Leslie Knox ’38: Australian Pilot at Coral Sea
by David Crotty
Leslie Knox '38
Photo reproduced by permission of the United States National Archives and Records Administration. Neg. No. 80-PA-19637
Far from home, Leslie Knox ’38 helped defend the land of his birth.

In fading light and under heavy overcast and rain squalls, pilots of the American Fighting Squadron 42 (VF-42) raced to their F4F-3 Wildcat fighters on board the aircraft-carrier USS Yorktown. Radar showed unidentified aircraft approaching the carrier group from 30 km out.

The alert came at the end of a punishing day of strike and counter-strike. Aircraft from the Yorktown and the aircraft-carrier USS Lexington had sunk the Japanese aircraft-carrier Shoho just before noon. Later, the carriers’ support group, including the RAN cruisers HMAS Hobart and Australia, were attacked by Japanese bombers based at Rabaul. The bombers sank the destroyer USS Sims and left the US fleet oiler Neosho a crippled wreck. It was 7 May 1942, the third day of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

At 6.03 p.m., eleven Wildcats, led by Lieutenant Commander James Flatley, climbed above Yorktown to intercept the intruders. Flying in the rear was Ensign Leslie Knox, aged 25 and wingman to Lieutenant William Woollen. In training and experience, Knox differed little from his squadron mates. He was one of only 138 pilots in five US aircraft-carrier fighting squadrons facing the Imperial Japanese Navy in early 1942. What set him apart was his birthplace in Brisbane, Australia.

Leslie Lockhart Bruce Knox was born on 17 November 1916 in Kelvin Grove. His parents were Scottish immigrants from Fifeshire. Why and when the family moved to the US is not clear. Knox attended school in Hillside, New Jersey, a working class suburb near the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the most enduring symbols of immigration for those seeking a new life in the United States.

Knox graduated from Albright College in 1938. A year later, the US Congress passed the Naval Aviation Reserve Act, providing for 6,000 reserve pilots. Knox was one of those selected for flight training. As a member of Class 130C, Leslie Knox passed through a demanding schedule of flight instruction and ground school. Aviation cadets qualified in Fighting, Scouting and Bombing training, flying 206 hours over 26 weeks.

Ensign Knox gained his wings on 10 May 1940 and flew scouting missions before being assigned to Yorktown to fly the latest single seat F4F Wildcat aircraft. Yorktown spent six months escorting convoys across the Atlantic Ocean until being sent to the Pacific after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

On that night of 7 May 1942, Lieutenant Commander Flatley’s Wildcat formation hunted the intruders through haze, rain showers and failing light. Suddenly, a formation of Japanese Type 97 “Kate” torpedo bombers emerged from a cloud and flew beneath the Wildcats, going in the opposite direction.

Flying at the rear, Knox had the best opportunity to attack and broke formation to chase the six Kates. Switching roles, Lieutenant William Woollen covered his wingman as Knox destroyed a bomber with his first machine-gun burst. The attack dispersed the formation. Woollen broke off to chase a group of three Kates. Meanwhile, the remainder of Flatley’s formation attacked a formation of Type 99 “Val” dive-bombers, breaking up that formation too. In all, 21 of the 27 attacking Japanese aircraft failed to return to their carriers.

As visibility deteriorated, Woollen returned to Yorktown using his radio homing gear. Flatley’s formation landed shortly afterwards. Confusion reigned as several Japanese aircraft joined the landing pattern after mistaking the US carriers for their own. Anti-aircraft fire chased them away after lookouts noticed the different colour of their navigation lights.

Leslie Knox did not return to Yorktown. No trace of his aircraft was found. Posthumously, the US Navy promoted Knox to Lieutenant for his actions on 7 May 1942 and awarded him the Navy Cross, the second highest gallantry award for American navy personnel after the Medal of Honor.

battleship
The U.S.S. Leslie L.B. Knox Photo reproduced by permission of the United States National Archives and Records Administration. Neg. No. 80-G-245445

In 1943, the US Navy named a Destroyer Escort ship, DE-580, in honour of Leslie Knox. The USS Leslie LB Knox went on to serve with distinction in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval engagement fought by aircraft alone. The two fleets did not come within sight of each other. Neither side won a clear victory. Japanese air strikes sank the Lexington and seriously damaged the Yorktown. The Japanese incurred serious losses as well.

Japanese torpedo bombers sank the Yorktown in the more decisive Battle of Midway in June 1942. However, Japan lost four aircraft-carriers in that battle, ending Japanese hopes of naval supremacy in the Pacific.

In May 1998, an expedition led by Dr. Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, located the wreck of the Yorktown 5,000 m beneath the central Pacific. Some 5,000 km west, the wreckage of Leslie Knox’s Wildcat will probably never be found.

 

David Crotty is a curator of military technology at the Australian War Memorial. This article appeared courtesy of The Australian War Memorial. It was originally published in ‘’Wartime’ issue 11.
If you knew Les Knox while he was a student at Albright and would like to share your memories, please contact David Crotty at dcrotty@myriad.its.unimelb.edu.au.