An Enid, Oklahoma native hailed as a hero during the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was inducted posthumously Saturday into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame.
The late Brig. Gen.Kenneth Taylor was honored as one of two fighter pilots who were the first to get their aircraft into the air and shoot down Japanese planes during the enemy attack, which claimed more than 2,400 American lives.
Taylor was one of 13 veterans honored at the ceremony Saturday at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Norman. The USS Oklahoma and 429 sailors and Marines who died aboard the ship also were memorialized.
Taylor was born in Enid Dec. 23, 1919, and shortly afterward his family moved to Hominy, where he graduated from high school in 1938. He attended the University of Oklahoma as a pre-law student and joined the Army Air Corps two years later.
After completing flight training at Brooks Field, San Antonio, Texas, in 1941, he was promoted to second lieutenant and assigned to the 47th Pursuit Squadron at Wheeler Army Airfield, Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
On Dec. 6, 1941, Taylor’s squadron had been sent temporarily to Haleiwa Field, about 11 miles from Wheeler, for gunnery practice. Taylor spent that night, and well into the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, dancing and playing cards at the officers’ club with a fellow second lieutenant and close friend, George Welch, of Delaware.
According to a history provided by the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame, the pair were awakened by the sound of explosions and machine gun fire shortly after 8 a.m., as the first wave of Japanese planes attacked.
Taylor called ahead to Haleiwa Field and ordered two P-40 Warhawks to be fueled and armed, then he and Welch — still wearing their tuxedo trousers from the night before — raced in Taylor’s car to the airfield.
Japanese planes strafed the car as they drove to Haleiwa, but the two pilots were unharmed.
Taylor and Welch got airborne without incident. According to a 2001 Air Force Times account, the first planes they spotted were in a formation of unarmed American B-17 bombers flying in from the mainland. But, as they approached a Marine Corps airfield at Ewa, they encountered a group of Japanese planes — part of the estimated first wave of 140 aircraft, and 353 Japanese planes that took off from six aircraft carriers in the total attack.
In the Air Force Times interview, Taylor said he and Welch didn’t hesitate to attack the Japanese planes, despite being vastly outnumbered.
“We just got in line with them and started shooting them down, and ultimately ran out of ammunition,” Taylor said.
They landed at Wheeler Field, which already had been under attack, to rearm. Senior officers first ordered Taylor and Welch to disperse and abandon the planes. But when those officers and ground crew scattered in the face of a fresh Japanese attack, Taylor and Welch took the opportunity to get back in the air.
With Japanese planes attacking the field, Taylor opted to take off into the face of the attack, so the enemy wouldn’t have a chance to shoot him from behind.
“Wheeler was just a grass field in those days, and you could take off in any direction you wanted, and I took off right toward them, which gave me the ability to shoot at them before I even left the ground,” Taylor said in the Air Force Times interview.
In an ensuing engagement against superior numbers, Taylor received minor wounds.
“I got behind one of them and started shooting again,” he told the Times. “The only thing I didn’t know at that time was that I got in the middle of the line rather than the end. There was somebody on my tail. They put a bullet right behind my head through the canopy. So I got a little shrapnel in my leg and through the arm. It was of no consequence; it just scared the hell out of me for a minute.”
Taylor was credited with shooting down two Japanese aircraft that day, but a later search of Japanese combat reports after the war confirmed his report that he’d shot down four Japanese planes. Welch also claimed four Japanese planes that morning.
In a later interview with NBC News, Taylor said he didn’t have time to be afraid during the morning’s battle.
“I wasn’t in the least bit terrified,” Taylor told NBC News, “and let me tell you why: I was too young and too stupid to realize that I was in a lot of danger.”
Both men were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for Valor, the second highest award for bravery, as a result of the air battle over Pearl Harbor.
In all, 14 American pilots got off the ground to fight that morning, and shot down 10 Japanese planes, according to the 25th Infantry Division’s Tropic Lightning Museum.
Taylor and Welch both became flying aces during the war. Taylor flew 40 combat missions, including 100 combat hours in a P-40, and was credited with destroying six enemy planes.
Welch flew more than 300 missions in the Pacific Theater during the war, and was credited with shooting down at least 12 Japanese planes. After the war be became a test pilot, and in 1954 he died in a crash during a test flight of the F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet.
Taylor stayed in the Air Force after the war, retiring in 1967. He then became the assistant adjutant general of the Alaska Air National Guard, a post he held until he retired as a brigadier general in 1971.
His other awards and decorations include the Air Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars for service in Hawaii and the Solomon Islands.
After he left military service, Taylor worked as an aviation insurance underwriter for Lloyds of London until 1985. He died Nov. 24, 2006, in Tucson, Ariz.
Taylor’s son, Kenneth Taylor Jr., followed in his footsteps, serving as a gunship and cargo pilot in Vietnam, accumulating more than 6,600 flying hours during his career, including 500 combat hours, and eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general and served as commander of the Alaska Air National Guard from 1990 until his retirement in 1997.
Saturday’s induction is the not the first such honor for Taylor. In 1998 he was inducted into the Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame.
Present at Saturday’s ceremony were Taylor’s daughter and son-in-law, Tina and Mike Hartley, his widow, Flora Love Taylor, cousin Marcia Wilson and her husband, Jim Wilson.
Jim Wilson, who spoke briefly on behalf of the family before Taylor was inducted in the Hall of Fame, said they event was “a very nice honor.”
He focused his comments on “the incredible courage it took for Kenneth Taylor and his best friend, George Welch, when they heard those bombs going off, to get into their car and rush to their planes.”
“The tremendous odds against them — for two young men to go up and start shooting at these Japanese planes — it’s a miracle they survived, let alone to shoot down eight Japanese planes between them,” Wilson said. “The courage it took to do that is really heroic.”
© 2019 the Enid News & Eagle
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