"In Defiance of Death"

Written by John L. Frisbee for Air Force Magazine

On January 25, 1944, the 396th Bomb Squadron sent its B-25s against Maloelap, determined to eliminate that hornets' nest. The copilot of one bomber was twenty-one year old 2nd Lieutenant 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, Major 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 20mm explosive hit his right leg exploding on contact and completely severing his leg at the hip socket.

Crewmen could not remove Knickerbocker from the B-25's cramped cockpit. Because of the location of the 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 fifteen 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 complete.

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 pre-landing 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 ten 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.

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Last Updated 4/8/06
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