Heroes of the Harbor: Kenneth M. Taylor

March 03, 2017

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor spurred many into action, most of whom were living aboard the many vessels present throughout the harbor. There were some American flyers, however, who managed to take to the skies. Many American and Japanese pilots were downed, but there were survivors who lived through the devastation and continued on to tell their story.

Among the pilots who survived the attack and subsequently the rest of the war was Kenneth M. Taylor. The 21-year-old pilot flew alongside his Army Air Force comrades during the counterattack against the Japanese, and is recognized as one of the first two pilots to go airborne after the first bombs dropped.

The Start the Attack

On the evening of December 6th, 1941, Taylor had been enjoying his time at Wheeler Army Airfield at a black-tie event followed by a late-night game of poker. At 3 AM, the pilot finally went to bed, unaware that just 5 hours later, the sounds of machine gun fire and explosions would be his alarm clock. Jolted from his sleep, Taylor quickly ran outside to find Japanese aircraft flying low enough to make out the faces of their pilots.

Knowing this wasn’t some drill or lucid dream, Taylor quickly sprang into action. Though much of the aircraft at Hickam and Wheeler airfields were destroyed, the 47th Pursuit Squadron remained intact at Haleiwa Field. Taylor found 2nd Lt. George Welch and called Haleiwa airfield to have a pair of P-40 fighters ready for launch.

Taking to the Skies

Taylor and Welch wasted no time getting into the air, fueled by a rush of confusion and adrenaline. Piloting the first two American aircraft in the sky, the two lieutenants launched a counteroffensive against the Japanese, firing on the first group of planes they encountered, over the Marine Corps airfield at Ewa. Low on ammunition, the two pilots landed to be rearmed but were advised by senior officers not to go back up.

Kenneth M. Taylor and George Welch

Kenneth M. Taylor and George Welch

When more Japanese fighters approached Wheeler Field, both Welch and Taylor took off again. As Taylor fired on the rear of one Japanese craft, another came up behind him and would have shot him down if it hadn't been for Welch's intervention.

When the smoke cleared, Taylor and Welch returned to the airfield with 8 confirmed kills in total, making up the majority of 10 Japanese planes downed by the 14 American pilots who got off the ground that day. For their heroism, the two pilots were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. For his injuries incurred before Welch’s intervention in the air, Taylor was also awarded the Purple Heart.


Taylor and Welch both survived World War II. Welch was killed in a test run in 1954 and Taylor lived until 2006 before passing away at 86 years old.

The stories of pilots and servicemen like Kenneth Taylor can be experienced at the World War II  Valor in the Pacific National Monument on Oahu. Through exhibits and memorials, the events of Pearl Harbor are relayed in vivid detail for visitors from all around the globe.

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