Ken Taylor was not unhappy as he was about to begin his junior
year at the University of Oklahoma in September 1940. Born in Enid and reared in
the small, rural town of Hominy, Taylor had found Norman a major life-style
change. He had pledged Acacia fraternity and discovered a love of partying and
Still Taylor knew that despite the countryís isolationist mood,
America likely would be going to war in the next year or two. Hitler and his
Nazi army were overrunning Europe; Japan was rampaging unchecked through the
South Pacific and Asia.
If there was going to be a war, Taylor decided, he wanted to be
doing something of his choice; he joined the Army Air Corps and landed in
Hawaii. He never dreamed that in less than a year and a half he would be
officially designated as one of the first two American heroes of World War
After a spate of post-Pearl Harbor publicity, Taylor never
spoke of his heroics, although he would spend the next quarter century in the
Air Force, rising to brigadier general. Years later he was fairly accurately
portrayed in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! and badly played by Ben Affleck
in the more recent Pearl Harbor.
With major television documentaries on the "day of infamy"
focused on the sinking of the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor itself and less on the
destruction of the Army's facilities on Oahu, few Sooners have ever heard of Ken
Taylor. Fewer still know of his Oklahoma background.
Taylorís first assignment was not far from Hominy at the Spartan
flight school in Tulsa, then on to advanced training at Brooks Field, San
Meanwhile, near the eastern shore in Wilmington, Delaware,
another young man, George Welch, was home after finishing his sophomore year at
Purdue University in Indiana. Like Taylor, wanting his first choice should the
U.S. go to war, he joined the Air Corps.
"At the time the Army was not much interested in having
pilots," Taylor said in an interview shortly before his death in 2006. "If you
made it through flight school, they really made you work for it."
In April 1941, Taylor graduated at Brooks with silver wings and
gold second lieutenantís bars. He was granted his request to fly fighters and to
be sent to Hawaii.
At Wheeler Field on Oahu, Capt. Gordon Austin, West Point í36,
had been ordered on December 1, 1940, to activate the 47th Pursuit Squadron.
Taylor arrived to join the 47th in May, about three months after Welch became
one of its pilots.
"I immediately recognized Taylor and Welch as having
extraordinary skills as pilots," Austin was to recall, "so we made them flight
Both men were of medium build, typical of fighter pilots.
Taylor often had a little smirk on his face, as if he knew something no one else
did, and Welch a lopsided but friendly grin.
The two pilots were assigned to live in adjoining buildings in
the Bachelor Officers Quarters at Wheeler, a large patch of green grass near the
middle of Oahu where the 47th was based. They became close friends.
Taylor recalled that it was tough, and the unit lost pilots.
Once his engine died when he was over the water, and operations ordered him to
"I told them I was not about to parachute down into the most
shark-infested part of the ocean around Oahu, and luckily I made a landing back
at the field."
But there was a problem with the two flying stars of the 47th.
In the air they were superb. On the ground they were goof-offs and a real
nuisance to the West Pointers.
"We were lazy; they didnít like the way we saluted, and our
general military attitude," said Taylor.
At the end of November 1941, Austin was ordered to take the
47th for gunnery practice at a small auxiliary base. The field was near the
small community of Haleiwa, where the men lived in tents under trees and flew
from a short runway running from the tents almost to the surf.
"We had an old utility plane that carried a flag target behind
it, and the idea was to hit the flag," Austin said. "At that time some of my
pilots in the 47th had never even fired the machine guns on their planes."
Shortly before the 47th was dispatched to Haleiwa, the Army and
Navy high commands met with senior officers to advise them of the seriousness of
diplomatic relations with Japan. Taylor and Welch had thought they would be
going to fight alongside the RAF against the Germans. Austin saw those in Hawaii
more likely fighting the Japanese in the Philippines.
Neither forecast was correct.
About 4 p.m. Friday, December 5, the only alert issued to
commanders was to have men with small arms guard military facilities against
possible sabotage by Japanese locals.
At Wheeler, 125 bunkers had been prepared around the field for
dispersing aircraft. But for that weekend Gen. Walter Short, senior Army officer
in Hawaii, ordered Col. William J. Flood, Wheeler commander, to line the planes
up wing tip to wing tip in the middle of the field. The senior officers at
Wheeler vigorously disagreed and requested the order be in writing. Short
Austin was undecided about what to do with the
47th.. He wanted to go with other airmen and two artillery officers
to the neighboring island of Molokai to look for emergency landing spots and do
some hunting. Austin and his operations officer finally flipped a coin, and it
was decided squadron members would have the weekend off.
Taylor had a new Buick, so he and Welch drove back to the more
comfortable quarters at Wheeler to prepare for their usual Saturday night
In 1941 a requirement at military officers clubs was for men to
wear black tie. On Saturday evening Taylor donned a white dinner jacket, and the
two started their round of partying that began in Honolulu, moved on to Hickham
Field, then ended back at the Wheeler club in a poker game.
About 3 a.m. Taylor and Welch left the game and sacked out in
their quarters, perhaps not completely sober. Just before 8 a.m., Taylor was
awakened by low-flying planes, suspecting the Navy pilots were playing a little
reveille game on the Army troops. Explosions followed, and Taylor thought a Navy
pilot had been careless and crashed.
"I jumped out of bed and grabbed my nearest pants, which
happened to be the tux trousers," Taylor said, "and ran outside to see what was
In the street separating their BOQ buildings, Welch joined him
to see Japanese planes firing and dropping bombs on the base.
"Some," said Taylor, "were no more than 50 or 75 feet overhead,
and we could clearly see their faces as they flew by."
Tossing his Buick keys to Welch, Taylor ran to the only phone
in the BOQ and called Haleiwa ordering two P-40s be armed and ready because they
were on their way. Driving at top speed, the two pilots were at the little field
in minutes, in the cockpits and airborne.
Their first encounter in the air was with a dozen unarmed B-17s
flying in from the mainland.
"Luckily we identified them," said Taylor. "If I had shot one
down, I never could have forgiven myself."
Flying past Wheeler, where most of its aircraft had been
destroyed and the action ended, the two pilots spotted a line of Japanese
bombers in the distance near a Marine base at Ewa, not far from Pearl
Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese carrier task force
commander, had devised a strategy for the surprise attack by sending his first
planes in to destroy the American aircraft. This done, there would be minimal
resistance for his dive and torpedo bombers assigned to wipe out most of the
U.S. Navyís Pacific fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor.
Yamamoto apparently did not know about Haleiwa, and the
Japanese pilots must have been surprised when Taylor and Welch swooped down
"The bombers were no match for our P-40s," said Taylor, "and we
had a grand old time running up and down the line shooting them down."
It did not take long for their .30-caliber gunnery practice
ammo to be expended, so first Welch, then Taylor, flew back to Wheeler where
there was a good supply of .50-caliber bullets. However, as the two pilots were
being rearmed, they found senior officers climbing up on the wings of their
"What the hell are you guys doing?" the officers demanded.
"Disperse your aircraft and do not go up again."
Yamamoto had an estimated 350 planes in his task force and at
odds of about 175 to 1, it could be argued the senior officers were only trying
to keep Taylor and Welch from a suicidal situation.
All that became immaterial when a second wave of Japanese
planes approached Wheeler from the south in the direction of Pearl Harbor, and
"the brass," as Taylor called them, ran for safety.
The Wheeler runways were grass, so Welch gave his engine full
throttle and was in the air. The rearming crew had left its cart in front of
Taylorís P-40, but when he gunned his engine the planeís wing knocked the cart
out of the way.
Taylor, too, soon was up for a second flight with both pilots
risking their lives and courts martial for disobeying orders.
Once aloft, a problem Taylor faced was that instead of being at
the end of a line of Japanese planes, he was in the middle. A bullet from a
plane behind him came through his canopy about an inch from his head, hit the
trim tab, went though his left arm and exploded Ė the brass shards ruining his
Welch luckily saw Taylorís predicament and shot down the plane
on his friendís tail, likely saving his life.
Both pilots continued their aerial combat until they had chased
the Japanese planes off the north shore and again were out of ammunition.
A few other pilots were able to get into the air that day both
from Wheeler and Haleiwa. Welch was credited with four kills and Taylor two,
although the latter thought another two he shot down fell into the ocean.
With all the chaos and many Army facilities destroyed at
Bellows, Hickham and Wheeler fields as well as Schofield Barracks, the Army high
command made a quick public relations decision to recommend Taylor and Welch for
Only six days later on December 13, 1941, the U.S. War
Department issued a press release in Washington, D.C., naming Lts. Taylor and
Welch as the official first two heroes of World War II.
A week later Austin was ordered to arrange a medal ceremony and
for all Army personnel at Wheeler Field to turn out on January 8, 1942, for the
event. Present were Brig. Gen. Howard C. Davidson, 14th Wing Commander;
Brig.Gen. Clarence Tinker, for whom Tinker Field in Midwest City is named; and
Maj. Gen. Frederick Martin.
Both Welch and Taylor were awarded the Distinguished Service
Cross, the military decoration second only to the Medal of Honor.
"At the time we were awarded the medals," said Taylor, "we
really didnít understand the full significance of this recognition. It was quite
Virtually every newspaper across the country carried the story
of the Taylor/Welch heroism with photos and drawings. Life Magazine ran
an article, and newsreels of the ceremony played in theaters everywhere. Early
in 1942 Taylorís photograph in helmet, goggles and white scarf was on the cover
of Sooner Magazine.
Both pilots eventually were sent to the South Pacific. Taylor,
according to a fellow pilot, shot down the first Japanese plane headed to bomb
their base on Guadalcanal and saved major damage. Later during an air raid, some
men jumped into a foxhole on top of him, breaking his leg; he was sent home.
Welch shot down twelve more enemy planes and became one of the
top aces in the South Pacific campaign. In 1954 he was killed as a civilian test
pilot flying the F100.
Ken Taylor retired as an Air Force brigadier general and
commander of the Alaska Air National Guard. He died November 25, 2006, only a
few days shy of the 65th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. He was laid to
rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
Authorís Note: During the fall of 2006 the fun and good times
of my 40 years of friendship with Ken Taylor continued. I would record the
Sooner football games on TV, then drive up to his assisted living facility in
Tucson and have a drink or two with Ken while watching our Sooners whomp their
opponents. He was not just one of our first World War II heroes but one of the
greatest. (See more at www.pearlharborhero.net.)
John Martin Meek,í58 journ, is the author of The Christmas
Hour, a novel, and I Might Just Be Right, a collection of his
newspaper columns and features. He has been researching the heroism of Ken
Taylor and George Welch for six years in an effort to have them upgraded to the
Congressional Medal of Honor.