I know, I know, I'm late on posting the story this week. The sad, tragic reality is that my Friday morning flight home from Honolulu was massively delayed to the point where I couldn't make my connection, so I was stranded in Hawaii without my computer all day on Friday, where I spent most of the day sobbing uncontrollably into a floral-print sarong, my will to live utterly crushed by the inevitable truth that I was disappointing literally dozens and dozens of loyal readers of this website.
But, as horrible as it was to be marooned on a tiny volcanic island in the middle of the South Pacific for twenty-four hours with no possibility of rescue and nothing but a neon-colored fruity alcoholic beverage, my beautiful wife, and a moderately-priced Waikiki Beachfront hotel to sustain me, there is a silver lining to this raincloud of sun-drenched horror – I was able to make yet another trip out to the naval base at Pearl Harbor to see a crucial site that once played a crossroads in American history, and while I was there, I read the story of a man who absolutely must be mentioned on this website without any further delay: Second Lieutenant George Welch of the United States Army Air Corps.
George Welch didn't have to join the military. He was brilliant, an excellent student trained as a mechanical engineer at Purdue, and the heir to the multi-million Welch's Grape Juice fortune. He didn't need to go off gallivanting in the cockpit of a fighter plane flying three hundred miles an hour straight-on into a fleet of onrushing enemy aircraft filling the sky with a Bullet Hell of 7.7mm machine gun fire, risking his life and sanity in the service of his country. But then again, being stationed at Naval Station Pearl Harbor in February of 1941 wasn't such a bad gig, either – there was no war to fight, so Welch was hanging out with hot Polynesian chicks in grass skirts and coconut bikinis, drinking Mai Tais by the pool and maybe I guess flying a mission or two just to keep his skills sharp. For the 23 year-old Second Lieutenant and his best friend, fellow pilot Ken Taylor, the most exciting thing going on was the one time they went to a party with parachutes hidden under their dinner jackets and they pulled the ripcord in the middle of the dance floor, a move that almost certainly charmed the skirts off every broad in the joint (to use the parlance of the times).
December 6, 1941, was no exception. The two buddies went out for a night of drinking, partying, and macking on chicks, spent all night dancing to awesome Big Band orchestra Glenn Miller jams at the USO with hot pinup girls in low-cut blouses and tight-fitting dresses, got wasted on any number of alcoholic beverages, then stayed up until dawn playing poker with their buddies, smoking fat cigars, and cracking jokes about whatever the hell people joked about before the creation of the Internet. Around 6:30am they hopped in Welch's sweet-ass Buick, drove home semi-drunk, and passed out face-down in their bunks still wearing the dress uniforms they'd put on to impress the dames at the party.
They were jolted awake an hour later by the last sound they were expecting to hear in this corner of paradise – explosions. Big ones. The roaring of fighter plane engines. Gunfire. Screams. And an announcement on the loudspeakers:
Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill.
353 Japanese aircraft, launched from six aircraft carriers, were swarming through the skies above Oahu, strafing airfields, bombing supply bases, and torpedoing naval vessels in what would become the most devastating surprise attack in American History and the single darkest day in the history of the United States Navy.
But George Welch and Ken Taylor weren't going to let the Japs get away without a fight. Knowing that his own airfield was trashed, Welch hopped up, ran to his telephone, and called in to an auxiliary airfield on the North Shore. Get two P-40s fueled, armed, and ready. We're going up. And we're gonna stick it to these bastards.
Then they grabbed their keys, threw on their tuxedo jackets, jumped in his Buick and hauled ass 16 miles down winding mountain roads through the heart of Oahu Island at speeds of over 100 miles an hour while Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes made strafing runs on the highway behind them with twin-linked 20mm cannons and sent the entire island up in a raging bullet-soaked inferno.
When Welch and Taylor reached the airfield, their P-40 Warhawks were already gassed up and armed with ammo for their quad-linked .30mm machine guns. The mechanics didn't have any .50 cal for their main guns, but Welch and Taylor didn't give a crap – no time to worry about that, we'll make do with what we've got and try to down armored enemy bombers with a machine gun primarily designed to take out infantry. They hopped into their cockpits, quickly checked their instruments to make sure everything seemed kosher, then tore ass into the skies despite, oh yeah, not having any orders from a commanding officer to charge balls-out straight into an enemy formation and rip them to shreds in a hail of gunfire.
Welch flew point with Taylor as his wingman, and together the Army pilots unflinchingly cranked it full-throttle towards a formation of twelve D3A Val dive bombers (some sources say they were B5N Kates, a minor detail I only mention here because my much-beloved hardcore aircraft nerd fans will undoubtedly call me out on this), guns blazing.
Actual gun camera footage taken from Ken Taylor's
aircraft at the beginning of the battle.
Ripping into the formation of Vals at an altitude of just 1,000 feet, Taylor and Welch each took down an enemy bomber. They scattered, and Taylor broke off, downing another foe in the swirling aerial melee. Welch, who was unlucky enough to have one of his guns jam, leaving him with just three .30 cals, reportedly took an incendiary round through his fuselage during the fight. While this detail may be debated, Welch did pull up through the clouds, checked his instruments, and as soon as he realized everything was chill he dove back down through the cloud cover, pouncing on another Val and blasting it into a flaming chunk of no-longer-airworthy scrap metal.
In just a few moments of battle, both Welch and Taylor had scattered a bombing run and downed four enemy aircraft. They came in hard to Wheeler Field, landing on the airstrip in the middle of explosions and dodging friendly fire from American AA guns on the ground. They parked near the only working gas truck, and ground crews immediately went to work refueling and rearming the P-40s. The main ammunition dump had been hit hard and was burning, but two badass techs were like forget that and ran into the burning building to grab .50-caliber ammo for the idling aircraft. While they were on the ground some dumbass Major came running over to their airplanes and gave Welch and Taylor a direct order not to take off, but they told him to get lost and immediately went back into action.
The two pilots took off right into a cloud of 15 bombers, escorted by a flight group of ultra-deadly Zeroes, but they didn't give a crap. Spewing fire everywhere, Welch and Taylor hosed the formation with bullets, breaking them apart in every direction. Taylor took a burst of fire in the cockpit – two slugs embedded themselves in the seat near him and one round went through his leg – but this didn't even slow him down that much, and when a second Val dropped behind Taylor to finish off the kill our boy George Welch came in out of nowhere and detonated the Japanese fighter-bomber's fuselage with a blast of .50 cal death. Breaking hard, Welch then went after one of the Zeroes, downing the enemy aircraft over the ocean with another burst of gunfire.
At the end of the day, George Welch and Ken Taylor flew three sorties against the Japanese. One of just a handful of Americans to get airborne during the fight, they accounted for six confirmed kills, but probably ended up accounting for at least 10 of the 29 Japanese planes that were shot down over Pearl Harbor during the attack. For their daring actions kicking balls in the skies and becoming the first American pilots to score an air-to-air kill during World War II, they received the Distinguished Service Cross – the second highest award for bravery offered by the U.S. Army (they'd been nominated for the Medal of Honor, but denied because they'd undertaken the operation without having orders to do so… gotta love Army bureaucracy).
After the war, George Welch continued fighting with the Pacific Fleet, flying the ultra-crappy P-39 and the equally-badass P-38 Lighting. During three combat tours against the Japanese he flew 348 missions, recording 16 confirmed kills – becoming a three-time Fighter Ace and always making it happen in groups of two or more kills at a time because he was just hard like that.
After the war, Welch stayed with the Air Force as a hardcore death-defying test pilot, and he was the first guy to test-fly America's first real jet fighter, the F-86 Sabre. While piloting it he may have actually broken the Sound Barrier two weeks before Chuck Yeager, but it didn't really count because his equipment failed and his flight logs didn't have any record of how fast he was going. Either way, it worked out pretty well, because Welch commanded a training squadron of F-86s during the Korean War, teaching new recruits how to fly the ship he'd pioneered and use it to effectively ruin the lives of Commie bastards everywhere. As an extra badass touch, Welch personally led his squadron into battle despite having specific orders not to do this, and, by all accounts, he managed to shoot down a half-dozen MiG-15s with his F-86 even though he wasn't able to receive credit for his kills because of the whole "disobeying a direct order" thing. Instead he passed the kills off to his students, which is cool as hell.
After Korea, Welch went back to being the Chief Test Pilot for North American Aviation. He died on October 12th, 1954, when the F-100 Super Sabre he was test flying broke apart while pulling seven Gs at Mach 1.1. Which, while tragic, is a hell of a sentence to have as your obituary.
He is a true unsung hero of American aviation history and an utterly hardcore badass.
Welch (on the right), with Ken Taylor in December 1941.