By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
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.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every day, more than 300 Vietnam veterans, more than 450 Korean War veterans, and more than 850 WWII veterans pass away due to old age, complications from exposure to Agent Orange, and other lasting consequences of war.
If we don’t capture their stories now, most of these veteran’s military service will go unrecorded, resulting in a tragic loss of our military history and the records of the sacrifices made by so many. Fortunately some members are doing something about it.
In the past couple of years a number of members have written about relatives who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. One was made into a Navy VOICES; the other an Army VOICES. Both were written by their sons who are themselves TWS members.
Army member Stephen Curlee wrote about his father, Navy officer LtJG Jack Curlee, who served aboard an LST during the invasion of Okinawa. Another was written by Air Force member Brad Crooks whose father Army 1st Sgt. Leonidas M Crooks served during many of the most important battles in Europe during World War II. Both recalled stories told them by their dads through the years and both did detailed interviews over the past few years knowing there wasn’t much time left.
Following the posting of Brad Crook detailed tribute to his father’s WW II service, Army TWS member, Tom Thompson send us an email on what it meant for him and wrote about his late Uncle Michael Strazanac who served in the Army during WW II.
Here is the insightful piece written by Tom Thompson to Brad Crooks
Thank you for sharing your dad’s experiences in your heartfelt tribute to his wartime memory. A nation of younger people who have never served, may not appreciate the sacrifices of our brave, patriotic “citizen soldiers” who answered our nation’s call of duty in the darkest days of World War II.
One only has to read what happened to nations that the Nazi’s and Imperial Japanese conquered to appreciate what could, would have happened here. Your dad, along with millions of others, quite literally saved the world for us. When they came home, many did not speak of what they saw or what they did, especially out here in the stolid, rural Midwest. You are privileged to have had him share his experiences with you. I too feel fortunate to have had Uncle Michael Strazanac share with me some of his war history before passing on.
Uncle Mike served as a sergeant under General George S. Patton from France in June 1944 to May 1945 when Nazi Germany surrendered and it was only a few years before he died in 2001 that he shared a few memories with me, also an Army veteran (1970-79).
I had assumed he was a ‘rah, rah parody’ of what most Vietnam-era vets assumed WW II vets to be. He was anything but and 50 plus years later he still remembered events vividly. He was also bitter about what he considered senseless death and what he felt were screw-ups “the brass made” trying to look good.
As I read what you wrote about your father coupled with my own experience listening to Uncle Mike, I realize they, and millions of combat veterans like them, shared a common untreated wound. I heard it best described in a color WW II documentary on PBS of troops coming home: elated to make it home they nevertheless brought with them “a well of bottomless sorrow” along with their victory over the Axis. The majority of returnees suffered this sorrow in silence.
Not surprising when one considers that the Army divisions Uncle Mike served in sometimes suffered 125% casualties from D-Day (June 6, 1944) to VE day (May 8, 1945). Since combat divisions are mostly made up of support troops not actually on the front lines, you get an idea of how deadly it was for the line companies and how traumatic such heavy losses were to witness. My uncle’s was hardly impervious from the experience.
My aunt said he suffered nightmares and depression for years. PTSD had not yet been discovered or labeled as such nor would he have admitted he had emotional issues. I suspect he would not have tolerated any treatment or being set out as being unusual or different – a Slavic trait my cousin has said.
I do know he considered the loss of the many American lives he witnessed as inexplicable and senseless. To appreciate the horrors and brutality of the European battlefields, I recommend the non-fiction book “Citizen Soldier” by Stephen Ambrose in which he describes the costly and fierce combat fought by the U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany – June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945.
Uncle Mike had been in England for months in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy when he got into serious trouble. As I understand it, he was a very smart aleck 18-year-old kid and had angry words with an officer in his unit. Tensions were so high between the officer and my uncle, the possibility of his being sent to the stockade over trumped up charges was likely. Luckily another more level headed officer intervened and had Uncle Mike transferred to the 728th AFA (Armored Field Artillery) Battalion of self-propelled 105 howitzers. So he missed the Normandy landing, or most of it, and the horrors that followed when our inferior armor was chopped to pieces by Panzers and 88mm AT guns in the enclosed hedge groves and shooting galleries on the tight roads leading into France’s interior.
Toward the end of the war Uncle Mike was delighted to find his old unit was just down the road from where he was and excitedly hurried over to visit “the guys.” Imagine his shock and anguish when less than a year after he had transferred out from the unit he had spent a year training with, he discovered only one survivor in the unit who remembered him. The entire unit was virtually wiped out in a week or so in the hedgerows of Normandy shortly after the Normandy invasion. Imagine being that one survivor.
Unfortunately, his children, gifted, sensitive, educated professionals and academics, do not seem to understand the underlying nature of this often angry, driven, prickly man who not physically violent, just explosive and biting in hiscomments. (Photo is Uncle Mike with his oldest granddaughter Samantha less than a week before he died.)
When his disturbed daughter died by her own hand in the late 1970s, the tragedy tore at the heart of this devote Catholic that had already witnessed so much tragedy and devastation as a youngster. He could be very abrupt and rough. He was not a warm and fuzzy individual but I respected him and knew his heart was filled with kindness, just not milk and honey. Neither did I appreciate how deeply scared he was until shortly before he died.
I sometimes wonder if Uncle Mike considered the chance moments that let him survive the war, when the friends he trained with all died or were wounded and evacuated. He mentioned his fondness and bond with the men of his original unit. He described the training as a specialized armored commando as very rugged, “kill or be killed” and physically demanding. I suspect he really did appreciate the moment of serendipity that allowed him the opportunity to survive.
I know he was sickened by all the loss of life, but bore a strong dislike and mistrust of the German people for the rest of his life due to the things he witnessed. He also kept a strongly embedded distrust of the military brass and politicians.
During one of our sessions of hand digging his ponds in the middle 1990s, he gave a vivid account of how toward the end of the war an infantry regiment of war tested veterans was chopped to pieces on a worthless hill occupied by fanatical SS diehards.
Since his Self-Propelled Battery of 105s was in close support at the base of the hill, he witness much of the carnage.
By then everyone knew the war was over and the focus was on making it home. A new colonel (or general) had just been transferred in after spending the entire war in a cushy office at the War Department in D.C. The green armchair colonel/general had this regiment charge with fixed bayonets repeatedly up the open hill. The infantry was charging in lines over open ground and getting chopped up by well emplaced machine gun fire. The smart SS gunners fired low deliberately, horribly wounding and maiming the legs and groin area of exposed veterans who had already survived much of the fierce fighting across Europe. Then they would shoot up the medics and buddies that went out to retrieve them. There were many cycles of this. This hill could have easily been bypassed or reduced by airpower.
He did not tell me how it ended, just that the cycles of death, maiming, and charging the hill in Civil War style bloodbath seemed endless at the time. The senior officer was trying to make a name for himself as an aggressive commander before the war ended so his former stateside role would not impact his future promotions. In Uncle Mike’s way of thinking, the experienced infantry soldiers had survived much of the war just to die or be permanently maimed for a hill no one needed so close to the end.
He told me how he was just talking to one of his friends, an older man, who was shot between the eyes during the battle. As he was gathering his dead friend’s effects, he read a letter from the 10-yr-old daughter of this man. Mike was 19 or just 20 then. He looked at me with haunted eyes, “That letter really bothered me.” He was not a crier or emotional man at all. He carried this well of sorrow with him always.
I tried to find out more about this “minor skirmish” on WW II vet sites or from members of his unit with no success. Just another nameless hill and Army screw up that did not scratch the sheet of history unless you were there. I wonder if that senior officer got his promotion. This type of idiocy was not confined to this campaign or battle. It is a common thread in the American military. Lives traded for promotions.