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,
Born Dec. 23, 1919, in Enid, Okla., Kenneth Marlar Taylor was raised in Hominy, Okla., and entered the University of Oklahoma in 1938. After two years, he quit school to enlist in the Army Air Corps.
His first commanding officer, retired Gen. Gordon Austin, chose Lt. Taylor and Welch as his flight commanders shortly after their arrival in Hawaii.
"He was skillful as a pilot and a well-oriented officer," said Austin, now 93 and living in Alexandria. "You couldn't ask for a better flying officer in your squadron. He was willing to do anything, I'm sure. The enemy was all around and he was going after them."
After Pearl Harbor, the young pilot was sent to the South Pacific, flying out of Guadalcanal, and was credited with downing another Japanese aircraft. During an air raid at the base one day, someone jumped into a trench on top of him and broke his leg, which ended his combat career.
He rose to the rank of colonel during his 27 years of active duty. He became commander of the Alaska Air National Guard and retired as a brigadier general in 1971. He then worked as an insurance underwriter in Alaska, representing Lloyds of London, until 1985.
Gen. Taylor split his retirement between Anchorage and Arizona. He was a technical adviser for the 1970 film "Tora! Tora! Tora!" in which his character was played by actor Carl Reindel. In the 2001 movie "Pearl Harbor," actor Ben Affleck played a character based on Gen. Taylor, although he was not consulted and considered the film "a piece of trash . . . over-sensationalized and distorted," according to his son.
"My dad was modest and retiring about all this," his son said. "I have picked up what I know about it in snippets over the years. He was always self-conscious about people making a big deal of it, and he wanted to be remembered as a good husband, a good provider and a good citizen."
Survivors, in addition to his son of Green Valley, Ariz., include his wife of 64 years, Flora Love Morrison Taylor of Tucson; a daughter, Tina Hartley of Mercer Island, Wash.; and three grandchildren.