When the Japanese launched their attack shortly after 7:00 AM on December 7, 1941, the heavy bombardment prevented all but a few pilots from reaching their aircraft and launching a counterattack. George Welch and Kenneth Taylor were two of these pilots.
Both second lieutenants in the U.S. Army Air Corps, they had spent Saturday evening at a dance at the Wheeler Field officers club, followed by an all-night card game away from their home base at Haleiwa.As the card game was wrapping up early Sunday morning, the players were startled to hear distant gunfire and the sound of low-flying planes. Learning that the base was under attack, they phoned ahead (without orders) to have their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters armed and fueled. The two pilots then hopped into Taylor’s Buick and raced to the Haleiwa airstrip, reaching speeds of 100 mph.
At the airstrip, Welch and Taylor (still wearing their tuxedo pants from the night before) jumped into their P-40s, which by that time had been fueled but not fully armed. They attracted Japanese fire immediately after taking off, facing off virtually alone against some 200 to 300 enemy aircraft. When they ran out of ammunition, they returned to Wheeler to reload. As senior officers ordered the pilots to stay on the ground, the second wave of Japanese raiders flew in, scattering the crowd. Taylor and Welch took off again, in the midst of a swarm of enemy planes.Though Welch’s machine guns were disconnected, he fired his .30-caliber guns, destroying two Japanese planes on the first sortie. On the second, with his plane heavily damaged by gunfire, he shot down two more enemy aircraft. A bullet pierced the canopy of Taylor’s plane, hitting his arm and sending shrapnel into his leg, but he managed to shoot down at least two Japanese planes, and perhaps more. (He was officially credited with two kills, Welch with four.)
Welch and Taylor’s actions diverted the Japanese bombers enough to prevent the destruction of Haleiwa airfield. For their heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Welch and Taylor were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army Air Corps second-highest honor. Both men were also nominated for the Medal of Honor but did not qualify because they had taken off without orders. Welch and Taylor continued to fly for the duration of WWII- Welch with the 36th Fighter Squadron in New Guinea, and Taylor with the 44th Fighter Squadron in the South Pacific.
Welch and Taylor’s story was retold as part of the WWII recruitment effort, and Welch even spent some of the early days of the war traveling across the U.S. so promote war bonds. Their story was later retold in a number of films and literary works- most notably, it was loosely referenced in the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor, and more accurately portrayed in the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora!