Ken Taylor: The Reluctant Hero

Medal Efforts

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Gen. Taylor on NBC Evening News Dec. 7, 2003.

Historian Douglas Brinkley Salutes Ken Taylor   "The story of Lt. Taylor is one of raw American heroism of the most extraordinary kind, because at a time when he should have been in some kind of bomb shelter he came and put his face in front of the enemy."
   -- Douglas Brinkley on Dec. 7, 2003 on an "NBC Evening News" story about Ken Taylor's heroism at Pearl Harbor.

   The purpose of this page is to outine efforts I have underaken in recent years trying to get the Army to upgrade Ken Taylor's and George Welch's Distinguished Service Cross to the Congressional Medal of Honor. It has been a labor of love and it's still not finished.
  
In fairly recent years while in the public affairs business in Washington, DC I have had substantial involvement with both the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and recipients of the medal.
 
It began with my public relations counseling for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), where I have been involved as an advisor since the effort began to build the Memorial in 1981.
 
For the 15th anniversary of The Wall's dedication in 1982, I developed a project where we would have recipients of the MOH from the Vietnam War appear for a salute at a home game for all the major league baseball teams as well as those in the National Football League.
  
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society agreed to cooperate with VVMF, and it proved to be a highly successful program.
  
But prior to this event, in the summer of 1993 I had joined with then U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Sec. Ed Derwinski in hosting a dinner for all of the MOH recipients living In the Washington, DC area.
  
Gen. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the featured speaker at a program emceed by Jim Bohannon, the radio talk show host and Vietnam veteran.
  
This was the purpose of the event.
  
During latter stages of the Vietnam War, those who were being presented the Medal of Honor by the president of the United States were slipped into the White House and slipped out with a minimum of fanfare. Honoring them at the dinner was a small but long overdue gesture of recogniton.
  
During this time I acquired several books about the medal and read dozens of citations online at one of several Web sites. Thus I became very familiar with heroic acts in combat for medal recipients.
 
Taylor/Welch Heroism Seems To Meet MOH Criteria
 
However, insofar as I could disabuse myself from my almost 40-year friendship with Ken, the Taylor/Welch heroism during the attack on Dec.7 seemed to be in keeping with the highest traditons of MOH criteria.
  
So, I went to work with the assistance of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK).
  
We began with the senator writing a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force. At the advice of a retired four-star Air Force general, Russ Dougherty, I sent a letter to Gen. John Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff.
  
The letters to both men included materials from the priceless Taylor scrapbook that seemed to make the case for the upgrade.
  
In short time both Sen. Stevens and I received similar responses. This was, both letters said, a matter for the U.S. Army since there had been no U.S. Air Force on Dec. 7, 1941.
  
The next move on advice from Sen. Stevens' staff was to get statements from as many witnesses as possible attesting to the heroism by Taylor and Welch. The senator would then send these statements to the Army Medals Board.

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Ken Taylor with a replica of the Japanese Val bombers he shot down.

The Quest for Witnesses of Dec. 7, 1941 Aerial Combat

As it developed when I began my quest for witnesses to the aerial combat Ken and George were engaged in during the Pearl Harbor attack, I located a 47th Squadron member who had a list with some phone numbers and addresses of those there on Dec. 7.

These contacts produced nothing. The 47th men were scattered all over the island and understandably, with some 386 Japanese aircraft attacking both military and civilian targets in waves from their carriers at sea, those on the ground probably were not gawking at aerial dogfights.

I talked by phone to Kermit Tyler, operations officer at Wheeler Field that day because Ken said he and George had conctacted him by radio after they took off from Haleiwa Field. Tyler, who became one of the scapegoats of that day for blowing off the call from the radar operator reporting numerous dots on his screen, said he had no memory of this. Considering what had just happened at Wheetler with aircraft and buildings burning everywhere (see photo on this site), that's understandable.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Austin USAF Ret., then a major and squadron commander, had gone deer hunting on a neighboring island and did not return to Wheeler until after the Japaneses planes had left for their carriers. (Austin went on to have a distinguished career in aerial combat on the other side of the world.) In an email to me, Gen. Austin said after landing at Wheeler he was ordered to join his squadron at Haleiwa. Driving there, he met Taylor and Welch on the road leaving the base to look for some the the Japanese attackers they had shot down. Together the three men walked about a hundred yards from the road, finding the remains of a Val bomber.

Former Sgt. Raymond Turley, a crew chief in the 47th, said from Haleiwa he saw nothing but Ken and George taking off in their P-40s. (More on Sgt. Turley elsewhere on the site.)

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Maj. Gen. Gordon Austin, U.S. Air Force Ret. was Ken's squadron leader on Dec. 7, 1941.

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A part of an exhibit at the US Army Museum of Hawaii confirms that Ken Taylor downed four Japanese planes during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Trying To Find the Action

The island of Oahu is 607.7 square miles. It is established that Ken and George first flew to Wheeler after taking off from Haleiwa and, finding no action there, headed across Oahu towards the Ewa Marine base where a dozen Japanese bombers were poised to attack. Getting in line with the bombers, both American pilots began firing and downed their first aircraft. After that dogfight they returned to Wheeler, as the DSC citation says, to rearm with the more powerful .50 caliber ammo rather than the .30 caliber gunnery practice rounds the planes had when leaving Haleiwa.

In "December 7 1941 The Day The Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor," a Gordon Prange book, on pages 287-289 (Warner Books, 1988), he writes that "a large, excited goup of spectators (at Schofield Barracks) watched as 2nd Lt. Philip M. Rusmussen engaged another Japanese in single combat over a pineapple field at Wahiawa."

Sixty-five years later I am not one to in any way disagree about what Dr. Prange has chronicled about the attack in his books. But with the military installations on Oahu under attack that day, this story begs two questions.

First, why were the soldiers not at their posts doing their duty instead of standing around watching a dogfight?. Second, how were personnel at another Army facility able to identify the U.S. Army plane as being Lt. Rasmussen's at that altitude? Dr. Prange does not give an explanation, but a few pages later describes a bombing and near total chaos at Schofield. Other than that the Japanese plane was downed and Rasmussen's plane was found very badly damaged after he landed. (I have made numerous efforts to contact Lt. Rasmussen but have failed.)     

I think it is clear those on the ground below where Ken and George were shooting down Japanese, even if they could watch a few minutes, did not know who was who. If Navy or Marine survivors were located lthey ikely could not state more than that there was some aerial combat above them.

Thus my long and exhaustive search for survivors who could provide statements as to the Taylor/Welch heroism disapointedly ended with no success.

                                                               -- JMM

   Congressional Medal of Honor recipients during the Vietnam War who were guests at the dinner in their honor hosted by Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Administration Ed Derwinski and John Martin Meek were, from left, Michael Thornton. Brian Thacker, Patrick Brady, James Fleming, Meek, Sec. Derwinski,  Robert Foley, Ronald Ray and Wesley Fox. Thornton, Brady, Fleming and Fox were still on active duty at the time. Thacker and Ray had positions at the VA. Gen. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the dinner speaker and Jim Bohannon, talk show host and a Vietnam veteran, was emcee.

Click on photo to enlarge.

Ken Taylor

   "He (Ken) scored the first kill for the squadron and helped decimate the only attack by Japanese Army aircraft on Guadalcanal in Jan., 1943."
        -- Jack Cook, Historian, 44th Fighter Squadron Association.

Factoids and Urban Legends

About Ken Taylor and George Welch

 

   Over the years numerous stories, some major and some minor, about Ken and George in books, movies, news stories, cartoon and other media coverage simply are not the way it happened according to my many conversations with Ken. Here are a few:

  • The two pilots were not standing outside the Wheeler Field Officer’s Club, after playing poker all night, when the Japanese attacked the base. Ken said they were in bed by about 3 a.m. and awakened around 8 a.m. by the attacking aircraft.
  • Ken and George were not dressed in khakis as if they had just come from the parade ground when they took off in their P-40s. Ken put on ruffled front formal shirt and tux trousers (black tie dress was required on Saturday niight at officer's clubs in Hawaii at that time) he had been wearing Saturday night because they were at his bedside.
  • The Buick Ken owned, which he drove from Wheeler to Haleiwa Field where their P-40s were based, was not a convertible as portrayed in "Tora! Tora! Tora!."
  • George was not a member of the wealthy Welch grape juice/jelly family. He was from Wilmington, DE where his father worked for DuPont.
  • There is no actual evidence yet found that George, but not Ken, was written up for a Congressional Medal of Honor. Surely Gen. Gordon Austin, 47th Squadron commander on Dec. 7, would have known if George had been singled out for the MOH. It is most unlikely that with World War II started, and the possibility the Japanese might again attack Hawaii, the U.S. Army command on the island had no certain knowledge of the number of enemy planes downed by either Taylor or Welch. As for who downed the first plane in aerial combat in World War II, Ken said he and George had an agreement: the survivor among the two could claim that honor.

                                                            -- JMM

Why Taylor and Welch Were Not Medal of Honor Recipients?  

 

    Several theories have been put forth on why the U.S. Navy awarded 15 Medals of Honor, the Marines none and among the thousands of Army personnel in Hawaii during the Japanese attack not a single one.

   While print and television stories about Dec. 7, 1941 even today mostly focus on the terrible damage to the Navy vessels at Pearl Harbor, there was plenty of action and destruction at Wheeler Field, Hickam Field, Schofield Barracks and other Army facilities.   

   Since Ken Taylor and George Welch each received the Distinguished Service Cross, highest award given for heroism in combat, the controversy centers around them.

   One theory is the two pilots went up to take on the Japanese attackers the first time without orders to do so, and their second flight was most definitely against orders of Wheeler Field's top brass.

   Another theory is that while Gen. Gordon Austin has said they were the best two pilots in his 47th Squadron, by Ken's own admission he and George were not exactly model officers at Wheeler Field. Especially in the view of one West Point graduate at Wheeler.

   Then there is my own theory as someone who has learned a lot about the Pearl Harbor attack from Ken, Gen. Austin, books and otherwise, but is not an acknowledged expert on the subject.

   First, even without the Army's new radar facility, its facilities and pesonnel in Hawaii were no less unprepared for a surprise attack by Japan than our country was for hijacked airliners crashing into major buildings on 9/11.

   The Army may well have been the least prepared. Some indication of the Army high command thinking was the order to have the Wheeler Field aircraft parked together in the center of the field to avoid sabotage by Japanese who lived on the island.

   There, they were an easy target for the Japanese and almost all were destroyed in the first attack on the base (see Wheeler Field photo on this site).

   But wait a minute. I've spent a little time with three of the military services -- Army, Navy and Marines -- and to me it begs this question.

What would have been wrong with leaving the planes in hangars or their usual stations, then posting guards on foot and in vehicles to patrol the perimeter?

   Second, from what Ken and Kermit Tyler, officer-of-the-day at the time of the attack, have told me, there was no plan for defense of the base even if the 47th Squadron had been at Wheeler and with all aircraft in their usual locations.

   One of the other 47th pilots I interviewed said after the attack started he did drive to a Wheeler hangar, but there was nothing he could do once he arrived there.

   The thesis that going up first without orders and the second time against orders has one big hole in it.

   Read carefully the citation on this site for the two pilots' DSCs, which praise what they did on their own initiative in taking to the air twice. That really is the key to their heroism -- that they acted on their own.

   To cut to the chase, it's possible the Army did not want to call any more media attention to numerous incidents of bad judgment -- such as the order to park the planes in the middle of Wheeler Field -- by awarding Ken and George the Congressional Medal of Honor.

   Being first to receive this highest of honors in the new war would have been a bonanza for the media, writing about the two young second lieutenants' action on their own to engage in aerial combat the hundreds of Japanese attackers. Moreover, as MOH recipients they would have have traveled back to Washington, DC to receive the decorations from President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House.

   Add to this Gen. Austin's statement to me when I interviewed him that he had nothing to do with the medal decision, the haste in which Ken and George were named the first two heroes of World War II, and not one member of the Army being a recipient of the MOH, and you have a very significant mystery for history.

   Moreover, when I first started this project about five years ago, I tried to contact officials at both the Pearl Harbor Memorial Museum, Honolulu, and the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, TX to see if they might help with their records. Neither would take my calls or return them.

   And this mystery deepens when the National Archives has told me the War Department press release naming Ken and George the first two heroes of the war is the only one missing among those issued at that time. However, newspaper clippings from several papers confirm this honor.

                                                                               ----- JMM

 

 

 

 

   "Wheeler had little protection against aerial attack, with no antiaircraft guns, no trenches, and no air raid shelters. The base had only five machine guns, which were mounted on top of the hangars and the big barracks; and the perimeter guard was armed with rifles."
         -- From "7 December 1941 The Air Force Story," p.111.

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Planes and facilities burn at Wheeler Field after the Japanese attack.

Your Tux Pants Ruined Lieutenant? Here's Why
 
Near the Christmas holidays in 2001, Gen. Taylor received a letter from former Sgt. Raymond Turley of Mt. Pleasant, KY, who was a crew chief with the 47th Squadron the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. When the envelope was opened, out fell several slivers of brass. The note from Mr. Turley in the letter said, "I found these in the cockpit of your plane when I was cleaning it up the next day at Wheeler Field. I have kept them for 60 years and thought it was time I sent them to you." Ken does not discuss his wound from the slivers of the Japanese bullet that narrowly missed his head before exploding in the cockpit, but still complains about the fragments making holes in the tux pants he was wearing that day.

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The National Archives was asked to find the U. S. War Dept. Communique No. 19 naming Ken Taylor and George Welch as the first two designated heroes of World War II. The response was that the press release is mysteriously missing although others of those days after Pearl Harbor are intact. But the United Press wire story and other press accounts around the country confirm they were named the first two heroes of this long conflict. Click on the letter to enlarge.

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Ken Taylor meets Carl Reindel, who played him in the movie, "Tora! Tora! Tora."