Kenneth Taylor, a newly minted second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 47th Pursuit Squadron, received his first posting to Wheeler Army Airfield in Honolulu, Hawaii, in April 1941. His commanding officer chose Taylor and another pilot, George Welch, as his flight commanders shortly after arriving in Hawaii.
On December 6, 1941, Taylor, a 21-year-old from Oklahoma, and 23-year-old Welch, of Wilmington, Delaware, spent the evening at a dance held at the officers’ club at Wheeler Field. After the dance, the two pilots joined an all-night poker game. They finally went to sleep and were awoken around 7:51 a.m. when Japanese fighter planes and dive bombers attacked Wheeler.
Welch and Taylor were alarmed to hear low-flying planes, explosions, and machine-gun fire above them. After learning that two-thirds of the aircraft at the main bases of Hickham and Wheeler Fields had been destroyed or damaged so badly that they could not fly, they leaped into action. Without orders, Taylor called Haleiwa and commanded the ground crew to prepare their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks for takeoff. Meanwhile, Welch ran to get Taylor’s new Buick. Still wearing their tuxedo pants from the night before, the two pilots drove the 11 miles to Haleiwa, reaching speeds of 100 mph along the way.
At the airstrip, Welch and Taylor jumped into their P-40s, which had been fueled but not fully armed. They attracted Japanese fire immediately after taking off, facing off virtually alone against some 200 to 300 enemy aircraft. When they ran out of ammunition, they returned to Wheeler to reload. As senior officers ordered the pilots to stay on the ground, the second wave of Japanese raiders flew in, scattering the crowd. Taylor and Welch took off again amidst a swarm of enemy planes.
Though Welch’s machine guns were disconnected, he fired his .30-caliber guns, destroying two Japanese planes on the first sortie. On the second, with his plane heavily damaged by gunfire, he shot down two more enemy aircraft. A bullet pierced the canopy of Taylor’s plane, hitting his arm and sending shrapnel into his leg, but he managed to shoot down at least two Japanese planes and perhaps more.
Welch and Taylor were among only five Air Force pilots who managed to get their planes off the ground and engage the Japanese that morning. They received the Distinguished Service Cross, becoming the first to be awarded that distinction in World War II. Welch was nominated for the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award, but was reportedly denied because his superiors maintained he had taken off without proper authorization. For his injuries, Taylor received the Purple Heart.
After Pearl Harbor, George Welch flew nearly 350 missions in the Pacific Theater during World War II, shooting down 12 more planes and winning many other decorations. Ken Taylor headed to the South Pacific after Pearl Harbor, where he flew out of Guadalcanal and was credited with downing another Japanese aircraft. He became a commander in the Alaska Air National Guard and rose to the rank of brigadier general over 27 years of active duty. In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, Taylor was awarded the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal, and other decorations.
I hope you enjoy this month’s blogs and join me in celebrating my fellow veterans and heroes. As always, feel free to pass my blogs on to friends and family if you feel they are beneficial.
Until next time…
Adapted from Pruit, S. History - The Heroes of Pearl Harbor