Sunday morning–a time to sleep in, browse through the papers, tee off for an early round of golf. This Sunday, all that was not to be. The place, Pearl Harbor; the time, 7:55 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941. A script for the greatest disaster in US military history was unfolding just as Billy Mitchell had predicted 17 years earlier.
At Wheeler Field, 2d Lts. George Welch and Kenneth Taylor were awakened by the scream of aircraft engines and the sound of exploding bombs. Running outside, they saw smoke rising over Pearl Harbor and Japanese planes diving on their targets.
It requires some imagination to envision the shock and confusion created by the holocaust that was unfolding before the eyes of military personnel and civilians. The possibility of war with Japan was recognized, but Army commanders had ruled out an attack on Hawaii as impossible. The only threat, they thought, was minor sabotage. The reality of the attack left many–in and out of uniform–dazed and bewildered.
Lieutenants Welch and Taylor were less than a year out of pilot training, and, like all at Pearl Harbor, neither was psychologically prepared for a shooting war. Nevertheless, Taylor immediately called the grass strip at Haleiwa, 10 miles from Honolulu, where the 47th Pursuit Squadron had been sent for target practice. He told the ground crews to have two P-40s fueled and armed for combat.
Driving at top speed to Haleiwa, they survived a strafing attack and found the strip untouched. Without permission or knowledge of the enemy situation, they took off, only their .30-caliber guns loaded. Near the Marine airfield at Ewa, they attacked a formation of “Kate” dive bombers that was strafing the field. With three of his four guns firing, Welch shot down one “Kate,” as did Taylor. Turning to get behind another, Lieutenant Welch’s P-40 was hit by an enemy tailgunner. He ducked into a cloud to check his plane. Then both lieutenants returned to the Pearl Harbor area, where each man downed another “Kate.”
Low on ammunition, the two landed at Wheeler to rearm. As they prepared to take off, a wave of enemy bombers escorted by Zeros swept toward the field. Flying into the enemy formation, Lieutenant Welch shot a Zero off the wounded Lieutenant Taylor’s tail, was again hit by enemy fire, then nailed another attacking plane before returning once more to Haleiwa to rearm. By the time Welch was airborne for his third sortie, the Japanese armada of some 350 aircraft had departed for their carriers, leaving the US Pacific Fleet in ruins and having destroyed most of the US military aircraft parked wingtip-to-wingtip as a safeguard against sabotage. Only the 46th and 47th Pursuit Squadrons had been able to get fighters into the air.
Lieutenant Welch is generally credited with shooting down the first Japanese aircraft in the Pacific War, followed seconds later by Lieutenant Taylor’s initial victory. Both pilots were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, Welch was honored by President Roosevelt at a White House ceremony. Welch’s four confirmed victories in his first combat experience were an illustrious start for a distinguished war record as a fighter pilot that was to span the next two years in the Pacific.
In 1942, George Welch was assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron, 8th Group, flying P-39s in New Guinea. Lacking maneuverability, rate of climb, and altitude capability, the P-39 was no one’s choice for air combat. Despite those handicaps, Welch shot down a Zero and two “Val” dive bombers on Dec. 7, 1942, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
Better things were to come. For his third combat tour, Welch joined the 8th Group’s 80th Fighter Squadron, equipped with P-38s. On June 21, 1943, he destroyed two “Zeke” fighters over Lae, then, two months later, downed three “Tony” fighters near Wewak. Now a captain, Welch was moved to 8th Fighter Group Hq. His biggest day came on Sept. 2, 1943, when he dropped three Zeros and a “Dinah” bomber. With 16 victories, George Welch ended his combat career among the top 35 Army Air Forces aces of World War II and stood 10th among aces in the Pacific. He was one of the few pilots to score victories flying three different fighters.
After the war, George Welch served as a test pilot at Edwards AFB, Calif. On Oct. 12, 1954, he was killed testing an F-100 Super Sabre. He will be remembered by many only as the first Air Force pilot to shoot down an enemy plane in the Pacific War–one of the great heroes of Pearl Harbor. Fewer know of his later combat tours, marked by the same courage, skill, and determination he displayed as an untested pilot during his country’s first hour of World War II.
Published May 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.