Clausewitz explained the concept of fog and friction of war to military professionals. In the study of history, many events fall victim to a similar fog and friction especially with the passage of time. The lens of history can often distort or change events. Therefore, a true study of history demands a critical eye to decipher not only what happened, but why. To understand why, we must ascertain the true facts. This article attempts to clear that fog about one such event in American military history, clarifying details of the United States' first air combat of World War II, by concentrating on the actions of one of the participants. Although a great deal of information exists about this event, much of it is erroneous or contradictory. Beyond the recitation of facts, circumstances, and statistics, the most important aspect of this story is the resourcefulness, tenacity and courage of 2d Lt. Kenneth M. Taylor and his squadron-mate, 2d Lt. George Welch, who were the first Americans airborne to confront the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941.
Kenneth M. Taylor was born on December 23, 1919, in a small town called Enid, on the plains of Oklahoma, To start a better life, his parents soon moved eighty-three miles east to the small town of Hominy, located about twenty-five miles northwest of Tulsa. Young Ken grew up there. His childhood was normal for the time. He was a hard working boy who learned from a young age the responsibility and sense of value to the land that come from working diligently day in and day out in the tedium of small town life.
Taylor graduated from high school in 1938, and then attended the University of Oklahoma. Some friends from Hominy were enticed by the lure and adventure offered by flying and Taylor was no exception. Taylor completed the minimum two years at the university for Army pilot training as an Aviation cadet and was assigned to class 41C. (1) He graduated on April 25, 1941, was commissioned a second lieutenant and on the same day received the silver wings of an Army Air Corps pilot. He was assigned to the 47th Pursuit Squadron (Fighter), 15th Pursuit Group, Wheeler Field, Hawaii. (2)
Arriving in the U. S. Hawaiian territory at the beginning of June 1941, Taylor reported to Wheeler Field and began flying within two weeks. The 47th Pursuit Squadron was less than a year old, having been activated on December 1, 1940. (3) The 47th operated a variety of aircraft, including the Martin B-12A, Boeing P-26--both considered obsolete--the Curtiss P-36, and the most modern, the Curtiss P-40. (4) Taylor was happy to be assigned to train in the P-40 Warhawk, as fourteen B models and one C model had arrived just a month earlier. (5)
Life in the 47th revolved around a training environment, as the new pilots learned their craft, jockeying for opportunities to fly the squadron's few fighters. Pursuit tactics were drilled into the pilots daily. Their lives were not overly taxing, however. Their typical schedule was 0800-1600 with an hour for lunch. Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, as well as all day Sunday, were off-duty periods. (6) Due to the low number of aircraft, many of the pilots struggled to reach the 100-hour point, which marked one as fully combat qualified. (7)
About twice a year, the squadron deployed to one of the outlying fields for aerial gunnery practice and qualification. Usually the deployment lasted about two weeks, with the deployed personnel living in tents (typically as close to the beach as they could get away with) and messing from mobile field kitchens. Even with tents and mobile kitchens, they enjoyed the deployments mainly because of the compact training schedule--0500-1000. Squadron personnel spent the remainder of the day on the beach swimming, playing volleyball or baseball. Every evening the squadron ran a truck across the island to Kailua where personnel could take in the latest movie, go dancing or participate in other social activities. It was during one of these deployments when the squadron had its first party with a menu of "[q]uantities of beer and fried chicken." (8)
Though learning pursuit tactics was their primary mission, squadron members also underwent ground defense training. This training was intended to prepare them for the task of protecting their own airfields under austere conditions. The airmen must have had a rude awakening as they were marched into the jungle and lived for a week with a pup tent as their only shelter. The squadron history reports that the "training was a bit rougher than usually experienced by Air Corps personnel" but admitted that it paid dividends after December 7th. (9)
As war with Japan got closer, the squadron transitioned from training pursuit tactics into full-fledged simulated combat flying. At this time six P-40s (five B models and their only C model) were transferred to other units. Even with the restriction on aircraft flying, Taylor managed to accumulate more than 430 flight hours by December 6th. (10) Contrary to popular belief, the 47th Pursuit Squadron had not been dispersed to avoid the effects of an attack on Wheeler or because the unit had performed poorly on their gunnery qualifications, but was there to perform the normal rotation of gunnery practice. (11) An Anti-Sabotage alert was put into effect on November 28th requiring a 24-hour guard of the aircraft. (12) For gunnery practice, the 47th had been assigned to Haleiwa Emergency Landing Field, along the North shore of the island some ten miles northwest of Wheeler. The quarters for the deployed personnel consisted of tents, but instead of being located near the beach as usual, they were adjacent to the runway, owing to the Anti-Sabotage alert. (13)
Saturday, December 6th dawned like any other with many of the squadron personnel ready to escape the confines of Haleiwa. Taylor and Welch decided to spend Saturday night at the officers' clubs at Hickam and Wheeler Fields, dancing and playing poker in what had slowly evolved into the norm. Since Sunday was a duty-free day, they could sleep late at Wheeler and return to their Haleiwa cots and tent late Sunday. (14) The Officers' Clubs at Hickam and Wheeler required black-tie on Saturday nights. Rumor had it that the higher-ranking officers instituted this policy to keep the younger officers out of the club, because the latter were not issued dress uniforms. The young officers, realizing the best time was on Saturday nights, took matters into their own hands and procured tuxedos. Some of the pilots of the 47th, including Taylor and Welch, who had become inseparable buddies, decided to join the festivities.
Welch was an outstanding pilot known for his daring and outspoken nature, and he exuded all the characteristics of the typical fighter pilot. Taylor, an equally capable pilot, was more affable, with a quiet confidence that complemented Welch. They worked well together on duty and off. They had gotten the reputation as "goof-offs," mainly through harmless fun and pranks that didn't always square with strict military rules. The party at the Wheeler Officers' Club usually started about 2100 hrs and continued until the first signs of sunlight. At some point during the evening, poker would replace dancing as the activity of choice. After a night of dancing and playing cards until the early morning hours, Taylor and Welch decided to get some rest, turning in about 0630. (15) Many published stories maintain that the two were debating the merits of an early morning swim at Haleiwa vice turning in at Wheeler, or that they were just finishing their card game when the attack began. These tales turn out to be nothing more than interesting and colorful fiction. (16)
At about 0755, a peaceful Sunday morning came to an abrupt end. Taylor and Welch were jarred awake by the noise and vibrations of bombs exploding. After the first explosion, Taylor thought a Navy aircraft was buzzing the field as they often did on Sunday morning or had an accident, and he rolled over to go back to sleep. But when he heard the second explosion, he got up and pulled on the tuxedo pants he had worn the night before which were the closest pants he could find. (17) Racing from his room, he met Welch who was also on the way out. As they stood outside the BOQs, a plane was strafing the hangars and flight line and bullets were hitting dangerously close to the Officers' Club. The crimson red "meatball" of the Empire of Japan was clearly visible to the pair. As the two watched, they decided to take Taylor's car and drive up to Haleiwa.
Popular versions of the story contend that Welch alerted the Haleiwa Duty Sergeant to get two aircraft ready for immediate take-off. (18) Neither Taylor nor Welch positively recalled this event when testifying before the Pearl Harbor Attack hearings. Welch, remembering the condition of the waiting aircraft on Haleiwa when they arrived, stated, "[t]hey had been alerted, apparently, from Wheeler field...." (19) Taylor said that "[w]e had called them, or somebody had called...