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Posted by John Keller

Consider a couple of young hotshot fighter pilots on their dream assignment in Hawaii. Short work days, plenty of sun and sand, and parties ... think of the parties ... rooftop dinner-dances at Waikiki beachfront hotels, big bands, pretty girls, endless rum and tropical fruit drinks -- and always a poker game to be had in the wee hours.

Ah, that was the life, and it belonged to George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, second lieutenants in the U.S. Army Air Corps on their first deployments flying P-40 Warhawk single-engine fighters out of Wheeler Field near Pearl Harbor in early December 1941. Welch was 23. Taylor was two weeks short of his 22nd birthday.

So where else would you expect to find these guys on a balmy Saturday night, but at dance party near the beach, and a late-night poker game with buddies thrown in for good measure. The last poker hand was dealt as the day's first faint glow came in the east that Dec. 7, 1941. After having been up all night, the young pilots were thinking of a lazy morning in bed, with maybe a Sunday morning swim first to soften their hangovers.

Before they could get settled, however, they heard the first ominous sounds that would change their lives -- and the lives of a nation -- forever. Explosions, gunfire, the roar of aircraft at Wheeler field. Fighters and bombers with the distinctive red-ball markings of the Japanese Empire shrieked over the base, firing machine guns and dropping bombs in the beginning of the Japanese attack on U.S. military bases in and around Pearl Harbor.

Welch grabbed a telephone to call an auxiliary airfield at Haleiwa -- 16 miles away by winding road -- where their P-40 fighters were parked. They told ground crewmen at Haleiwa to get their fighters fueled and warmed up; He and Taylor would get there as soon as they could.

They drove in Taylor's car at speeds sometimes reaching 100 miles per hour up winding roads, dodging strafing from attacking Japanese aircraft several times. They might not have known it, but the battleship USS Arizona and many other U.S. Navy ships docked at Pearl Harbor were burning and sinking behind them.

Finally Welch and Taylor reached their fighters idling beside the grass strip at Haleiwa. Without much of preflight inspection, the two pilots jumped into their cockpits, strapped in, and streaked into the air, where almost immediately each pilot shot down a Japanese bomber. Taylor saw another Japanese plane heading out to sea, went after it, and shot it down.

Meanwhile, Welch's plane was hit, yet he maneuvered through a cloud, broke out, and pounced on an Aichi D3A dive bomber and shot the Japanese attacker down. Taylor and Welch both had already shot down two Japanese planes apiece, and were running low on fuel, but they weren't through for the day.

Despite continuing attacks, the two pilots landed at stricken Wheeler Field beside the smoking wreckage of the ships at Pearl Harbor to refuel from an undamaged gasoline truck. Ground crewmen ran into a burning hangar to get them ammunition, and soon Welch and Taylor were airborne again.

They climbed through a cloud of Japanese planes on the second-wave attack, and each shot down one more. By the time they landed for good that day, Welch had four confirmed kills, and Taylor two. Most likely the two pilots probably shot down at least 10 Japanese attackers between them.

Now consider this: The Japanese lost only 29 aircraft in their attack on Pearl Harbor. Welch and Taylor probably accounted for one-third of that. Both pilots won the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions at Pearl Harbor. For his heroism that day Welch was denied the Medal of Honor -- if you can believe it -- because he took off without orders.

Welch had other hard luck in his life. He probably broke the sound barrier in 1947 while flying an XP-86 Sabre jet fighter two weeks before Chuck Yeager did it in the X-1, but Welch's plane was in a dive, and didn't have reliable speed-measuring equipment, so it didn't count. He was killed as a test pilot at age 36 in the crash of an F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter.

Taylor fared better. He retired from the service as a brigadier general in the Alaska Air National Guard. He died in Tucson, Ariz., in 2006 at the age of 86.

Today is Pearl Harbor Day. Welch and Taylor were not the only heroes in the Japanese attack that happened 68 years ago today. There were plenty of heroes. Please take a moment today to remember them all.

Post a Comment

Blogger Jim said...
Hi John - Nice piece. This day has kind of faded as those with living memory have passed away. My father was in line to enlist Dec. 12, 1941, an was soon on a train for Chicago, and eventually San Diego, for Navy training. He served on the USS Yorktown, CV 10.
BTW - been a while since Hanford Sentinel! - Jim Malone
Monday, December 7, 2009 12:50:00 PM EST  

Blogger Russ Hamel said...
You have a captivating and compelling writing style, John. It was like being there.

Although my dad never made it overseas into the 'thick of things' he was still honored at his death as a WWII vet. I also have several uncles who were tail-gunners in this war, so this article does have a special meaning to me.

All the best from Toronto,
Monday, December 7, 2009 2:38:00 PM EST  

Blogger MBDi said...
Thanks for your important piece, John. After 68 years, I didn't see much in the news about Monday, the 7th, so your blog is refreshing.

My Dad was in the Army Air Corps and my Mom in the Signal Corps.

When they were alive, December 7th was always a defining day for them... as immigrants, they were very conscious of being Americans and what that meant.

Thanks for keeping December 7th alive as more and more of WWII vets pass on.

Memory Forever.

Kathy from NC
Wednesday, December 9, 2009 11:40:00 AM EST  

Blogger millerbr said...
Obviously Taylor and Welch were the basis for the 2 main USAAC characters in the movie "Pearl Harbor." It defies logic that heroism can't be officially recognized because someone lacked the foresight to cut them orders prior to the attack! It is just this type of selfless sense of duty and initiative for which the MoH was intended. Let's continue to keep alive the memories of all the heroes of that day.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009 12:26:00 PM EST  

Blogger J said...
The requirements for a Medal of Honor do not include following orders. It's ridiculous to even suggest such a thing, as the heroic act(s) for which the medal is awarded are almost always done at the spur of the moment, during the fog of war, without any orders in the first place. For example, no one has ever been given orders to jump on a grenade, yet doing so is a 100% guarantee for being awarded the medal.

The actions of these two airmen, while indeed heroic, more than likely did not meet the "above and beyond the call of duty" requirement to receive the MOH.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009 7:04:00 PM EST  

Blogger Mike Rogers said...
The flights that day were not just in the well known P-40 but at least one sortie was in its predecessor the radial engined P-36. As far As I can determine this was the only combat engagement of a P-36 flown by Americans. The P-36 served in 1942 in Alaska and Panama but never met enemy aircraft.

This is ironic since the export P-36, the Hawk 75, shot down the first German plane brought down by the French. The Hawk 75 also served in combat in France, Finland, India China and even the Dutch East Indies.
Friday, December 18, 2009 8:19:00 PM EST  

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Welcome to the lighter side of Military & Aerospace Electronics. This is where our staff recount tales of the strange, the weird, and the otherwise offbeat. We could put news here, but we have the rest of our Website for that. Enjoy our scribblings, and feel free to add your own opinions. You might also get to know us in the process. Proceed at your own risk.

John Keller for MAE
John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Courtney Howard for MAE Courtney E. Howard is senior editor of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine. She is responsible for writing news stories and feature articles for the print publication, as well as composing daily news for the magazine's Website and assembling the weekly electronic newsletter. Her features have appeared in such high-tech trade publications as Military & Aerospace Electronics, Computer Graphics World, Electronic Publishing, Small Times, and The Audio Amateur.

John McHale for MAE John McHale is executive editor of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, where he has been covering the defense Industry for more than dozen years. During that time he also led PennWell's launches of magazines and shows on homeland security and a defense publication and website in Europe. Mr. McHale has served as chairman of the Military & Aerospace Electronics Forum and its Advisory Council since 2004. He lives in Boston with his golf clubs.