One of the most memorable Pearl Harbor hero stories that came out of the horrors of December 7, 1941 involved two heroic aviators from the U.S. Army Air Corps. They led a steadfast defense against the Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor and will not be forgotten.
These brave men were among some of the very first American heroes of World War II. Here is their story.
Pearl Harbor Hero Stories: Second Lieutenants George Welch & Kenneth Taylor
George S. Welch and Kenneth Taylor had spent Saturday evening dancing at the Wheeler Field officers club, followed by a card game lasting all night near their home base, Haleiwa. They suddenly heard gunfire just as the two began to discuss the benefits of early morning swims and while the winner of the final card hand was collecting his money.
Welch and Taylor called ahead to have their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters armed and fueled before hopping into Taylor’s car. Machine-gun bullets from planes of the second wave of Japanese attackers kicked up dust around them as they raced to Haleiwa (reaching speeds of 100 mph on the way there).
Once they began to fly, the two airmen received orders to patrol in the vicinity of Barbers Point. There, they shot down several Japanese planes and returned to the airfield to reload with fuel and ammunition. Welch remembered: “We had to argue with some of the ground crew. They wanted us to disperse the airplanes and we wanted to fight.”
Welch’s machine gun had jammed, and Taylor sustained wounds in the arm and leg. He was told not to fly again that day.
Nevertheless, the two pilots got ready to reach the skies once more. Journalist Blake Clark recalled: “Before Welch’s guns could be unlocked or Taylor’s wound received first aid, a second wave of 15 Japanese planes swept in… but he and Welch took off immediately.”
The Japanese pilots soon closed in on Kenneth Taylor’s Tomahawk. “Welch, behind them, dived on the one most dangerous to his partner, letting fly with all his guns,” Clark wrote later on. “The enemy plane burst into flames and crashed; Taylor escaped. Welch followed another plane seaward, caught it five miles offshore and gave its two-man team an ocean grave.”
It truly marks one of the most incredible Pearl Harbor hero stories.
Five Air Corps pilots in total battled that morning from their planes. One of them named Lieutenant Sanders led a group of planes through cloud-covered skies at 6,000 feet. When six Japanese bombers attacked an airfield, the group of fliers warded them off. Sanders pinpointed the Japanese leader and sent his enemy plane plummeting into the water.
At one point, Lt. Sanders saw an American in trouble. Lieutenant James Sterling had closed with an enemy bomber, but another Japanese airplane was tailing behind, firing at him. Sanders pulled in behind Sterling’s attacker. Then, all four planes engaged in a steep dive downward. Sanders was the only one to survive.
One group of Japanese planes used up all their bombs and headed for Hickam and Ewa airfields and the naval installations at Ford Island. One Japanese pilot in the group saw from afar an aerial struggle that likely included Welch and Taylor. He reported witnessing several Japanese planes spiraling down in flames.
The one American airfield to emerge from the Pearl Harbor attacks undamaged: Haleiwa. While some thought this occurred because the Japanese didn’t know it existed, most believe Welch and Taylor so aggressively drove off the enemy forces.
Lieutenant Taylor recalled later: “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 ended up shot down that day, and Welch and Taylor officially received credit with seven of them—four in their first flight melee and three in the second. Lt. Taylor later discussed his role during the Pearl Harbor attacks before a Congressional committee investigating the Japanese raid.
Welch was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but he was turned down because his commanding officer said he’d taken off without orders. He went on to serve in New Guinea, and one year to the day after Pearl Harbor, he shot down three more Japanese aircraft while flying a Bell P-39 Airacobra. Then, on September 2, 1943, flying a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, he shot down four more.
Welch finished the war with 16 victories. He was killed on October 11, 1954, while test-flying the F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet. Taylor passed away at age 86 in 2006, just four days before the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. (The 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor will take place this year.)
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