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American Aviators Aloft at Pearl Harbor

By Michael E. Haskew 
Originally published on Published Online: August 19, 1998 
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Two heroic American aviators led a spirited defense against the Japanese at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The gallant sortie of the battleship USS Nevada was only one example of the many acts of heroism that occurred at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. A handful of American pilots also put up a spirited defense against the Japanese and became the first American heroes of World War II.

George S. Welch and Kenneth Taylor, both second lieutenants in the U.S. Army Air Corps, had spent Saturday evening 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. They heard distant gunfire as the pair was discussing the merits of taking an early morning swim and the winner of the final hand was gathering his money. The lieutenants phoned ahead to have their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters armed and fueled, then hopped into Taylor's car with machine-gun bullets from planes of the second wave of Japanese attackers kicking up dust around them. They reached speeds of 100 mph during the dash to Haleiwa.

Once aloft, the airmen were ordered to patrol in the vicinity of Barbers Point, and they shot down several Japanese planes before returning to the airfield for more fuel and ammunition. Welch recalled: "We had to argue with some of the ground crew. They wanted us to disperse the airplanes and we wanted to fight."

One of Welch's machine guns had jammed. Taylor had been wounded in the arm and leg and was advised not to get back in the air that day. Nevertheless, the two pilots prepared to climb back into the sky. Journalist Blake Clark recounted: "Before Welch's guns could be unlocked or Taylor's wound receive first aid, a second wave of 15 Japanese planes swept in….but he and Welch took off immediately."

The Japanese pilots soon zeroed in on Taylor's Tomahawk. "Welch, behind them, dived on the one most dangerous to his partner, letting fly with all his guns," Clark later wrote. "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."

A total of five Air Corps 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.

One group of Japanese planes, their cargoes of bombs expended, turned to strafe Hickam and Ewa airfields and the naval installations at Ford Island. One of those Japanese pilots saw in the distance an aerial melee that very likely included Welch and Taylor. The Japanese flier reported seeing several of his comrades' planes falling from the sky in flames. In his definitive account of the Pearl Harbor attack, At Dawn We Slept, Gordon W. Prange noted that the single American airfield to emerge from the battle undamaged 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 drove off the attackers.

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. Taylor later explained his role during the Pearl Harbor strike in testimony before a Congressional joint committee investigating the Japanese attack.

Welch was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his heroism, but it was denied him because his commanding officer said he had 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.  

11 Responses to “American Aviators Aloft at Pearl Harbor”

  1. 1
    TL Rouhier says:

    Some of the prewar officers were useless. Since when do you need orders to protect your country? Welch should get the Medal of Honor pushed thru congress now!

  2. 2
    Jack Schlotte says:

    A VERY little known story from that day was that two four-engine B-17 bombers took off from Hickam Field to attack the Japanese surface fleet that brought their planes to Pearl Harbor. Harvey Schlotte, my father was the radio operator in the first B-17 to take off on a combat mission in WWII. He was also the radio instructor for all B-17 radiomen for Hickam Field.. Maj. Lavern Saunders and Capt. Brooke Allen got two B-17s up at 11:27 am and went looking for the Japanese fleet by flying a search grid far out to sea in the direction they were seen to leave. My father went on to fly 50 combat missions against the Japanese in Fiji, New Guinea and from Darwin, Australia in both B-17's and B-25's. He started a third tour of duty daylight bombing Germany from England and was a POW in Germany, having been shot down over Hamburg on Mar, 8 1945 and was the sole survivor of the crew of 10.
    This should have been included in American Aviators Aloft at Pearl Harbor.

  3. 3
    Rodney says:

    Your father is a brave man. I don,t know how anyone could over look this. Now that I know this I will be passing it no to all my family and friends.Your right he should have been in American Aviators at Pearl Harbor. Is possable to get his actions in at this time?

  4. 4
    Lonnie Alexander says:

    I have a very interesting story about George (Wheaties) Welsh. I sold a car in 1999 to an old timer wearing a old time leather flight jacket from the NASA staff of engineers for the Apollo rocket program. This occurred in Bozeman, Montana. This was so long ago, I must apologize for not remembering the old guys name. Anyway, he asked me if I knew who was the first test pilot to break the sound barrier? Everybody knows that it was Chuck Yeager, I replied. The old gentleman then proceeded to tell me the story of the two American pilots to get off the ground when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He explained to me that George Welsh, known by his friends as Wheaties, was actually the first US test pilot to break the sound barrier. And the reason that he isn't the one that received credit for this feat was because at the time, the US and the Soviet Union were involved in a cold war and the US government did not want the Soviets to know that we had already broken the sound barrier. I really think the old guy was telling me the truth.I have never taken the time to research what Welch did as far as being a test pilot in one of the first jet aircraft, but the fact that he was a test pilot in experimental jet aircraft, leads me to believe that there is a high probability this could be in fact the truth. I have never to this day, seen any mention of George Welsh having a nickname of Wheaties. I feel not only did he deserve the medal of Honor, but should have his name mentioned in the history books as well if in fact, he was the first to break the sound barrier. I bet Mr. Yeager, if still alive, would like to hear this story.

    • 4.1
      Rob Fester says:

      I have heard that Wlech broke the sound barrier in an F-86 in a dive. That Yaeger was the first to break it in level flight…Not sure the F-86 had the juice to break the barrier in level flight…

  5. 5
    hi says:

    i will hav this in my reasearch report!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thanks

  6. 6
    J.Nabors says:

    Welch should get the highest award. Why didn't he get it. He deserved this more than anyone I know of. Most gallant and heroic act an American can have is saving others at his own risk.

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