Thursday, December 7th, 2006
2:10 pm - Heroes  
Kenneth Taylor died this past November 25th after a long illness, less than two weeks short of the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was during the attack that Taylor and his wingman, George Welch became heroes as the most successful of the handful of American pilots who managed to get into the air during the attack. They'd been partying the night before, and as dawn broke they were still in their tuxedos at the Officer's Club at Wheeler Field, the main Army fighter base a few miles north of Pearl, trying to decide whether to finally hit the sack, or to go up to the north shore for a swim. They chose sleep, but it didn't last long.

A couple hours later they were rudely awakened when bombs began to fall on Wheeler, the very first target in the initial attack. Paranoid about the possibility of sabotage from the Japanese population on Oahu, the Army had ordered Wheeler's fighter contingent to be parked together out in the open, wing-to-wing in order to make them easier to guard from a ground attack, rather than dispersing the planes in revetments. This, of course, made them perfect targets for an air attack, and the Japanese took full advantage. Most of the base's P-40's were destroyed on the ground in short order.

Luckily, Taylor and Welch's planes were not at Wheeler, having been temporarily assigned to a little used grass strip at Haleiwa. The two phoned ahead to have ground crew prepare their planes, pulled their tuxedo pants back on, and then headed off hell bent for leather for Haleiwa in Taylor's car. They were soon in the air, and shortly thereafter were the first American pilots to engage the attackers. Given the overwhelming numbers of Japanese planes in the air that morning, it was a target rich environment, and both quickly managed kills before they had to land at Wheeler to rearm, and in Taylor's case, see to a wounded arm. As they were reloading, the Japanese attacked again, and the pilots decided their chances were better in the air, so they took off again. Taylor looked down the runway to see several planes headed directly for him, so he started firing on his takeoff run, and immediately found himself in a dogfight. He managed another kill, but only one of his guns had been reloaded, and he soon ran out of ammo. Welch flew a third mission that day, with another wingman. In the end, Taylor was credited with two kills, and Welch with four, one of the few bright spots in a really bad day for the US military.

Their heroics have made it to the big screen twice, first in Tora, Tora, Tora, which sticks pretty close to actual events, and later in the execrable Pearl Harbor, in which the Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett characters are very, very, very loosely based on Taylor and Welch.

Welch later became a test pilot for North American Aviation, and may have been the first person to actually break the sound barrier in controlled flight, a couple of weeks before Chuck Yeager did it officially. He was killed in 1954 when a prototype F-100 he was testing broke up in mid-flight. Taylor served in the Air Force into the sixties, and was later commander of the Alaska Air National Guard. He was 86 when he died.

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I happened to stumble across an airing of Pearl Harbor last week, the first time I'd watched it I think since it was in theatres, and I still can't believe how awful the flight sequences in it are, with the P-40's and Zeroes whizzing around a few feet off the ground like Star Wars X-Wings. Truly an abomination.