept meeting and talking with people affiliated with the ING until he got the name of Stephen O. Tripp, a wealthy businessman who was the ING’s quartermaster general.
In the postwar years, the ING was having recruiting trouble. The world war had ended and people were much more interested in making money than in military affairs. So when Howell told Tripp he thought he could recruit an ING company composed of Kendall County farmers, the officer was receptive and Howell took off on his mission.
Regulations required that a company had to be established with at least a couple of experienced officers to lead it. Howell was able to coax Yorkville attorney David Mewhirter, who served as one of Gen. John Pershing’s staff officers with the U.S. Army in France, into being the new group’s commanding officer with the rank of captain. Salmer Thompson, another World War I veteran, was recruited to be first lieutenant, while Howell was appointed second lieutenant.
Clyde Howell, Charles Howell’s son, noted years afterward that neither Mewhirter nor Thompson were all that much interested in the project, but reluctantly agreed to lend their names to it to get it started. It wasn’t long before both dropped out, and Howell was promoted to captain.
With the company formed, enough young farm boys were recruited to fill its roster. It was a relatively popular thing to do. Those who joined got paid – not much, but it was cash money, a rarity in a rural community – and also got to participate in maneuvers and shooting contests, which were extremely popular.
Company E, 129th Illinois National Guard Infantry Regiment, was officially accepted for service in July 1923.
Then the search began for a permanent place to meet. Howell and his corps of two other officers, Arthur Hubbard and Irwin Knutson, and the men of the company sold the community on building its own armory that could double as a community center. The men in the company donated $1,600 out of their own paychecks. And the community donated another $2,000. The total expenditure for the materials was about $5,500, and stock was sold to raise the rest of the money, with the men of the company doing the construction work. When it was finished, they had a large concrete block building suitable for company drill, as well as for a variety of community events, including popular winter basketball games. Eventually, an indoor community pool was added, increasing the building’s popularity.
Howell ran a tight ship, insisting everyone follow the rules. One late summer when the company was leaving for their two weeks of training at Camp Grant near Rockford, one of Howell’s best friends refused to go, complaining he was needed for the oat harvest. Howell had Kendall County Sheriff Robert Woodward pick the man up at his farm and transport him to Yorkville, where he joined the group and spent the next two weeks in Camp Grant’s guardhouse.
Company E was called to duty for the 1931 riots at Stateville Penitentiary and again in 1933 for the coal mine wars in and around Taylorville. Also in 1933, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow raided the Plattville Armory and stole a number of firearms, including powerful Browning Automatic Rifles.
The practice mobilizing for in-state activities put the men of Company E in good stead when World War II broke out. The 129th was federalized and many of its members served as officers in the Pacific Theater. Howell was bitterly disappointed that his missing trigger finger kept him out of the way, despite a personal plea to his friend, Gen. George Marshall, who led the Army throughout the conflict.
Company E never returned to the Plattville Armory, although it was the headquarters of Company L, 3rd Infantry, Illinois Reserve Militia, organized and led by Howell, during World War II. The armory was largely destroyed by fire in January 1946. It was rebuilt to create a VFW hall, which has been converted for use as a community center. The Veterans Community Hall remains a tribute to Charles Howell’s community spirit and vision.
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