DOVER — George S. Welch is the Delawarean who shot down four planes on Dec. 7, 1941.
The flying ace was the first to gun down a “Zero” on the morning that the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor and bases on the island of Oahu in Hawaii and drew the United States into World War II.
He saved the life of his wingman and close friend, Kenneth Taylor, when he downed the third Japanese plane.
Lts. Welch and Taylor were both awarded Distinguished Service Crosses within a few weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbor, credited for their initiative and bravery in piloting P-40 Warhawks into the storm of Japanese planes.
“George Welch was the first decorated hero of World War II,” said writer John Martin Meek. “That’s all there is to it.
“He was a fantastic hero of World War II.”
Mr. Meek, who had a 40-year friendship with Lt. Taylor, is author of “The Other Pearl Harbor (The Army Air Corps & Its Heroes on Dec. 7, 1941).”
His book focuses on the story of Lts. Welch and Taylor with hope that it could help get the two pilots Congressional Medals of Honor, the military’s top award.
Over the past several years, several people have tried.
The Medal of Honor effort has stalled.
Their heroic story, however, remains strong.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, then-U.S. Army Air Corps second lieutenants Welch and Taylor were asleep at Wheeler Field, north of Pearl Harbor, when they were roused by the noise of dive bombers. Welch first thought they were American Navy planes.
“I stayed in bed until I heard bombs exploding and machine gun fire,” Lt. Welch said in an official Army interview in May 1942. “… I ran out — saw red circles on the airplanes and realized what was going on and that they were Jap planes.”
Groggy from a night of partying and poker playing, the two quickly donned trousers — Lt. Welch put on the tuxedo pants and ruffled dress shirt he had on the night before — and dashed out to the airfield. It was clear they were under attack.
Taylor dialed up the training airfield in Haleiwa on the North Shore where the two young pilots’ P-40 Warhawk single-seat, single-engine planes were stationed. Crew members from their 47th Pursuit Squadron were directed to fuel up the planes and load the .30-caliber machine guns with ammo.
At the training field, more powerful .50-caliber rounds were not available. Additionally, the planes were not tuned to fire the larger rounds, which come from behind the propeller.
Welch, meanwhile, fetched a car. Without orders, the two drove off in a Buick, taking fire on a daring dash of 10 miles past acres and acres of pineapple fields.
Once in the air, at about 8:30 a.m., they did not spot Japanese planes but could see fire at Pearl Harbor. They soon noticed several planes at Ewa, the Marine Landing Field west of Pearl Harbor.
“We found they were Japanese dive bombers strafing the field,” Lt. Welch said in the 1942 interview.
It was there that Lt. Welch entered the fight with Lt. Taylor flying about 20 yards behind him.
“The first one I shot down, the rear gunner didn’t even turn around to face me,” said Lt. Welch. “I got him in a five-second burst — he burned up right away.”
From there, he pursued the next plane about 100 yards away.
“His rear gunner was shooting at me,” said Lt. Welch. “One bullet put a hole through my cooling radiator, and I got one in my prop and one in my nose. It took about three bursts of five seconds each to get him. He crashed on the beach.”
With the other dive bombers disappearing from sight, Welch and Taylor flew to Wheeler Field for fuel and ammo. Historical accounts say it was then that Welch and Taylor ignored orders to get out of the planes.
The Welch interview does not mention the orders.
“We just got our motors started when the Japs started strafing the field,” Lt. Welch said in the interview. “Lt. Taylor took off down the field, and I took off in the opposite direction, flying into the Japs.”
Lt. Taylor’s account was slightly different. He said he, too, flew straight at the Japanese after Lt. Welch was already in the air.
Lt. Welch said he could see tracers coming from behind him as he tried to climb and turn away from danger.
Looking down, he could see Lt. Taylor in pursuit of a Japanese plane. Another enemy plane was tailing Lt. Taylor.
“I dove on this one while I was about 1,000 feet above him and a mile behind him,” Lt. Welch said in the interview. “I had to put down my flaps to slow down to keep behind. He burst into flames. Apparently I hit the big gas tank between the pilot and the gunner.”
Flying back over Ewa, Lt. Welch shot down another Japanese plane that was by itself.
“His rear gunner was dead or asleep, for I didn’t get fired at,” said Lt. Welch.
Without additional action, Lt. Welch returned to Haleiwa. He was out of the plane by 10 a.m.
On Jan. 8, 1942, Lt. Welch and Lt. Taylor received Distinguished Service Crosses for their actions.
The end of the citation said, “Lieutenant Welch’s initiative, presence of mind, coolness under fire against overwhelming odds in his first battle, expert maneuvering of his plane, and determined action contributed to a large extent toward driving off this sudden, unexpected air attack.”
Lt. Welch was just 23 years old, five years removed from his schooling at St. Andrew’s in Middletown. He joined the Air Corps after three years at Purdue University.
He grew up in Wilmington, the son of a DuPont chemist. His father changed the family’s name to Welch, from Schwartz, to avoid anti-German sentiments after World War I.
His buddy, Lt. Taylor, was 22 years old. Welch often teased him about his Oklahoma roots.
Welch, who attained the rank of major before leaving the service, had 16 kills, ranking him among the top 35 combat pilots in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He also was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star and Air Medal.
A bout with malaria led him to leave the military in 1944.
Years later, he became a test pilot for North American Aviation. Historical accounts, for years, have debated whether he was the first to break the sound barrier, first on Oct. 1, 1947, in an XP-86 Sabre. The feat may have been repeated again on Oct. 14, 1947, just a half hour before Chuck Yeager, “officially” broke the sound barrier in an X-1.
In 1954, Maj. Welch was killed when test piloting a fighter jet, the F-100 Super Sabre, at Edwards Air Force Base.
Taylor was active in the Army for 27 years. He attained the rank of brigadier general in the Army National Guard before retiring and going into civilian life.
He was a consultant for the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Their heroics are depicted in the film.
Brig. Gen. Taylor died in 2006.
Both men are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
For years, there have been multiple efforts to get the two flying aces Medals of Honor, the highest military award.
“We believe that Major George S. Welch, as well General Kenneth Taylor, our first World War II heroes, distinguished themselves, at the risk of their own lives, above and beyond the call of duty, while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.
In Delaware, Paul L. Cathell Jr., of Stanton, was among those leading the charge.
He collected more than 1,200 signatures to petition for the honor for Welch.
Mr. Cathell, along with Charles K. Burns of Newark, championed Mr. Welch’s induction into the Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001.
In 2004, fourth-grade students at Major George S. Welch Elementary School at Dover Air Force Base petitioned Delaware’s delegation to take up the Medal of Honor cause. Student Charity Figueroa, in one of several pleas, wrote to then U.S.-Sen. Joe Biden, “George didn’t even wait for his boss to say come here, get in your plane, and fight. George just went out and fought. That’s why my school has his name on it. That’s why I think Maj. George S . Welch deserves the Medal of Honor.”
In 2004, Sen. Carper asked the Army to consider the honor for Major Welch.
The senator’s staff collected information from the Army, Air Force, State of Delaware Historical and Cultural Affairs, National Personnel Records Center with the request. Among the items was Welch’s interview, used to tell his Pearl Harbor in his own words in today’s column.
Sen. Carper’s staff found that some of Welch’s military records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at an Army records center in St. Louis.
The staff also provided a DVD of the interview Brig. Gen. Taylor did in 2001.
In 2007, Sen. Carper spoke with then-Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and asked his office to take a closer look.
The recommendation was denied by the Army.
Additionally, a request submitted by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, was denied.
“Three times, we submitted to the Army a recommendation to upgrade the Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor,” said a statement from Sen. Carper’s office. “We even submitted a request to the Air Force, hoping to have the Air Force look at it seeing that Welch and Taylor were Army Air Corps. The Air Force referred it back to the Army. Each time, the branch stated that there was not new, substantive material that was not considered before.”
In multiple historical accounts, there are references to Gen. Henry H. Arnold nominating both Welch and Taylor for the Medal of Honor in 1941.
Documentation regarding this has not been found, according to Sen. Carper’s office.
It’s a piece of history that could make a difference in appeals.
Several people have speculated that the rush to recognize heroes just after the attack on Pearl Harbor were partly to blame.
The usual thorough nature of the process was hastened in advance of the ceremony at Wheeler Field.
“The Army states that in order to consider a new packet, the USA will need a copy of the original recommendation packet to determine if the original board made an error in their decision,” said the statement from Sen. Carper’s office.
“With that said, once a decision is made by the original board, it is considered ‘Administrative finality.’ In this case, that was in the form of the General Order awarding the Distinguished Service Cross. The original recommendation has not been located to date and no one has been able to locate a copy either.”
Bill Costello, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Human Resources Command, said the Army’s policy is to never discuss the valor awards process.
The Army has added six World War II veterans to its list of Medal of Honor recipients this year.
For efforts at Pearl Harbor, there were 16 recipients of the Medal of Honor. None were from the U.S. Army.
Mr. Meek said the request’s denial likely just comes down to one thing.
“Because there were no witnesses,” said Mr. Meek. “It was plain and simple. Those guys got up, they did their thing, the Army rushed to get them the Distinguished Service Crosses.
“According to the squadron commander, nobody asked them for the time of day. Nobody to my knowledge was contacted by anyone high up in the Army to see what they knew. That was the way it went. There was no one who actually saw what they did.”
Mr. Meek interviewed a multitude of Army Air Corps veterans who were on the island on Dec. 7, 1941, and after.
What he found is that Welch and Taylor never bragged about it, or even talked about it.
“Everyone I interviewed said neither George nor Ken ever spoke one word about what happened,” he said. “I said, ‘Did you over a few beers or something? Didn’t you want to know how the Japanese pilots fought?’ They never discussed it.”
Brig. Gen. Taylor was candid with Mr. Meek in his 2001 interview.
“He gave (Welch) credit for saving his life when they went up on the second flight and a Zero got on Ken’s tail,” said Mr. Meek. “That, in itself, was a major heroic factor. Another factor that was no more considered in either of their citations was what they saved in terms of life and property by shooting down those bombers.”
Reach editor Andrew West at firstname.lastname@example.org