In Memoriam: Engineering Professor Emeritus Eldon Knuth, Decorated World War II Veteran

Eldon Knuth

Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Eldon Knuth received a Bronze Star at a 2020 ceremony held at University Village Thousand Oaks, California for his service during World War II.

Mar 7, 2023

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Eldon Knuth, a UCLA professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering and World War II veteran honored with U.S. Army’s Bronze Star and France’s Medal of the Legion of Honor, died Feb. 15 in Thousand Oaks, California. He was 97.

Born May 10, 1925 in the small town of Luana, Iowa, Knuth was only 18 when he was drafted into the Army just weeks into his first semester at Iowa State College. He was a member of the 95th Infantry Division deployed to France in September of 1944 to liberate the northeast city of Metz from German occupation. 

On Nov. 14, Knuth was among a group of 30 soldiers stranded behind enemy lines after the battalion attacked Fort Jeanne d’Arc, the largest fortification built by Germany outside Metz. For the ensuing five cold, wet days, Knuth and his fellow soldiers, who were without shelter or warm clothes, had to survive on rationed chocolate bars dropped from an artillery aircraft during the tense standoff against the German defenders.

Edlin Knuth
Knuth in U.S. Army (courtesy of the Knuth family)

The besieged infantry, which lost one of its soldiers, was finally rescued by Allied troops three days before Germany surrendered the city. For nine months after the mission, Knuth was hospitalized for trench foot from being immersed in slush — a painful condition that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Knuth recounted his experience at the battle in Metz in this Heroes of the Second World War video in 2020.

Despite his injuries, Knuth continued his education after being medically discharged from the Army. He earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering — in 1949 and 1950, respectively — from Purdue University, Indiana. He then moved to California to pursue a Ph.D. in aeronautics from Caltech, which he received in 1953. While in the doctoral program, he also worked as a research engineer at the nearby NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

After earning his doctorate, Knuth joined the Aerophysics Development Corporation in Santa Monica, California as an aerodynamics engineer before becoming an associate research engineer at UCLA in 1956. A year later, he took on additional duties as a lecturer and was subsequently named an associate professor in 1958 and a full professor in 1965.

Knuth’s research interests centered on molecular beams — a stream of single molecules, often inside a vacuum — that can help elucidate fundamental properties of the molecules under study. He authored or co-authored more than 100 scientific papers and wrote several books, including an introductory textbook on statistical thermodynamics. He taught undergraduate and graduate classes on thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, combustion processes, molecular dynamics and other related topics.

Throughout his 35-year tenure at UCLA until his retirement in 1991, Knuth twice served as an academic unit chair — first with the Chemical, Nuclear and Thermal Division from 1963 to 1965, then as chair of the Energy & Kinetics Department from 1969 to 1975.  

“Eldon was a highly respected chemical engineering professor who was beloved by his students and colleagues,” said Panagiotis Christofides, chair of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at UCLA. “He was not only a pioneer in his research field but a decorated veteran whose heroism and dedication are a true inspiration to us all.”

Eldon Knuth (courtesy of the Knuth family)

In 2019, nearly 75 years after his wartime service, Knuth was appointed a knight in the French National Order of the Legion of Honor — the highest French order of merit bestowed on civilians and military personnel.

On Sept. 29, 2020, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, the Army presented Knuth with a Bronze Star at a small ceremony held in his retirement community of University Village Thousand Oaks, California, where Knuth and his wife Margaret had resided since 2012. 

“Professor Knuth, you are tough,” said Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager, commander of the Army’s 40th Infantry Division, who presented the medal — one of the Army’s highest honors for exceptionally meritorious action during combat. “You are wicked smart. You are a lifelong learner, an adventurous traveler, accomplished genealogist, recognized researcher, prize-winning author, professor emeritus, mentor to others, dad, husband. You are an American hero.”

The recognition was highlighted in the Los Angeles Times, the Ventura County Star and KCLU radio among other media outlets.

Shortly before his passing, Knuth learned that he was selected to receive the 2023 UCLA Samueli Lifetime Contribution Award in recognition of his service to the country and to UCLA as a teacher, mentor and researcher. He will be recognized posthumously at the UCLA Samueli Awards Dinner in May.

Knuth is survived by his wife Margaret, his four children — Stephen, Dale, Margot and Lynette — as well as his stepson Mark Nicholson and seven grandchildren.