Monday, December 7, 2009
Vengeful American fighter pilots get their pound of flesh at Pearl Harbor
Posted by John Keller
Consider a couple of young hotshot fighter pilots on their dream assignment in Hawaii. Short work days, plenty of sun and sand, and parties ... think of the parties ... rooftop dinner-dances at Waikiki beachfront hotels, big bands, pretty girls, endless rum and tropical fruit drinks -- and always a poker game to be had in the wee hours.
Ah, that was the life, and it belonged to George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, second lieutenants in the U.S. Army Air Corps on their first deployments flying P-40 Warhawk single-engine fighters out of Wheeler Field near Pearl Harbor in early December 1941. Welch was 23. Taylor was two weeks short of his 22nd birthday.
So where else would you expect to find these guys on a balmy Saturday night, but at dance party near the beach, and a late-night poker game with buddies thrown in for good measure. The last poker hand was dealt as the day's first faint glow came in the east that Dec. 7, 1941. After having been up all night, the young pilots were thinking of a lazy morning in bed, with maybe a Sunday morning swim first to soften their hangovers.
Before they could get settled, however, they heard the first ominous sounds that would change their lives -- and the lives of a nation -- forever. Explosions, gunfire, the roar of aircraft at Wheeler field. Fighters and bombers with the distinctive red-ball markings of the Japanese Empire shrieked over the base, firing machine guns and dropping bombs in the beginning of the Japanese attack on U.S. military bases in and around Pearl Harbor.
Welch grabbed a telephone to call an auxiliary airfield at Haleiwa -- 16 miles away by winding road -- where their P-40 fighters were parked. They told ground crewmen at Haleiwa to get their fighters fueled and warmed up; He and Taylor would get there as soon as they could.
They drove in Taylor's car at speeds sometimes reaching 100 miles per hour up winding roads, dodging strafing from attacking Japanese aircraft several times. They might not have known it, but the battleship USS Arizona and many other U.S. Navy ships docked at Pearl Harbor were burning and sinking behind them.
Finally Welch and Taylor reached their fighters idling beside the grass strip at Haleiwa. Without much of preflight inspection, the two pilots jumped into their cockpits, strapped in, and streaked into the air, where almost immediately each pilot shot down a Japanese bomber. Taylor saw another Japanese plane heading out to sea, went after it, and shot it down.
Meanwhile, Welch's plane was hit, yet he maneuvered through a cloud, broke out, and pounced on an Aichi D3A dive bomber and shot the Japanese attacker down. Taylor and Welch both had already shot down two Japanese planes apiece, and were running low on fuel, but they weren't through for the day.
Despite continuing attacks, the two pilots landed at stricken Wheeler Field beside the smoking wreckage of the ships at Pearl Harbor to refuel from an undamaged gasoline truck. Ground crewmen ran into a burning hangar to get them ammunition, and soon Welch and Taylor were airborne again.
They climbed through a cloud of Japanese planes on the second-wave attack, and each shot down one more. By the time they landed for good that day, Welch had four confirmed kills, and Taylor two. Most likely the two pilots probably shot down at least 10 Japanese attackers between them.
Now consider this: The Japanese lost only 29 aircraft in their attack on Pearl Harbor. Welch and Taylor probably accounted for one-third of that. Both pilots won the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions at Pearl Harbor. For his heroism that day Welch was denied the Medal of Honor -- if you can believe it -- because he took off without orders.
Welch had other hard luck in his life. He probably broke the sound barrier in 1947 while flying an XP-86 Sabre jet fighter two weeks before Chuck Yeager did it in the X-1, but Welch's plane was in a dive, and didn't have reliable speed-measuring equipment, so it didn't count. He was killed as a test pilot at age 36 in the crash of an F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter.
Taylor fared better. He retired from the service as a brigadier general in the Alaska Air National Guard. He died in Tucson, Ariz., in 2006 at the age of 86.
Today is Pearl Harbor Day. Welch and Taylor were not the only heroes in the Japanese attack that happened 68 years ago today. There were plenty of heroes. Please take a moment today to remember them all.