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George Welch - An American Hero By Robb Hill

George Welch - An American Hero by Robb Hill

 

What qualities does an individual require to be calledAn American Hero? Certainly courage, dedication, and honor rank highly among them. This story is about a man who had all the above in great quantity along with a great sense of humility. His heroic deeds performed in time of War might have earned him his nations highest honor, but they did not. Rather than garner the head-lines they should have, they were relegated to obscurity. The exact reason for which will never be precisely known. The rationale for not awarding this man the Medal of Honor was bound in illogicality and archaic military protocol. In addition, the combat achievements of this individual might have been much greater if his simple request to fly and fight in a more suitable aircraft would have been initially granted. Possibly the most endearing trait of this fighting American was his tolerance of those oversights and his will to fight on in spite of them. He simply Wanted to fly and fight his countrys enemies and that took precedence above all. During WWII he achieved the status of triple-ace despite many handicaps placed in his path. What he might have achieved combat-wise without these restraints Will never be known. What is known is that his life was one of extreme dedication to the field of aviation. It mattered not to him whether it be in combat or flight testing. To George Welch, flying was everything and he was always the best man for any job to which he was assigned.

To begin his story, We must turn the clock back to the time of the first World War, and May 18, 1918, to be exact. It was upon that date that he entered this world. Upon maturity he would later become a role-model for all young men who sought a future in aviation. His father, George Schwartz, was of the Jewish faith and had emigrated to the United States after experiencing a great deal of anti-Semitic prejudice in his native Germany. Possibly fearing that it would continue in the United States, he changed the familys last name to Welch. It was his wives maiden name. When little George came into the world, he was given the middle name of Schwartz as part of the family legacy. George Louis Schwartz, his father, Worked as a Du Pont research chemist and enjoyed an upper-middle class income as such. This affluence was passed onto his son in the form of private schooling leading to a college education. Young George was both a gifted student and athlete. He was an all-American boy who, after graduating from St. AndreWs Academy in June of 1937, opted to attend Purdue University where he majored in mechanical engineering. While in attendance there he proved to be an exceptional student, but what he wished to become changed dramatically when the clouds of war spread over Europe. It was the fall of 1939 and George, who had been smitten by the aviation bug, Wanted to become an Army Air Force pilot. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps flight training program only to find that he was far down the list for immediate selection. As the depressing scenario of Hitlers Blitzkrieg victories over European nations spread, he waited impatiently. He was finally ordered to report for cadet pilot training at Randolph Field, Texas, in late 1939. Slightly over one year later, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, sporting the wings of an Army Air Corps pilot.

Although the United States would not enter the War for a least another year, the handwriting was on the wall and generous funding for military aviation had been provided. 2nd Lieut. Welch was now part of an elite group which would be in position to defend the nation if attacked. Few overseas assignments were available to the new pilots, but George landed one of them. He was ordered to report to the Hawaiian Islands and, in particular, Wheeler Field located on Oahu as a member of the 47th Fighter Squadron. This was considered a dream assignment at the time and George arrived there early in February of 1941. He was assigned to flying obsolescent Boeing P-26 Peashooter fighter air- craft. His duty upon arrival was cushy, to say the least. Short days of flying and long nights for entertainment were the rule, and George was no stranger to the social graces. Although both he and all other members of the squadron grimaced at the thought of meeting any enemy aircraft flying their Peashooters, they were informed that they would soon be getting Curtiss P-36s and P-40Bs. In time the new planes did arrive and the squadron pilots began to get thoroughly familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. This was most fortunate as unknown to them at the time, that familiarization would soon be put to the test. In the meantime the routine of short days and long nights would be the norm. They would continue unabated until the fateful morning of December 7, 1941. Whatever sort of partying George and fellow pilot, Ken Taylor, had been involved in led almost to the daylight hours of that fateful day. Neither pilot had duty that day and expected to sleep until noon if they felt like it. They would be denied that opportunity when the sound of an explosion would rudely awaken them.

They soon experienced the sight and sound of exploding ordnance at Wheeler Field, reducing it to flaming rubble along with the aircraft deployed there. Although housed at Bachelor Officer Quarters at Wheeler Field, both pilots aircraft had been dispersed to Haieiwa Field approximately 16 miles away. Both Welch and Taylor jumped out of bed, hastily threw on their clothing of the previous night, and then called the Duty Officer at Haiewa. He told them both of their fighters were fueled and armed, ready for take-off. They then raced to Taylors car and headed for the main gate. While on their way out of Wheeler a Val dive bomber began strafing the area, but did not hit their moving vehicle. Taylor traversed the Winding 16-mile road to Haiewa in a record 15 minutes, driving as fast as humanly possible. When they arrived at the base, their two aircraft were in readiness, but there was one glitch. The ordnance men there had only .30 caliber ammunition available for the guns. This would limit their offensive capability, but Welch and Taylor ignored the deficiency and began their take-off. There would be no pre-flight checks as both aircraft sped down the runway with throttles fire-walled. George was first to become airborne, with Taylor about two minutes behind him. Within a minute, he spotted a formation of what came to be known as Val dive-bombers. They were headed for Pearl to wrought even greater destruction. He raced after them and closed in on the trailing aircraft. A quick burst of wing machine gun fire set one aflame and it quickly nosed over and exploded on the ground below. While positioning his P-40B for a second attack his aircraft was raked with machine gun fire from an enemy rear gunner. Welch quickly dived away and checked his aircraft for damage. He quickly ascertained that nothing was seriously wrong and once again went on the attack. When he caught up with theVal dive-bomber formation he got there just in time to watch his friend, Ken Taylor, flame an enemy aircraft and send it crashing to the ground. He in turn caught anotherVal after it had expended its ordnance and was heading toward safety. It never made it to the carriers as Welch splashed it into the sea. Immediately after doing so, he saw a second of Taylors victims crash on the beach near Barbers Point. Welch and Taylors fighters were now low on fuel and ammunition, and both headed back for the nearest base, which was Wheeler Field. Fortunately for them, the devastation at Wheeler had not been entirely complete. A single fuel tick drove out to replenish their fuel and ordnance personnel rushed in to reload both of their .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. Both pilots remained in their cockpits While this took place. In minutes both were heading back to the runway for take-off.

Once again Welch was in the lead and as he roared down the runway, unfortunately, enemy Zeros strafed both aircraft before they could get airborne. Although hit, both made it into the air. Ken Taylor was wounded in the process but went after the Japanese invaders with complete disregard to his injuries. Welch, now airborne, went after the Zero that had strafed Taylor and got on his tail. He sent a strong burst into it, set it afire and it crashed just beyond the runway at Wheeler. George then turned his attention to a lone Japanese dive bomber that had expended its ordnance at Pearl and was seeking the safety of its carrier. It would never reach it as Welch splashed it into the waters of the Pacific off Oahu. Once again low on ammunition and fuel, George headed back for Wheeler. He remained in the cockpit while the replenishing went on. He was told by a ground crewman that Ken Taylor had been wounded by a .30 caliber bullet from the fighter that had strafed him on take-off. The bullet had passed cleanly through his arm without contacting the bone. Undeterred by his wound, possibly even unaware of it, Taylor went after the marauding Jap aircraft with intense ferocity. He attacked a number of them but was too busy firing to note that any of them had crashed. He claimed two probables, but in all likelihood did much more damage than that. Although he should have been hospitalized for his wound, Taylor took off immediately on the third sonie of the day, as did Welch. By the time they were airbome, the sky was empty. The terrible deed perpetrated by the nation of Japan was over. A11 that was left was totalling up the carnage in the aftermath of the sneak attack. The Japanese were no stranger to the unannounced attack, as they had inflicted a similar one on the Russians in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. It had served them well and led directly to a negotiated victory gaining them important concessions. This time, however, they had awoken asleeping giant, one that would grind that nation into dust and force it into unconditional surrender in less than four years. Six million Japanese would die as the result. When the final tallies of aircraft shot down by Welch and Taylor on December 7th were noted, Welch was credited With four and Taylor with two. In all probability they should have been credited with more. Taylor reported witnessing two additional dawnings by Welch, but they Went into the sea and no evidence was found. Taylors two probables, and hits on several other aircraft, could well have proved fatal as well. The Japanese lost some 30-plus aircraft in the attack. Welch and Taylor were credited with 6, but in all probability accounted for at least ten. In addition, three other USAAF pilots bagged one enemy aircraft each during the raid for a grand total of nine. A handful of Army pilots knocked down nearly two-thirds of the invading Japanese losses. Considering the timing and circumstances of the attack, it was a phenomenal feat. Welchs and Taylors contributions to the defense of Pearl Harbor were recognized in due time. Both received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Welch was summoney to the White House and honored by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Great argument has since ensued that both men should have been awarded the Medal of Honor for their courageous actions on December 7th. USAAF Chief GeneralHap Arnold was all for approving that award to George Welch, but it was squashed by one of Welchs local commanders. The reason given was that both Welch and Taylor had taken off without specific orders to do so. However feeble that rationale might have been, it was sufficient for the recommendation for the Medal of Honor nomination to be dropped. Another possible contributing explanation was that our nation was extremely angry over the attack on Pearl Harbor. The emotional rage generated among all Americans may have overcome objectivity in fully recognizing the two mens accomplishments. Neither Welch nor Taylor was particularly upset about it. They wanted only to take the fight to the enemy, whenever and wherever possible.

 

Each of these USAAF fighter pilots shot down one or more Japanese aircraft on the infamous day of December 7, 1941 .

 

Both would get ample opportunity. After 2nd Lieut. Welch was honored in Washington, D.C., he was ordered back to combat with the 36th fighter squadron stationed in New Guinea. He was anxious to return to the combat he had a brief taste of at Pearl Harbor. Any elation he might have felt concerning his new assignment was dashed quickly when he learned the unit operated Bell P-39 Aircobras. That aircraft was unique in the fact that it featured an Allison V-1710 engine mounted aft of the cockpit. It had a sleek design and its performance at loW-altitude equaled that of most other WWII fighters, but the Washington bureaucracy had somehow mandated that the engine be left un-supercharged. This meant that its performance at altitudes above 12,000 feet fell off quickly. In addition it also had a very limited combat range. Due to these deficiencies the pilots of the 36th found themselves flying ground support missions rather than air-to-air combat missions with their enemy. Another squadron at the same airfield was flying the magnificent Lockheed P-38G and really taking the fight to the Japanese. Warrior that he was, Welch requested repeated transfers to the P-38 squadron without relief. While lesser pilots Were in the thick of battle, he had to languish in the shadows created by the P-39s deficiencies. Still, he did his best with his assigned fighter and within a year of Pearl Harbor had amassed an incredible three victories with it. He had downed two Vals and aZero. Only a handful more were ever scored by all of the USAAF P-39 pilots throughout the Pacific theater. Finally someone recognizes Georges potential as theAce pilot that he was and he got his transfer to the 80th Fighter Squadron. He was soon flying combat in the P-38G Lightning that he so desired. While the outcome of WWII remained in the balance, George Went on a rampage against enemy fighters in the Pacific. When he encountered them he usually shot down multiple targets. Such was the case on June 21, 1943, in the vicinity of Lae where he downed twoZeros on that date. Several months later two Tony fighters fell to his guns over Wewak. His score was now ll and climbing. He was to have a big day as anAce on September 2, 1943, when another four enemy aircraft went down under his Withering fire. He was credited With three fighters, eitherZeros or Oscars, and a swift twin-engineDinah fighter-bomber. He would record one additional victory before an event would transpire that would end his combat career. It was common for individuals fighting in the jungles of the Pacific to contract malaria, and George was no exception. He acquired it and lived With it until his condition grew so bad that he was hospitalized. Doctors examined him and decided that his condition was so severe that he should be shipped to Australia for treatment. There he slowly recovered. By 1944, he had nearly 350 combat missions and 16 confirmed kills to his credit. There would be no more, but one can only speculate what his total might have been had he been able to fly and fight during the last 21 months of the War. At any rate, a decision was made to send him back to the United States after his recovery. He would not be going back alone as he had met and married an Australian Woman while convalescing in Sydney.

Upon his and his brides return to the States, he was immediately sent on a War Bond tour giving speeches and promoting fund raising. He would not see combat again as the Army Air Force had more than enough qualified pilots in the Pacific to complete the job. It seems that George Welch was a favorite of Air Force ChiefHap Arnold. Although Welch was busy with Bond Drive activities, Arnold knew it was not his forte. WhenHap was approached by North American Aviations Chief of Flight Testing, Ed Virgin, and asked to recommend a qualified test pilot, he did not hesitate in nominating George. It was in the spring of 1944 when Welch resigned his USAAF commission and joined that firm. He brought not only his piloting skills to the firm but his engineering background as Well. He would be first assigned to testing the ultra-lightweight version of the famousMustang designated the P-5lH. He would also be involved in test- ing the XP-82Twin Mustang, but days of the reciprocal engine fighter were numbered. Jet power was the Wave of the future and all aircraft manufacturers had to make the transition to it. Although Lockheed led the Way with its venerable P-80Shooting Star, there was a definite need for a faster, more agile fighter. It would, of course, be the famous F-86 Sabrejet. George was initially involved in testing the XF J-1 ,Which was the Navys adaptation of that design. While this aircraft did not meet performance expectations, the Air Force version did. George soon found himself involved in testing that aircraft.The USAFs XF-86 would become famous and gain the U.S. air superiority over the angry skies of Korea. Testing on the XF-86 began in mid-September of 1947, at a time before the sound barrier had been officially broken. A rocket-powered aircraft had been designed to do just that. It was named the Bell X-l, but it was theorizes that the XP-86 could also achieve it in a shallow dive at full power. The USAF wanted all the publicity it could get from breaking the sound barrier in level flight. The Bell X-l , with maverick test pilot Chuck Yea- ger at the controls, was to complete the task for them. Although warned against it, George decided to have a go at breaking the sound barrier in theSabre. Never one for strict protocol, Welch not only decided to attempt the mark, but to informally tell everyone about it. He did so While enjoying a drink with friends at the infamousHappy Bottom Riding Club. That establishment was run by the infamous aviatrix Pancho Barnes. It has long since ceased to exist as have Pancho and many of the famous pilots which at one time frequented it. The land upon which it sat was later incorporated into Edwards Air Force Base. TheHappy Bottom Riding Club consisted of a bar, restaurant and motel rooms complete with female hostesses. While never proven to be a place of ill-repute, its reputation as such grew. One thing was for certain, all the civilian and military airmen at what was then Muroc Air Force Base flocked there after working hours. During an eveningHappy Hour George told his select group of friends to be listening for a sharp boom from the sky the following morning. He said it would sound like a clap of thunder and be unmistakable when heard. He further asked that his friends be listening for it and Write down when they heard it.

 

 

The YF-100 was our first Supersonic fighter. It had a troublesome early phase. George Welch forfeited his Life in the quest of making it a better aircraft. As the result of his untimely death in it on October 12, 1954, on Edwards AFB, the manufacturer made a radical redesign of the empennage section. Thereafter the F-100 was a much safer aircraft.

 

The following day would be October l, 1947, and all was in readiness for his attempt. After take-off, George began a steady climb out of Muroc to an altitude of 35,000 feet. His speed leveler out at 370 mph, and then began a 40-degree dive. His airspeed indicator shot up to 450 and then hesitated before showing an indicated 520 mph at 25 ,000 feet. At that altitude it was sufficient airspeed to cause a sonic boom over his intended target, the Happy Bottom Riding Club. He then reduced airspeed and headed back for base. A front landing-gear malfunction in which the gear failed to lock completely in position threatened the safety of his landing, but at length, using his ingenuity, it was overcome and the landing was successful. The North American ground crew at the base and occupants of the Riding Club, including Pancho Barnes, had taken note of the boom that had rattled windows there. No one was, however, talking about it. In the meantime, Bells X-1 could get no closer to breaking the barrier than Mach .98 speed. Again on October 14, after resolving the landing gear malfunction in the XF-86, George was determined to break it again. After completing the battery of flight tests scheduled for the day, he took the aircraft to 37,000 feet and began his dive. The airplane went through the sound barrier again but this time more dramatically. At 25,000 feet he executed a full power, fourG pull-out which dramatically increased the intensity of the boom. It was heard and felt by all within the vicinity of the base. While cruising at 25,000 feet, Welch spotted the B-29 that was carrying the X-1 manned by Chuck Yeager. Within a few moments after Georges successful landing in the XF-86, the X-1, and Yeager, went into the history books as the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight. It achieved a speed of Mach 1.06 and made history. For the present, however, the Air Force had decided to keep the flight a secret, but at theHappy Bottom Riding Club there was a huge celebration. Chuck Yeager was a favorite of Panchos and liquor flowed freely in recognition of his achievement. For George there was only the satisfaction of knowing that he had broken the sound barrier previously and would continue to do so on future flights. Within a time frame beginning on October 14th and extending through November 4th, George hammered the Muroc area with a total of 8 ear-shattering sonic booms. He achieved speeds of Mach 1.04 on a number of them. When his phase of testing the XF-86 Was at an end, he made a grand total of 68 test flights, of which 23 were supersonic.

 

 

The venerable P-403. It was in this type aircraft that Welch and Taylor scored their victories. Both pilots aircraft were hit by enemy fire and Taylor was wounded. In spite of damage and injury sustained, they took the fight to the Japanese with a vengeance.

 

He had proven that the new fighter was a true winner. Within a few short years it would have the chance to prove it in combat and once again George Welch would be there. During the Korean conflict, Welch was dispatched to Korea by North American to demonstrate the flying qualities of the F-86. It Was tumored that he did much more than that While there. Rumor had it that he flew as many as 20 combat sorties against Mig-l5s, bagging at least six of them. Whether any of it is true Will be permanently open to conjecture, but knowing Georges character it is certainly not out of the question. A bit of controversy ensued over Georges breaking the barrier prior to Chuck Yeager doing it officially, but accomplishing that feat in level flight made the difference. It would not be until the development of the F-100Super Sabre that it would be done by a true fighter aircraft. North American again produced it and one of the men who would be involved in the flight testing was their top test pilot, the one, the only, George Welch. The F-100 fighter was Arnericas first step into the realm of a mass-produced, supersonic fighter. It was precedent-set- ting and was designed without the benefit of the knowledge of supersonic flight that we have today. Should its handling qualities be tailored to sub-sonic or supersonic flight, or could both be integrated?

Those were the problems plaguing its designers. They acted upon what knowledge they had and produced an untested design that they hoped would be adequate to the task. The YF-100 was first flown successfully on May 25, 1953. Supersonic flight was not attempted on that date for obvious reasons. It later exceeded the speed of sound on many occasions, but troublesome handling problems arose which had to be remedied. Flight data was required and, on October 12, 1954, F-100A, serial number 52-5764, took to the air from Edwards flown by North Arnericans leading test pilot, George Welch. His flight testing for the day included a symmetrical pull up at 30,000 feet altitude that would stress the aircraft and his body to 7Gs. It would be performed at a speed of Mach 1.55. Never one to shirk any duty, George began the dive and pull-up maneuver, but something Went terribly wrong. As air sped past the wing of the aircraft, it left the vertical stabilized in uncontrollable void. The diving aircraft then began to yaw and assumed an awkward sideways attitude. Shortly after,it failed structurally. The nose crumpled near the Windscreen crushing George in his seat. Somehow the ejection seat then fired and catapulted him free of the disintegrating aircraft. While parts of his stricken aircraft rained down around him, George was carried to earth. His descent Was, however, much too fast as the panels of his parachute had been damaged. Whether he was alive or dead by the time rescuers got to him remains a subject of moot controversy as he was pronounced dead on arrival at the base hospital at Edwards. The Vertical stabilized of the F-100A would be redesigned and enlarged to counter the effects of wind flow over it, but the price for the data contributing to it was that of a great American pilot. WWII Ace and North American Aviations top test pilot was dead at the young age of 36. George S. Welchs aviation career had spanned a period of 14 years. It began with his flight training at Randolph Field and his extreme heroism at Pearl Harbor. It continued throughout the Pacific theater until he could soldier on no further. His career was resumed as the leading test pilot for possibly the nations leading aircraft firm at the time, North American Aviation. It ended with his untimely death near Rosamond, California, late in 1954. Although tragic, George died doing the thing he loved most. Flying was his passion. Lack of a Well-deserved Medal of Honor for his heroics at Pearl Harbor meant nothing to him. His dedication to his country and the field of aviation came naturally. He asked for no special recognition and graciously accepted any accorded to him. When queried about his accomplishments he casually replied that he wasjust doing his job. After all, what more would you expect from a true American hero?

 

George Welch standing in front of the venerable XF-86 which broke the sound barrier several times previous to Chuck Yeagers doing it in the Bell X-l. The distinction was that the F-86A could only accomplish that feat in a shallow dive.

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