Dec 14, 2015
By Stewart Bailey, curator
Most visitors to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum are familiar with the story of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, but few are aware that one of the Museum’s aircraft has a unique tie-in to that historic event. It’s the North American P-51D Mustang. While it was not at Pearl Harbor, and in fact didn’t even exist at the time of the attack, it has a tie to one of the American heroes who fought back against the Japanese forces that morning.
On the evening of December 6th, 2nd Lieutenants George Welch and Ken Taylor of the 47th Pursuit Squadron at Wheeler Field, Hawaii attended a Christmas Dinner and dance party, before joining in an all-night poker game; never suspecting that the next morning they would be at war. Still in their mess-dress uniforms from the party, the two saw the dawn attack unfolding and made a call to the auxiliary fighter field at Haleiwa on the north shore of Oahu to have two aircraft prepped for flight. The two P-40B Warhawk fighters were only partially armed with just .30 caliber ammunition in the wing guns, when they arrived, but the two took off anyway to join in the air battle over the island.
On their first sortie, they were able to shoot down two Japanese D3A “Val” dive bombers and damage a third, before landing to refuel and reload all of their guns. Launching once again into the fray, Welch shot down another Val and a Zero fighter, while Taylor accounted for two more dive bombers. Only ten other Army Air Corps pilots were able to get into the air that morning to inflict any damage on the Japanese air fleet. Both Welch and Taylor were nominated for the Medal of Honor for their actions on December 7, but were instead awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; the highest USAAF medal.
After Pearl Harbor, George Welch was assigned to the 36th Fight Squadron flying P-39 Airacobras in New Guinea before going on the fly the P-38 Lightning with the 80th Fighter Squadron. Flying three combat tours, he reached the rank of Major and scored 16 aerial victories before a case of malaria put him out of the war. In 1944, Welch went to North American Aviation where he became a test pilot, working on some of the earliest jet aircraft such as the FJ-1 Fury and the F-86 Sabre.
However in 1946, for a short time George Welch crossed paths with the P-51D Mustang on display here at EASM.
During the 1930s, the sport of Air Racing had flourished and was followed by the public with the same enthusiasm that NASCAR races draw today. The biggest of these races were the National Air Races which took place in Cleveland, Ohio; running from 1920 to 1939. Having been suspended during the World War II years, the races returned to the public in 1946; the first full year of peace. The three-day event from August 30 to September 2, featured a huge military presence to show off the advanced aircraft that had just won the war, and many aircraft manufacturers allowed their test pilots to fly their newest aircraft, some of which were still in development.
George Welch, flying for North American, piloted a stock P-51D Mustang, serial number 44-63576, which was given the name “Jay Dee” and Race #37, in the Thompson Trophy “R” Division race. That particular race was for propeller aircraft and covered 300 miles; 10 laps on a 30 mile closed-course. Unfortunately, Racer #37 suffered an engine problem on the second lap and started streaming white smoke, forcing Welch out of the race. Racer #37 would fly again in the 1947, 1948 and 1949 national speed races with other pilots at the controls, but the best it would finish was fifth (at 373.437 mph) in the 1949 Sohio Trophy Race. The aircraft went into storage until the mid-1970s when it would race again, this time at the National Air Races in Reno, Nevada. It was acquired by Evergreen in 1986.
The National Air Races in Cleveland were stopped after a horrific accident in 1949, where a racer crashed into a home, killing the pilot and several people on the ground, but would be re-born in Reno, Nevada in 1964. George Welch would tragically lose his life while testing an F-100A Super Sabre in 1954. But Racer #37, lives on as N51DH in the Evergreen collection; one tangible artifact of when a hero of Pearl Harbor took to the skies for post-War racing glory.