Kenneth Taylor; Flew Against Pearl Harbor Raiders
Sunday, December 3, 2006
Kenneth M. Taylor, 86, an Army Air Forces pilot who managed to get airborne under fire near Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and shot down at least two Japanese attacking aircraft, died Nov. 25 at an assisted living residence in Tucson. He had been ill since hip surgery two years ago.
He was a new second lieutenant on his first assignment, posted in April 1941 to Wheeler Army Airfield in Honolulu. A week before the Japanese attacked, his 47th Pursuit Squadron was temporarily moved to Haleiwa Field, an auxiliary airstrip about 10 miles from Wheeler, for gunnery practice.
After a night of poker and dancing at the officers' club at Wheeler, where the dress code required tuxedoes, 21-year-old Lt. Taylor and fellow pilot George Welch awoke to the sound of planes flying low, machine-gun fire and explosions. They learned that two-thirds of the U.S. aircraft at the main bases of Hickam and Wheeler fields were demolished or unable to fly.
They quickly pulled on their tuxedo pants and, while Welch ran to get Lt. Taylor's new Buick, Lt. Taylor, without orders, called Haleiwa and commanded the ground crews to get two P-40 fighters armed and ready for takeoff.
Strafed by Japanese aircraft, the pair sped 10 miles from Honolulu to Haleiwa. At the airstrip, they climbed into their fighters, which were fueled but not fully armed, took off and soon attracted fire from the Japanese, who had not expected to be challenged in the air. Suddenly, they were in combat, two pilots against 200 to 300 Japanese aircraft.
Soon out of ammunition, Welch and Lt. Taylor landed at Wheeler to rearm. Senior officers ordered them to stay on the ground.
"He had been wounded by that point and was bleeding," said Lt. Taylor's son, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Kenneth Taylor Jr. "But while ground crews were rearming the planes, and he was being lectured on his behavior, the Japanese attacked Wheeler again. That scattered the crowd, and [Lt. Taylor and Welch] took off. My dad actually hit some ammo carts as he was taking off and fired his guns before he was off the ground."
His father told the Army Times in 2001: "I took off right toward them, which gave me the ability to shoot at them before I even left the ground. I got behind one of them and started shooting again. 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 and into the trim tab inside. So I got a little bit of shrapnel in my leg and through the arm. It was of no consequence; it just scared the hell out of me for a minute."
Official records credit Lt. Taylor with two kills. His son noted that his father thought he had two more, although in the heat of the battle he didn't see the planes hit the ground, and potential witnesses were too busy to keep track. Welch was credited with four downed Japanese planes. American aircraft losses were estimated at 188 destroyed and 159 damaged, and the Japanese lost 29 planes.
For their service, Lt. Taylor and Welch were awarded the first Distinguished Service Crosses of World War II. Lt. Taylor later received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal and other decorations. He also received a Purple Heart for his injuries.
A family friend, John Martin Meek, has been trying for the past five years to get the Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to a Medal of Honor, with a campaign at his Web site, http:/