Pilot Who Fought Back In Pearl Harbor Attack Was Reluctant Hero

Wednesday, December 6th 2006, 3:54 pm
By: News On 6

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ Kenneth Taylor Jr. says his father never dwelt on being a hero for his piloting deeds the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

But that's exactly what Kenneth Taylor and his close friend, George Welch, were considered on Dec. 7, 1941, when they were the first two American pilots to get their planes airborne as Japanese forces attacked Hawaii. They're credited with downing six enemy planes, with two others possible.

Taylor died at age 86 on Nov. 25 in Tucson, after more than a year of declining health that began with hip surgery, said his son, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Kenneth Taylor Jr.

The fliers' exploits became part of American lore when they were depicted in two of the most well-known movies about the Pearl Harbor attack. Taylor served as a consultant on the 1970 filming of the movie ``Tora! Tora! Tora!'' and Ben Affleck portrayed him in the 2001 film ``Pearl Harbor.''

Taylor's son said his father was reluctant to brand himself a hero and felt he was doing what any officer would be expected to do. Still, he had a touch of the brash young fighter pilot.

``He would say, 'Of course, I knew I could beat those guys,''' his son said.

Welch, who was 24, downed four Japanese planes in two sorties on that Dec. 7, while Taylor, then 21, shot down at least two and possibly two others before being wounded.

``He really preferred not to be remembered as a one-day person,'' his son said. ``He did many things that he felt good about. He preferred to be remembered as a good husband, father and grandfather ... and as a man who was dutiful and responsible, and he was, and that was important to him.

``He never dwelt on being a hero. He dwelt on being very fortunate to have done well by his family and to having had his family done well by him.''

Taylor rose to the rank of brigadier general during a 27-year career in the Army Air Corps and the Air Force, eventually heading the Alaska Air National Guard. Then he represented Lloyd's of London as an aviation insurance underwriter.

An avid card player and golfer, he was reticent _ reluctant _ to talk about his World War II deeds, according to his son and John Meek, a close friend for 40 years.

But he did do so when prodded.

Each man landed his P-40 fighter plane at Wheeler Army Air Field, refueled and rearmed, even under aerial assault while on the ground. Then they took off again to resume fighting.

Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor, just one week later.

Meek and the younger Taylor believe the two men should have been awarded the Medal of Honor, and Meek is continuing a campaign to persuade military officials to do that.

Taylor, born in Enid, Okla., grew up in the eastern Oklahoma town of Hominy, during the 1920s oil boom, where his father sought to make his fortune.

After two years at the University of Oklahoma, he opted to join the air corps and become a pilot.

Taylor met and became friends with Welch in 1941 in Hawaii when they were members of the 47th Fighter Squadron, right after finishing pilot school. The two, based at Wheeler field, were named flight leaders.

Their aircraft were parked at Haleiwa Landing Field 10 miles away, scheduled for gunnery practice, when the sneak attack occurred.

The night before, Taylor and Welch had gone to the Officers' Club at Hickam Field _ ``they were party boys forever,'' Meek said _ then returned to Wheeler, played poker and went to sleep about 3 a.m. Sunday, their quarters in adjacent buildings.

When they first heard planes flying overhead, about 8 a.m., Kenneth Taylor first assumed it was Navy pilots conducting a prankish Sunday wakeup call, Meek said. Then they heard the bombs.

Meek said Taylor, who had jumped into his tuxedo pants (Officers' Club attire was black-tie), gave Welch the keys to get his car while he ran to a phone to call Haleiwa to have the ground crew fuel and arm two airplanes. The two men raced there in Taylor's Buick.

After their first sortie, they landed at Wheeler to refuel and get more ammunition, where Meek said top brass ordered them to ```not go up again.' At that point, a second wave of Japanese planes came to attack Wheeler. George took off and Ken followed him.''

Welch went on to register a total of 12 enemy aircraft shot down over the South Pacific during World War II, then became a top military test pilot. He died in October 1954 while testing an F-100A Super Sabre jet.

Besides his son, Taylor is also survived by his wife, Flora, and a daughter, Tina Hartley.

The family plans no funeral, and Taylor's remains will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery.