Lt George Schwartz Welch and 2nd Lt Kenneth M Taylor are credited with being the first ‘Aces’ of World War II. Welch and Taylor were both awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Let’s look back …
Starting at 7:55 am, December 7, 1941, in a matter of minutes, Japanese bombers sank or damaged eight battleships, three light cruisers and three destroyers in Pearl Harbor. (Aviation History)
But boats were not their only targets.
Before the boats, the Japanese attacked Oʻahu’s airfields: Wheeler, Kaneohe, Ewa, Hickam, Ford Island, Bellows and the civilian airport serving Honolulu.
The Japanese heavily strafed the aircraft at Wheeler Field and few aircraft were able to get airborne to fend them off. Haleiwa was an auxiliary field to Wheeler and contained a collection of aircraft temporarily assigned to the field including aircraft from the 47th Pursuit Squadron.
Welch and Taylor were at Wheeler when the attack began; they had previously flown their P-40B fighters over to the small airfield at Haleiwa as part of a plan to disperse the squadron’s planes away from Wheeler.
Not waiting for instructions the pilots called ahead to Haleiwa and had both their fighters fueled, armed and warmed up. Both men raced in their cars to Haleiwa Field completing the 16-mile trip in about 15 minutes (their dramatic ride and takeoff was shown in ‘Tora, Tora, Tora.’
Once in the air they spotted a large number of aircraft in the direction of ʻEwa and Pearl Harbor. “There were between 200 and 300 Japanese aircraft,” said Taylor; “there were just two of us!”
Lt Welch was able to down the plane following him and they both returned back to Wheeler. Lt Welch was credited with a total of four Japanese planes shot down and Lt Taylor downed two. Just as suddenly as it began, the sky was empty of enemy aircraft.
A fellow fighter pilot of the 18th Group, Francis S (Gabby) Gabreski (who would later go on to become the top American Ace in the European Theater in World War II) described Welch:
“He was a rich kid, heir to the grape juice family, and we couldn’t figure out why he was there since he probably could have avoided military service altogether if he wanted to.”
Welch remained in the Pacific Theater of Operations and went on to score 12 more kills against Japanese aircraft (16 in total).
In the spring of 1944, Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a test pilot for the P-51 Mustang. He went on to fly the prototypes of the FJ Fury, and when the F-86 Sabre was proposed, Welch was chosen as the chief test pilot.
On October 14, 1947, the same day that Chuck Yeager was to attempt supersonic flight, Welch reputedly performed a supersonic dive. Starting from 37,000 feet, he executed a full-power 4g pullout, greatly increasing the power of his apparent sonic boom. Yeager broke the sound barrier approximately 30 minutes later.
The Pentagon allegedly ordered the results of Welch’s flights classified and did not allow North American to publicly announce that Welch had gone supersonic until almost a year later. The Air Force still officially denies that Welch broke the sound barrier first.
October 12, 1954, Welch’s F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre, disintegrated during a 7g pullout at Mach 1.55. He was evacuated by helicopter, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the Army hospital. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. (Castagnaro and Padilla)
2nd Lt. Kenneth Marlar Taylor was a new second lieutenant on his first assignment, posted in April 1941 to Wheeler Army Airfield in Honolulu.
Born in Enid, Oklahoma, Taylor 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.
“He was skillful as a pilot and a well-oriented officer. You couldn’t ask for a better flying officer in your squadron. He was willing to do anything, I’m sure. The enemy was all around and he was going after them.” (Gen. Gordon Austin, his first commanding officer)
After Pearl Harbor, Taylor was sent to the South Pacific, flying out of Guadalcanal, and was credited with downing another Japanese aircraft. During an air raid at the base one day, 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.
Taylor split his retirement between Anchorage and Arizona. He died November 25, 2006 at an assisted living residence in Tucson. (Washington Post) The image shows Lt George Welch (L) and Ken Taylor.