The nuances of military history are often lost to the passage of time, as are the men who could give first-hand accounts. As much as training and battle play a significant role in the story of war, so does the camaraderie built through nights of recreation and if rumor has it, a beverage or two, or three.
While there were no breathalyzers on the day to confirm the fact, by these two particular men’s admission, they had spent the night of December 6th, 1941 drinking heavily and had little to no sleep when the Japanese launched the most brutal surprise attack in American history. But that didn’t stop them from loading up into two P-40 fighters without orders and taking on the brunt of a massive Japanese assault.
This is a story the world knows whether it realizes it or not. It was loosely depicted in the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor with the story of these two men played by Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett. And while that particular movie was certainly full of its typically Hollywood artistic liberties, the 1970 movie Tora, Tora, Tora would be a much more accurate portrayal.
But make no mistake about it, two audacious men took to the skies against the mightiest air assault America has ever known.
The Night Before
The attack on December 7, 1941 took place on a Sunday. Which means for many on the island, particularly those stationed there, a typical Saturday night was all that separated them from that day and one which would live in infamy.
Returning to the barracks, 2nd Lieutenants George Welch and Ken Taylor of the 15th pursuit group had just returned from an epic night of partying and poker playing. To be musing about the night’s activities one minute and watching the Japanese attack the next must have been a remarkably sobering sight.
The Japanese attacked in two waves with over 350 fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes from 6 different aircraft carriers. The target was the American Pacific fleet most of which was anchored at Pearl Harbor when the attack began.
When it was over, 8 US battleships would be sunk or heavily damaged along with three light cruisers and three destroyers. A total of 188 US aircraft were destroyed in the attack as well, mostly sitting wing to wing on the ground. But that doesn’t mean a few brave fighters didn’t take to the sky to give the Japanese a little taste of what was to come in this long war they had just begun.
As Wheeler Air Field had become a primary target for the Japanese, Welch called out to Haleiwa Airfield to have to have two P-40 aircraft fueled and ready because two pilots were coming in hot. Potentially a little drunk and hungover, but coming in hot all the same.
They sped to the airfield in their Buick and quickly mounted the planes without orders to do simply what they could. The P-40s were initially only armed with .30 caliber ammo for the wing guns, but to these two men, that was enough to get started.