Meeting in the Air: American Pilots at Pearl Harbor

May 28, 2016

Most Americans know that attacking Japanese planes surprised Pearl Harbor early in the morning of December 7, 1941, but not nearly as many people know about the Americans who took to the skies that morning.

That weekend, Sgt. Henry C. Blackwell, Cpl. Clyde C. Brown, and Sgt. Warren D. Rasmussen had taken leave from the US Army Camp Malakole. The three servicemen rented piper cubs from the airport and spent the bright, beautiful morning soaring over the water. Tragically, the perfect morning turned out to be lethal for them. The Japanese planes arrived for their surprise attack and did not hesitate to shoot the small planes down. Blackwell, Brown, and Rasmussen became the first American casualties that morning.

The best-known American airmen from Pearl Harbor were 21-year-old 2nd Lt. Kenneth Taylor and 23-year-old 2nd Lt. George Welch. The two men had been out dancing the night before at the officers’ club at Wheeler Army Airfield where they then played poker late into the night and early morning. When they heard the gunfire and explosions of the attack, they called ahead to have planes made ready and set off for Haleiwa Field. Taylor’s car got strafed as they sped the ten miles to Oahu's North Shore.

Pilots of Pearl Harbor

Arriving safely, and still in tuxedo pants from the night before, Taylor and Welch took to the air in their P-40Bs. Once they were airborne they soon met trouble with a group of Japanese planes. The pilots quickly engaged with the enemy. They were able to take down two of the dozen Japanese planes, but it didn’t take long for them to run out of ammunition.

After landing at Wheeler Field to replenish their ammunition, Taylor and Welch were told not to return to the air. But with more Japanese planes incoming, the people on the ground scattered, allowing the men to return to the fight. This time the pilots flew directly toward the invading planes.

Real Pearl Harbor Pilots

As they engaged with the Japanese planes, Taylor took a hit, injuring his arm. After seeing Taylor’s injuries, Welch followed the perpetrating dive bomber and quickly took it down. When their ammunition was again depleted, Taylor and Welch returned to Haleiwa.

Between them, Taylor and Welch brought down at least six enemy planes—though they likely had more unconfirmed kills. Both men were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses, though attempts have been made to upgrade those to Medals of Honor. They weren't eligible to receive the Medal of Honor at the time because they had flown without orders, but without Kenneth Taylor and George Welch, how much worse could the attack on Pearl Harbor have been? They may not have destroyed every plane, but they successfully engaged with the enemy and depleted their numbers.

Aerieal of Ford Island

When you visit Pearl Harbor, of course you'll want to see the USS Arizona Memorial and take a tour of the Battleship Missouri, but make sure you add the Pacific Aviation Museum to your agenda. Take some time to learn the stories of the men who fought that day. Pearl Harbor may be remembered as the day the Japanese attacked the US, but how our service members fought back—aboard our battleships as well as in the air—also needs to be remembered.

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