Kenneth M. Taylor
|Kenneth M. Taylor|
December 23, 1919|
|Died||November 25, 2006
|Buried at||Arlington National Cemetery|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Army Air Corps
United States Army Air Forces
United States Air Force
|Years of service||1940–1971|
|Unit||47th Pursuit Squadron
44th Fighter Squadron
12th Pursuit Squadron
4961st Special Weapons Test Group
|Awards||Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Service Medal
Legion of Merit
|Other work||Alaska Air National Guard
Kenneth Marlar Taylor (December 23, 1919 – November 25, 2006) was a new United States Army Air Corps Second Lieutenant pilot stationed at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. Along with his fellow pilot and friend George Welch, they got airborne while under fire, and Taylor shot down two Japanese dive bombers. Taylor was injured during the incident and received several awards for his efforts, including the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.
Taylor later commanded several squadrons while stationed in the United States and elsewhere, and served for 27 years of active duty. He joined the Alaska Air National Guard until 1971 and worked in the insurance industry before retiring in 1985. His Pearl Harbor experience was portrayed in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!. Taylor died of hernia complications in November 2006 and is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Early years and military training
Shortly after his birth in Enid, Oklahoma, Taylor's father, Joe M. Taylor, moved his family to Hominy, Oklahoma, where Taylor graduated high school in 1938. He entered the University of Oklahoma as a pre-law student in the same year and joined the Army Air Corps two years later. He graduated from aviation training at Brooks Field near San Antonio, Texas on April 25, 1941, reaching the rank of second lieutenant and was assigned to class 41C. In June 1941, he was assigned to the 47th Pursuit Squadron at Wheeler Army Airfield in Honolulu, Hawaii, and began flying two weeks later. Although the 47th had several types of aircraft — some obsolete — he began his training in the advanced Curtiss P-40B Warhawk fighter. Taylor accumulated more than 430 flight hours of training before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Taylor spent the night before playing poker and dancing at the officers' club at Wheeler with fellow pilot George Welch, and did not go to sleep until 6:30 a.m. local time. Taylor and Welch awoke less than an hour and a half later at 7:55 a.m. to the sounds of low-flying planes, machine-gun fire, and explosions. Lt. Taylor quickly put on his tuxedo pants from the night before and called Haleiwa Auxiliary Air Field, where eighteen P-40B fighters were located. Without orders, he told the ground crews to get two P-40s armed and ready for takeoff. The new Buick he drove was strafed by Japanese aircraft as the two pilots sped the 10 miles (16 km) to Haleiwa; Taylor at times reached speeds of 100 mph (160 km/h). At the airstrip, they climbed into their Curtiss P-40B Warhawk fighters, which were fueled but armed with only .30 cal Browning ammo.
After they took off, they headed towards Barber's Point at the southwest tip of Oahu, and initially saw an unarmed group of American B-17 Flying Fortress bombers arriving from the mainland United States. They soon arrived at Ewa Mooring Mast Field, which was being strafed by twelve Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo dive bombers of the second Japanese attack wave. Although the two pilots were outnumbered six-to-one, they immediately began firing on the bombers. Taylor shot down two dive bombers and was able to damage another (the third damaged aircraft was considered Taylor's first probable kill). When both pilots ran out of ammunition, they headed for Wheeler Field to get additional .50 cal ammunition, since Haleiwa did not carry any. As he landed around 8:40 a.m., he had to avoid friendly anti-aircraft and ground fire. Once he was on the ground, several officers told Taylor and Welch to leave the airplanes, but the two pilots were able to convince the officers into allowing them to keep fighting.
While his plane was being reloaded with the .50 cal, a flight of dive bombers began strafing Wheeler. Welch took off again (since he had landed a few minutes before Taylor and was already reloaded). The men who were loading the ammunition on Taylor's plane left the ammunition boxes on his wing as they scattered to get away from the bombers. Taylor quickly took off, jumping over an armament dolly and the ammunition boxes fell off of his plane's wing. Both pilots realized that if they took off away from the incoming aircraft they would become targets once they were airborne, so both headed directly towards the bombers at take-off. Additionally, if the low-flying bombers attempted to fire at the grounded P-40s at their current elevation, they would risk crashing. Taylor used this hindrance to his advantage and began immediately firing on the enemy aircraft as he took off, and performed a chandelle.
Taylor headed for a group of enemy aircraft, and due to a combination of clouds and smoke, he unintentionally entered the middle of the formation of seven or eight A6M Zeros. A Japanese rear-gunner fired at Taylor's aircraft and one of the bullets came within an inch of Taylor's head and exploded in the cockpit. One piece went through his left arm and shrapnel entered his leg. Taylor reflected on the injuries in a 2001 interview, saying "It was of no consequence; it just scared the hell out of me for a minute." A few years after the interview, Taylor received from his crew chief two other slugs that had been found behind his seat. Welch shot down the aircraft that had injured Taylor, and Taylor damaged another aircraft (his second probable kill) before pulling away to assist Welch with an A6M Zero. The Zero and the rest of its formation left to return to their carriers as Taylor neared Welch. Taylor continued to fire on several enemy aircraft until he ran out of ammunition. Both pilots headed back to Haleiwa. After landing and driving back to Wheeler, Taylor and Welch passed by their squadron commander, Major Gordon H. Austin, who noticed that they were wearing their tuxedo attire. Unaware of their earlier dogfights, he shouted at the two men, saying "Get back to Haleiwa! You know there's a war on?" The two pilots explained what they had done, and the commander thanked them. In a 2003 interview, Taylor reflected on his actions: "I wasn't in the least bit terrified, and let me tell you why: I was too young and too stupid to realize that I was in a lot of danger."
Records and awards
According to the 25th Infantry Division's Tropic Lightning Museum, fourteen different American pilots were able to take off during the surprise attack and record ten Japanese aircraft kills. Air Corps records credit Welch with four kills and Taylor with two, yet new research of Japanese combat reports confirms Taylor got four kills (when the two probable kills are included). Taylor claimed in an interview: "I know for certain I shot down two planes or perhaps more; I don't know." On the thirteenth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States Air Force stated that they could not determine which of the two pilots shot down the first Japanese bomber: "Each of them in his first attack shot down an enemy bomber, so the difference in time would have been but a few seconds in any case." While in the air during the dogfight, the two pilots agreed that whoever survived the battle would claim credit to the title for the first kill. However, both pilots survived and because Welch outranked Taylor (he was a 41A, Taylor a 41C) and was the lead aircraft in the fight, he was credited with the first kill. The efforts of the two pilots’ dogfights were able to divert the Japanese from destroying the Haleiwa air field, which the Japanese intelligence did not know about prior to the attack. Taylor later reacted to the attack, saying "I believed I was a better-trained pilot than the enemy. I had good equipment, and I was proud of it."
For their heroic action on December 7, the U.S. War Department in Communiqué No. 19 on December 13, 1941, designated Taylor and Welch as the first two American heroes of World War II, and awarded both the Distinguished Service Cross on January 8, 1942. Taylor learned that he was to receive the award in mid-December after reading several newspapers. The award is the United States Army's second highest honor for valor in action against an armed enemy. Additionally, he later received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal, and a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained. Both men were recommended for the Medal of Honor, but were turned down because they had taken off without orders.
Military and National Guard service
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Taylor was assigned to the 44th Fighter Squadron, and went to the South Pacific at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. He was able to record two additional aerial kills: the first on January 27 and the other on December 7, 1943, two years after Pearl Harbor. This brought his total number of career kills to six, making him a flying ace. Officially however, Taylor is still only credited with two aerial victories on December 7, 1941 and one on January 27, 1943. At Guadalcanal, he was injured during an air raid and was sent back to the United States in 1943. In the U.S., he trained pilots in preparation of combat in Europe and was then assigned to the 12th Pursuit Squadron. At the end of World War II, Taylor had reached the rank of major and went to the Philippines to command a squadron that used the first United States Air Force combat jets, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.
Afterwards, he commanded the 4961st Special Weapons Test Group, became a tactical evaluator at the USAF Inspector General's office, and worked in The Pentagon. He was also the Deputy Chief of Staff and Plans for the Alaskan Air Command and was a long-range planner on the Joint Staff.
After 27 years of active duty, he retired as a colonel in 1967, and soon started as the Assistant Adjutant General for the Alaska Air National Guard, retiring as a brigadier general in 1971. Taylor then worked in the insurance industry in Alaska until 1985.
Personal life and depictions in film
On May 9, 1942, Taylor married Flora Love Morrison of Hennessey, Oklahoma, whom he had met when she was visiting her father in Hawaii. Married for 64 years, the Taylors had two children (daughter Tina and son Ken II), three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. While he lived in Anchorage, Taylor would vacation in Hawaii each year. Taylor's son later retired as a brigadier general commanding the Alaska Air National Guard, the same position formerly held by his father.
At a 50th anniversary symposium of the Pearl Harbor attack, Taylor met with a Japanese pilot who was part of the first wave of bombers to attack Pearl Harbor. The pilot reflected on Taylor's efforts, "I was impressed by Mr. Taylor's grit to storm into the pack of Japanese fighters", and Taylor also told a reporter "I have no hatred against Japanese people, but I do against those who started the war."
Taylor was a technical adviser for and was portrayed in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! by Carl Reindel. The 2001 film Pearl Harbor featured a sequence in which the characters portrayed by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett took to the skies to fight the Japanese. This sequence is understood to be a fill-in for Taylor's and Welch's roles, but the characters do not bear any other similarities to Taylor and Welch. Unlike Tora! Tora! Tora!, Taylor was not consulted for the Pearl Harbor film, and later called the adaptation "... a piece of trash...over-sensationalized and distorted."
After contracting an illness from a hip surgery two years prior, Taylor died on November 25, 2006 of a strangulated hernia at an assisted living residence in Tucson, Arizona. His son stated that he wanted "to be remembered mostly as a good father, husband, grandfather and great-grandfather. He was very loyal and dutiful, and to him that was more important than what he did in the war." He was cremated and later buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in June 2007 with full military honors. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens gave a eulogy at the United States Senate prior to the service at Arlington.
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