Pearl Harbor Hero and Ace
Written by Raymond J. Castagnaro and Lyle F. Padilla for their History, Legend and Myth: Hollywood and the Medal of Honor website.
It can be argued that George S. Welch was cheated out of the Medal of Honor on two occasions, one of his acts of valor being depicted on film.
Welch was assigned to the 47th Fighter Squadron, 18th Fighter Group flying P-40 Kittyhawks at Wheeler Field, near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941. A fellow fighter pilot of the 18th Group, Francis S. Gabreski (who would later go on to become the top American Ace in the European Theater in World War II) described him.
"He was a rich kid, heir to the grape juice family, and we couldn't figure out why he was there since he probably could have avoided military service altogether if he wanted to." Many Japanese military aviators would regret that he hadn't.
In the beginning of December, 1941, Welch and 2nd Lt. Kenneth Taylor had moved their P-40s away from the main airfield at Wheeler to a nearby auxiliary field at Haleiwa as part of a gunnery exercise. The vast majority of Army Air Force fighters at Wheeler were parked in neat rows on the main flight-line; although war with Japan appeared imminent, it was decided that the possibility of sabotage from the ground presented a greater threat than a potential air attack, and it was easier to guard them while parked in neat rows than dispersed on the airfield perimeter. Thus when the Japanese carrier-based sneak attack against Pearl Harbor and Wheeler and Hickam Fields came on the morning of December 7, 1941, the majority of the Army Air Force fighter force was easily destroyed on the ground, several of them when the first P-40 pilot attempting to take off to fight was hit and killed on his takeoff roll and his fighter went crashing down the flight-line at Wheeler.
That Sunday morning Welch and Taylor were just leaving an all-night party at Wheeler Field, Hawaii. As they stood outside an army barracks watching the tropical dawn grow brighter, neither had any idea of the momentous event which was about to change their - lives. Welch was saying that instead of going to sleep, he wanted to drive back to their own base at nearby Haleiwa Field for a nice Sunday morning swim.
Suddenly the Japanese swooped down on Wheeler Field, which was a center for fighter operations in Hawaii. Dive bombers seemed to appear out of nowhere. Violent explosions upended the parked planes, and buildings began to burn. Welch ran for a telephone and called Haleiwa as bullets sprayed around him.
"Get two P-40s ready!" he yelled. "It's not a gag--the Japs are here."
The drive up to Haleiwa was a wild one. Japanese Zeros strafed Welch and Taylor three times. When the two fliers careened onto their field nine minutes later, their fighter planes were already armed and the propellers were turning over. Without waiting for orders they took off.
As they climbed for altitude they ran into twelve Japanese Val dive bombers over the Marine air base at Ewa. Welch and Taylor began their attack immediately. on their first pass, machine guns blazing, each shot down a bomber. As Taylor zoomed up and over in his Tomahawk, he saw an enemy bomber heading out to sea. He gave his P-40 full throttle and roared after it. Again his aim was good and the Val broke up before his eyes. In the meantime Welch's plane had been hit and he dived into a protective cloud bank. The damage didn't seem too serious so he flew out again--only to find himself on the tail of another Val. With only one gun now working he nevertheless managed to send the bomber flaming into the sea.
Both pilots now vectored toward burning Wheeler Field for more ammunition and gas. Unfortunately the extra cartridge belts for the P-40s were in a hangar which was on fire. Two mechanics ran bravely into the dangerous inferno and returned with the ammunition.
The Japanese were just beginning a second strafing of the field as Welch and Taylor hauled their P-40s into the air again. They headed directly into the enemy planes, all guns firing. This time Ken Taylor was hit in the arm, and then a Val closed in behind him. Welch kicked his rudder and the Tomahawk whipped around and blasted the Val, though his own plane had been hit once more. Taylor had to land, but George Welch shot down still another bomber near Ewa before he returned.
Perhaps twenty American fighter planes managed to get into the air that morning--including five obsolete Republic P-35s. Most of them were shot down, but their bravery and initiative accounted for six victories in the one-sided aerial battle
Welch was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions on Pearl Harbor Day, and the U.S. Army Air Force Chief, General Henry H. Arnold was reportedly anxious to receive the nomination. Unfortunately for Welch, the intermediate chain of command, their pride evidently smarting from having been caught off guard and suffering the devastation they did, reasoned absurdly that Welch had taken off without proper authorization and could therefore not be awarded the United States' highest military award; the award was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross.
Welch remained in the Pacific Theater of Operations and went on to score 12 more kills against Japanese aircraft (16 in total).
Post War Test Pilot
In the spring of 1944, Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a test pilot for the P-51 Mustang. He went on to fly the prototypes of the FJ Fury, and when the F-86 Sabre was proposed, Welch was chosen as the chief test pilot.
In September, 1947, the F-86 project moved to the Muroc test facility (now Edwards AFB, California), the same base at which the Bell X-1 was being developed. North American was instructed by Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington that they were not, under any circumstances, to break the sound barrier before the X-1 achieved this milestone. However, Welch disregarded this order, and during a test flight on October 1, 1947, he entered a steep dive from 35,000 ft. During the dive, Welch observed symptoms compatible with Mach jump. However, due to problems with the landing gear, further full-speed flights were delayed. On October 14, the same day that Chuck Yeager was to attempt supersonic flight, Welch reputedly performed a second supersonic dive. This time he started from 37,000 ft, and executed a full-power 4g pullout, greatly increasing the power of his apparent sonic boom. Yeager broke the sound barrier approximately 30 minutes later.
To justify the investment in the X-1 program, the Pentagon allegedly ordered the results of Welch's flights classified and did not allow North American to publicly announce that the XP-86 had gone supersonic until almost a year later. The Air Force still officially denies that Welch broke the sound barrier first. Welch's flights were unofficial and not tracked by NACA measuring equipment, making verification impossible.
Welch went on to work with North American Aviation in the Korean War as Chief Test Pilot, engineer and instructor, where he reportedly downed several enemy MiG-15s while "supervising" his students.
After the war, Welch returned to flight testing — this time in the F-100 Super Sabre — with Yeager flying the chase plane. Welch became the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight with this type of aircraft on May 25, 1953. However, stability problems with the aircraft arose, and on Columbus Day, , Welch's F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre, disintegrated during a 7g pullout at Mach 1.55. When found, Welch was still in the ejection seat, mortally wounded. He was evacuated by helicopter, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the Army hospital. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery
- George Welch article at the Hollywood and the Medal of Honor site - an excellent site, including one of my all-time favorite Civil War heroes: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
- Pearl Harbor Airmen website
- Wikipedia article
Related Pearl Harbor Links
- historyplace.com - some great photos
- USS Arizona Memorial - official National Park Service site
- Online School - Pearl Harbor Remembered - very comprehensive
- FDR's Pearl Harbor speech - "Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."