This week in History: Air Power at Pearl Harbor

  • Published
  • By Dr. Bill Head
  • Robins History Office

When Japanese Naval aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, they also attacked USAAF flying fields and facilities as well. Only a handful of U.S. pilots got airborne to fight back.   

The two most famous were young AAF pilots named Welch and Taylor.   

At Wheeler Field, 2nd Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth Taylor were awakened by the scream of aircraft engines and the sound of exploding bombs. Running outside, they saw smoke rising over Pearl Harbor and Japanese planes bombing and strafing targets all over the islands. They both were less than a year out of pilot training, and, like all personnel at Pearl Harbor, neither was psychologically prepared for a shooting war.  

Nevertheless, with Wheeler and Hickam Air Fields in flames, Taylor recalled there were planes at the grass field at Haleiwa, 10 miles from Honolulu, where the 47th Pursuit Squadron had been sent for target practice. They quickly pulled on their tuxedo pants and, while Welch ran to get Taylor’s new Buick, Taylor – without orders – called Haleiwa and ordered the ground crews to get two P-40 fighters armed and ready for takeoff. Driving at top speed to Haleiwa, they survived a strafing attack and found the strip untouched. Without permission or knowledge of the enemy situation, they took off with only their .30-caliber guns loaded. Near the Marine airfield at Ewa, they attacked a formation of Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” dive bombers that was strafing the field. With three of his four guns firing, Welch shot down one “Kate,” as did Taylor.  

Turning to get behind another, Lieutenant Welch’s P-40 was hit by an enemy tail gunner. He ducked into a cloud to check his plane. Then both lieutenants returned to the Pearl Harbor area, where each man downed another “Kate.” Low on ammunition, the two landed at Wheeler Air Field to rearm.  

Taylor had been wounded by that point and was bleeding. While ground crews were rearming the planes, Taylor got lectured by a senior officer on his behavior. At that moment the Japanese attacked Wheeler again. That scattered the crowd, and Lt. Taylor and Welch took off. Taylor hit some ammo carts as he lifted off but he was soon airborne guns blazing. Even as they took off, the wave of enemy bombers escorted by Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zeros” swept over the field.  Flying into the enemy formation, Welch shot a “Zero” off Taylor’s tail, then nailed another attacking plane before returning once more to Haleiwa to rearm.  

By the time they were airborne for a third time, the Japanese armada of some 350 aircraft had departed for their carriers, leaving the US Pacific Fleet in ruins, and having destroyed most of the US military aircraft parked wingtip-to-wingtip as a safeguard against sabotage.  Only the 46th and 47th Pursuit Squadrons had been able to get fighters into the air.

Lieutenant Welch is generally credited with shooting down the first Japanese aircraft in the Pacific War, followed seconds later by Taylor’s initial victory. Both pilots were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, Welch was honored by President Roosevelt at a White House ceremony. Welch’s four confirmed victories in his first combat experience were an illustrious start for a distinguished war record as a fighter pilot that was to span the next two years in the Pacific.

In 1942, George Welch was assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron, 8th Group, flying P-39s in New Guinea. Lacking maneuverability, rate of climb, and altitude capability, the P-39 was no one’s choice for air combat. Despite those handicaps, Welch shot down a Zero and two Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers on Dec. 7, 1942, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Better things were to come.

For his third combat tour, Welch joined the 8th Group's 80th Fighter Squadron, equipped with P-38s. On June 21, 1943, he destroyed two “Zero” fighters over Lae, then, two months later, downed three Kawasaki Ki-61 “Tony” fighters near Wewak. Now a captain, Welch was sent to 8th Fighter Group.  His biggest day came on 2 September 1943, when he shot down three “Zeros” and a Mitsubishi Ki-46 “Dinah” bomber.  

With 16 victories, Welch ended his combat career among the top 35 Army Air Forces aces of World War II and stood 10th among aces in the Pacific. He was one of the few pilots to score victories flying three different fighters. After the war, Welch served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, California. On Oct. 12, 1954, he was killed testing an F-100 Super Sabre. He will be remembered by many only as the first Air Force pilot to shoot down an enemy plane in the Pacific War – one of the great heroes of Pearl Harbor.

Fewer know of his later combat tours, marked by the same courage, skill and determination he displayed as an untested pilot during his country’s first hour of World War II. What about Taylor? He was born Kenneth Marlar Taylor on Dec. 23, 1919, in Enid, Oklahoma. 

He was raised in Hominy, Oklahoma, and entered the University of Oklahoma in 1938. After two years, he quit school to enlist in the Army Air Corps. His first commanding officer, Gen. Gordon Austin, chose Lt. Taylor and Welch as his flight commanders shortly after their arrival in Hawaii. 

After Pearl Harbor, Taylor was sent to the South Pacific, flying out of Guadalcanal. There, he was credited with downing another Japanese aircraft. During an air raid on the base, someone jumped into a trench on top of him and broke his leg, which ended his combat career. He rose to the rank of colonel during his 27 years of active duty.

He became commander of the Alaska Air National Guard and retired as a brigadier general in 1971. He then worked as an insurance underwriter in Alaska, representing Lloyds of London, until 1985. General Taylor split his retirement between Anchorage and Arizona. He was a technical adviser for the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” in which his character was played by actor Carl Reindel.  

In the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor,” actor Ben Affleck played a character loosely based on Gen. Taylor, although he was not consulted and considered the film “a piece of trash ... over-sensationalized and distorted.” 

He passed away on Nov. 25, 2006, at 86. Official records credit Taylor with two kills. He probably had two more, although in the heat of the battle, he didn’t see the planes hit the ground, and potential witnesses were too busy to keep track.

Welch was credited with four kills. Officially, American aircraft losses were placed at 188 destroyed and 159 damaged, while the Japanese lost 29 planes. In addition to the DSCs, Taylor later received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal, and the Purple Heart for his injuries on Dec. 7.