George Welch was a fighter pilot and ace with the US Army Air Corps in World War II. He’s most well known for his heroic actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and for being one of the first men (some say the first) to break the speed of sound.
George Welch was born on May 18, 1918, the son of a research chemist. His father’s name was Schwartz, but due to anti-German prejudice of the time, it was decided to change George’s last name to Welch, his mother’s maiden name. Welch attended Purdue University and studied mechanical engineering, but had fallen in love with aviation. He applied to the US Army for flight training, and was eventually accepted in late 1939. He received his commission in January 1941, and got a plum assignment to the 47th Fighter Squadron, based at Wheeler Field on Oahu, Hawaii. The squadron flew antiquated P-26 Peashooters, but was soon re-equipped with modern P-40 Warhawks.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, George Welch and his friend, fellow pilot Ken Tayler, were resting up from an all-night party and poker game, when they heard explosions coming from Wheeler. Still dressed in the clothes they had worn the night before, they raced to the small airstrip at Haleiwa, where their airplanes were parked. During the 15 minute drive at breakneck speeds, they were strafed by Japanese planes three times. Welch had called ahead to Haleiwa before they left, so their planes were fueled, armed, and ready when they arrived. Tayler and Welch got airborne and climbed to engage a force of “Val” dive bombers. Welch flamed one in spite of one of his guns jamming, then took hits from another Val’s rear gunner. Damage was minimal, however, and Welch bored in again, destroying a second Val. Turner splashed two of the dive bombers as well. The pilots returned to Wheeler to re-arm, and took off again as another Japanese formation was sighted. This one included the dreaded Mitsubishi Zeroes, some of which attempted to strafe Turner and Welch as they took off. As soon as Welch had his wheels up, he went after a Zero that was attacking Turner’s P-40 and shot it down. He then went after a Val, and downed this one as well, his fourth kill of the day. In spite of being hit in the arm by the attacking Zero, Turner stayed in the fight and claimed two more Vals probably shot down (these were later confirmed by Japanese records).
Welch and Turner landed again to re-arm and refuel, but by the time they were in the air, the attack was over, and the Japanese had all left the area. For their heroic actions against long odds, both pilots were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. With his new status as an Air Corps hero, Welch spent the first part of 1942 stateside, speaking at war bond rallies and boasting morale at home.
Lt. Welch was later transferred to the 36th Fighter Squadron, based in New Guinea and flying the P-39 Airacobra. Although happy to get back into action, Welch disliked the P-39, which suffered from short range and poor performance. Because of its limitations, it was tasked mainly in ground attack missions, although, in the hands of a good pilot, it could hold its own against the Zero. On December 7, 1942, the anniversary of George Welch’s fight over Pearl, he was among fifteen Airacobra pilots sent up against a force of Val bombers escorted by Zeros. Welch attacked a Zero from behind as it attempted to strafe Allied positions at Buna, shooting it down in flames for his fifth victory of the war. He then proceeded to down two of the Vals. In spite of this success, Welch never warmed to the Airacobra, and finally wangled a transfer to the 80th Fighter Squadron, which flew the P-38 Lightning, the top fighter plane in American service at the time.
George Welch more than doubled his score with the 80th FS, shooting down eight Japanese fighters and a “Dinah” bomber in three separate engagements in June, August, and September 1943. A short time after his last victories, a bad case of malaria forced Welch to return home for good, having scored sixteen kills in five battles. He spent the rest of the war in the U.S., developing fighter tactics and attending more war bond rallies.
After the war, Welch became the chief test pilot for North American Aviation and flew the first prototypes of the F-86 Sabre. On one of these flights, Welch actually broke the sound barrier (before Yeager’s famous flight) while in a dive. He later test-flew the F-100 Super Sabre. George Welch was killed during a demonstration flight in 1954 when his Super Sabre crashed due to a design flaw.