Kenneth M. Taylor, who was one of the first two Army Air Forces pilots to get airborne and engage the enemy after the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor and together shot down at least six enemy planes, has died. He was 86.
Taylor, a retired brigadier general and former commander of the Alaska Air National Guard, died of natural causes Nov. 25 at an assisted-living residence in Tucson, said his wife, Flora.
"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," historian Douglas Brinkley said in an "NBC Nightly News" segment on Taylor's exploits broadcast Dec. 7, 2003.
"I wasn't in the least bit terrified," Taylor told NBC News, "and let me tell you why: I was too young and too stupid to realize that I was in a lot of danger."
The Oklahoma-born Taylor was a 21-year-old second lieutenant on his first assignment — with the 47th Pursuit Squadron of the 15th Pursuit Group at Wheeler Field — on that Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.
He had spent the previous evening at the officers' clubs at Hickam and Wheeler fields — in black-tie formal attire, as the clubs dictated for Saturday nights — then joined a poker game before going to bed at 3 a.m.
He was asleep at Wheeler Field five hours later when the sound of explosions and machine-gun fire jarred him awake.
Hurriedly grabbing the nearest pair of pants that he could find — his tuxedo trousers from the night before — Taylor ran outside and saw Japanese planes roaring by.
"He said the planes were so low he could see the faces of the pilots," said John Martin Meek, a longtime friend who videotaped an interview with Taylor in 2001 and runs a website devoted to him, www.pearlharborhero.net .
The attack destroyed or damaged most of the planes at Wheeler and Hickam fields. But the 47th Pursuit Squadron had been temporarily assigned to gunnery practice and its planes were at Haleiwa Field, an auxiliary air strip on Oahu's North Shore about 10 miles away.
In interviews with Meek, Taylor recalled that he told his fellow squadron mate, 2nd Lt. George Welch, to get Taylor's car while he called the field at Haleiwa to get their P-40 fighters armed, fueled and ready to go.
Taylor and Jones then raced to Haleiwa in Taylor's new Buick, avoiding being strafed by enemy machine-gun fire as they drove.
After reaching the small airfield, they quickly took off.
Taylor and Welch, according to a 2001 Air Force Times account, first spotted a group formation of unarmed American B-17 bombers flying in from the mainland. But as the two pilots neared a Marine Corps airfield at Ewa, they encountered a group of Japanese planes.
"We just got in line with them and started shooting them down, and ultimately ran out of ammunition," Taylor recalled.
While Taylor and Welch were having their ammunition replenished at battered Wheeler Field, according to Meek, senior officers told them to disperse their aircraft and not go up again.
But another group of Japanese planes approached the field and as everyone on the ground scattered, first Welch and then Taylor took off.
"Wheeler was just a grass field in those days, and you could take off in any direction you wanted, and I took off right toward them, which gave me the ability to shoot at them before I even left the ground," Taylor said in the Air Force Times interview.
"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. So I got a little shrapnel in my leg and through the arm. It was of no consequence; it just scared the hell out of me for a minute."
Meek said Welch saw the Japanese plane firing at Taylor and "came and shot the guy down."
In the end, Welch had four confirmed kills. Although Taylor was officially credited with two, he believed he had downed two other planes but had been unable to see them crash. Meek said, however, that Wheeler Field and the U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii credit Taylor with four kills.
In all, 14 American pilots got off the ground on that Dec. 7 and shot down 10 Japanese planes, according to the 25th Infantry Division's Tropic Lightning Museum.
For their heroism on the day that plunged the United States into World War II and took the lives of about 2,400 servicemen and civilians, Taylor and Welch were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Taylor also received a Purple Heart.
Although Meek in recent years has tried to have Taylor and Welch's Distinguished Service Crosses upgraded to Medals of Honor — they meet the criteria for the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force, he believes — Taylor, for his part, tended to downplay his role on that deadly day 65 years ago.
"He was a very modest guy," his wife said, "and figured that was his job, which it was in essence. That's what they're supposed to do."
At a symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1991, Taylor met and shook hands with an unexpected admirer — Zenji Abe, a former Japanese fighter pilot who had flown in the first wave of attackers.
"I was impressed by Mr. Taylor's grit to storm into the pack of Japanese fighters," Abe said at the symposium.
"I have no hatred against Japanese people," Taylor said that day, "but I do against those who started the war."
Taylor and Welch, whose pictures appeared in Life magazine two months after the attack, were portrayed in the 1970 Pearl Harbor movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!"
Taylor also became part of the hype surrounding the 2001 movie "Pearl Harbor," including an interview and photos in People magazine. But the story of the movie's two young pilots, played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, bore no relationship to Taylor and Welch's stories.
After Pearl Harbor, Taylor was assigned to the 44th Fighter Squadron, where he was one of six flight leaders. The squadron was transferred to the South Pacific for combat duty in November 1942; during the squadron's first combat engagement — over Guadalcanal in January 1943 — Taylor scored the squadron's first kill.
Later that year, he broke his leg when someone jumped on him in a trench during an air raid at the American base on Guadalcanal, and he returned to the United States.
Welch, who downed 12 more Japanese planes in the South Pacific after Pearl Harbor, was killed while working as a test pilot in 1954.
Taylor was born Dec. 23, 1919, in Enid, Okla., and grew up in Hominy, Okla.
After two years at the University of Oklahoma, he quit in 1940 to enlist in what was then called the Army Air Corps.
Taylor retired as an Air Force colonel serving at the Pentagon in 1967. While commanding the Alaska Air National Guard, he was promoted to brigadier general and retired from uniform a second time in 1971. While still living in Anchorage, he worked as an aviation insurance underwriter until 1985.
In addition to his wife of 64 years, Taylor is survived by his son, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Kenneth Taylor Jr.; his daughter, Tina Hartley; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
At Taylor's request, there will be no funeral service.