Heroic Pilots of Pearl Harbor
At the beginning of December, 1941, Army Air Forces pilots Second Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth Taylor had moved their P-40s away from the main airfield at Wheeler to a nearby auxiliary field at Haleiwa as part of a gunnery exercise. The vast majority of Army Air Forces fighters at Wheeler were parked in neat rows on the main flight-line; although war with Japan appeared imminent, it was decided that the possibility of sabotage from the ground presented a greater threat than a potential air attack, and it was easier to guard them while parked in neat rows than dispersed on the airfield perimeter. When the Japanese carrier-based sneak attack against Pearl Harbor and Wheeler and Hickam Fields came on the morning of December 7, 1941, the majority of the U.S. Army Air Forces fighters were easily destroyed on the ground, several of them when the first P-40 pilot attempting to take off to fight was hit and killed on his takeoff roll and his fighter went crashing down the flight-line at Wheeler.
Welch and Taylor had spent the evening of Saturday, Dec. 6, at a dance at the Wheeler Field officers club, followed by an all-night card game some distance away from their home base at Haleiwa. That fateful Sunday morning, as they discussed the merits of taking an early morning swim, they heard distant gunfire. Suddenly the Japanese swooped down on Wheeler Field, which was a center for fighter operations in Hawaii. Dive bombers seemed to appear out of nowhere. Violent explosions upended the parked planes, and buildings began to burn. Welch ran for a telephone and called Haleiwa as bullets sprayed around him.
“Get two P-40s ready!” he yelled. “It’s not a gag. The Japs are here.” The two hopped into Taylor’s car with machine-gun bullets from planes of the attacking Japanese aircraft kicking up dust around them. They reached speeds of 100 mph during the 16-mile dash to Haleiwa. Japanese Zeros strafed their car three times. When the two fliers careened onto the airfield nine minutes later, their fighter planes were already armed and the propellers were turning over. Without waiting for orders they took off.
As they climbed for altitude they ran into twelve Japanese Val dive bombers over the Marine air base at Ewa. Welch and Taylor began their attack immediately. On their first pass, machine guns blazing, each shot down a bomber. As Taylor zoomed up and over in his Tomahawk, he saw an enemy bomber heading out to sea. He gave his P-40 full throttle and roared after it. Again his aim was good and the Val broke up before his eyes, tumbling into the sea. In the meantime Welch’s plane had been hit and he dived into a protective cloud bank. The damage didn’t seem too serious so he flew out again – only to find himself on the tail of another Val. With only one gun now working he nevertheless managed to send the bomber flaming into a watery grave.
Both pilots now vectored toward burning Wheeler Field for more ammunition and gas. Welch later recalled: “We had to argue with some of the ground crew. They wanted us to disperse the airplanes and we wanted to fight.” Unfortunately the extra cartridge belts for the P-40s were in a hangar which was on fire. Two mechanics ran bravely into the dangerous inferno and returned with the ammunition.
They headed directly into the enemy planes, all guns firing. This time Ken Taylor was hit in the arm, and then a Val closed in behind him. Welch kicked his rudder and the Tomahawk whipped around and blasted the Val, though his own plane had been hit once more. Taylor had to land, but George Welch shot down still another bomber near Ewa before he returned.
In the aftermath, the single American airfield to emerge from the battle unscathed was Haleiwa. Some speculated that this was because the Japanese did not know of its existence. More likely, it was because Welch and Taylor aggressively and continually drove off the attackers. One group of Japanese planes, their bomb cargoes expended, turned to strafe Hickam and Ewa airfields and the naval installations at Ford Island. One of those Japanese pilots saw an aerial melee in the distance that very likely included Welch and Taylor. The Japanese flier reported seeing several of his comrades’ planes falling from the sky in flames.
Taylor later recalled: “We went down and got in the traffic pattern and shot down several planes there. I know for certain I shot down two planes or perhaps more; I don’t know.” A total of 29 Japanese planes were shot down during the attack, and Welch and Taylor were officially credited with seven of them, four in their first sortie and three in the second.
In all, a total of five U.S. Army Air Forces pilots managed to get their planes off the ground and give battle that morning. One of them, a lieutenant named Sanders, led a group of planes through overcast skies at 6,000 feet. When a formation of six Japanese bombers was spotted attacking an airfield, the group chased them off. Sanders picked out the Japanese leader and sent the smoking enemy plane spiraling into the sea.
Sanders then spotted a comrade in trouble. Lieutenant James Sterling had closed with an enemy bomber, but another Japanese plane had gotten on his tail and was pouring fire into him. Sanders pulled in behind Sterling’s attacker, and all four planes went into a steep dive. Sanders was the only one to come out. Sterling lost his life, and both Japanese aircraft went down.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Taylor was assigned to the 44th Fighter Squadron, and went to the South Pacific at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. He was able to record two additional aerial kills: the first on January 27 and the other on December 7, 1943, two years after Pearl Harbor. This brought his total number of career kills to six, making him a flying ace. After 27 years of active duty, he retired as a colonel in 1967, and became the Assistant Adjutant General for the Alaska Air National Guard, retiring as a Brigadier General in 1971.
After contracting an illness from a hip surgery two years prior, Taylor died on November 25, 2006 of a strangulated hernia at an assisted living residence in Tucson, Arizona. He was cremated and later buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in June 2007 with full military honors.
Welch remained in the Pacific Theater of Operations and went on to score 12 more kills against Japanese aircraft (16 in total), making him a triple ace.
In the spring of 1944, Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a test pilot for the P-51 Mustang. He went on to fly the prototypes of the FJ Fury, and when the F-86 Sabre was proposed, Welch was chosen as the chief test pilot.
In September, 1947, the F-86 project moved to the Muroc test facility (now Edwards AFB, California), the same base at which the Bell X-1 was being developed. North American was instructed by Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington that they were not, under any circumstances, to break the sound barrier before the X-1 achieved this milestone. However, Welch disregarded this order, and during a test flight on October 1, 1947, he entered a steep dive from 35,000 ft. During the dive, Welch observed symptoms compatible with Mach jump. However, due to problems with the landing gear, further full-speed flights were delayed. On October 14, the same day that Chuck Yeager was to attempt supersonic flight, Welch reputedly performed a second supersonic dive. This time he started from 37,000 ft., and executed a full-power 4g pullout, greatly increasing the power of his apparent sonic boom. Yeager broke the sound barrier approximately 30 minutes later.
To justify the investment in the X-1 program, the Pentagon allegedly ordered the results of Welch’s flights classified and did not allow North American to publicly announce that the XP-86 had gone supersonic until almost a year later. The Air Force still officially denies that Welch broke the sound barrier first. Welch had achieved supersonic flight only in a dive, not in level flight, and his flights were unofficial and not tracked by NACA measuring equipment, making verification impossible.
Welch went on to work with North American Aviation in the Korean War as Chief Test Pilot, engineer and instructor, where he reportedly downed several enemy MiG-15s while “supervising” his students.
After the war, Welch returned to flight testing – this time in the F-100 Super Sabre – with Yeager flying the chase plane. Welch became the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight with this type of aircraft, the first USAF fighter to achieve level supersonic flight, on May 25, 1953. However, stability problems with the aircraft arose, and on Columbus Day, October 12, 1954, Welch’s F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre disintegrated during a 7g pullout at Mach 1.55. When found, Welch was still in the ejection seat, mortally injured. He was evacuated by helicopter, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the Army hospital. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Welch and Taylor were both nominated for the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions on Pearl Harbor Day, and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, was reportedly anxious to receive the nominations. Unfortunately for the two heroes, the intermediate Chain of Command, whose pride was evidently smarting from having been caught off guard and suffering the devastation they did, reasoned absurdly that they had taken off without proper authorization and therefore could not be awarded the United States’ highest military award. As a result, the awards were downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross for both men.