Valor: In Defiance of Death

April 1, 1992

At the beginning, in February 1942, Seventh Air Force was responsible for defending the Hawaiian Islands. Until it was committed to sustained combat in the central Pacific late in 1943, the Seventh also was, in effect, a replacement pool for Fifth and Thirteenth Air Forces in their times of need. Such obscurity was not welcomed by the men of the Seventh–or by Maj. Gen. Willis Hale, who commanded that air force from mid-1942 to April 1944. When the Seventh entered combat in 1943, it numbered only two B-24 groups, one B-25 group, and two fighter outfits equipped with obsolescent P-40s, P-39s, and a few A-24 dive bombers. It was known as “Hale’s Handful.’

The Seventh’s combat mission was to support the Army, Marine Corps, and Navy in a campaign to seize bases in the Gilbert Islands, from which they would advance through the Marshalls to capture the major enemy base at Kwajalein–an important stepping-stone in the island-hopping strategy that would put Allied forces in striking distance of the Japanese home islands. The Seventh launched its part in the campaign with only five B-24 squadrons, two B-25 squadrons, and three fighter squadrons.

The Japanese, heavily committed to operations in the southwest Pacific, were forced to fight a delaying action in the Gilberts and Marshalls. Their most active air base was at Maloelap Atoll in the Marshalls, some 600 miles north of General Hale’s B-25s at Tarawa. The Japanese could send up as many as 50 fighters to defend Maloelap. B-25 missions against that base were unescorted because of the limited range of Hale’s fighters. To avoid detection, bombing and strafing attacks were at minimum altitude. Losses to fighters and AAA were heavy.

On Jan. 25, 1944, the 396th Bomb Squadron sent its B-25s against Maloelap, determined to eliminate that hornets’ nest. The copilot of one bomber was 21-year-old 2d Lt. Malcolm Knickerbocker, who had left Duke University to join the AAF and had earned his wings only six months earlier. Lieutenant Knickerbocker was as close to Hollywood’s concept of the all-American youth as one could have found. What happened that January day is one of the most poignant stories of heroism in World War II, told in a letter to Knickerbocker’s parents from his squadron commander, Maj. Andrew McDavid, and in the citation for the lieutenant’s posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.

The B-25s approached Maloelap at wavetop level but did not escape detection. Enemy fighters had time to get off the ground and hit the B-25s as they swept the base with machine-gun and cannon fire. One of the fighters came in on the right of Knickerbocker’s B-25, firing at close range. A 20-mm explosive shell hit his right leg, exploding on contact and completely severing his leg at the hip socket.

Crewmen could not remove Lieutenant Knickerbocker from the B-25’s cramped cockpit. Because of the location of his wound, it was impossible to apply a tourniquet. The best that could be done was to administer plasma and reduce the flow of blood with compresses. In a supreme exercise of will, Knickerbocker conquered the shock and pain of his horrible mutilation. He never lost consciousness. The enemy attack continued for 15 minutes while Knickerbocker helped the pilot handle the bomber in evasive maneuvers. From time to time, he gave crew members a reassuring smile and the OK signal with his thumb and forefinger in an extraordinary display of self-control. He must have known that he could not survive, but he would fight to stave off death until the mission was completed.

The nearest friendly base was at Makin Atoll, an hour’s flight from Maloelap. Approaching the landing strip at Makin, Lieutenant Knickerbocker, weakened by great loss of blood, completed the copilot’s prelanding duties. As the B-25 turned on final approach, a safe landing assured, Malcolm Knickerbocker died. Awed by Knickerbocker’s gallantry through unimaginable suffering, men who lived daily with the violence of war wept when his torn body was taken from the plane.

The next day, Lieutenant Knickerbocker’s suffering and death were avenged by P-40 pilots of the 45th Fighter Squadron based at Makin. From a holding pattern stacked at 8,000 to 10,000 feet, they ambushed Japanese fighters that were pursuing low-flying B-25s on their return from Maloelap. The P-40s shot down 10 confirmed, with two probably destroyed, breaking the back of the enemy fighter threat at Maloelap. There could have been no finer tribute to a gallant airman.

Thanks to Donald Heath Malcolm Knickerbocker’s uncle, for making family papers available through Warren Sheldon, who called this story to our attention.

Published April 1992. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.