Major George S. Welch
Major George S. Welch (1918-1954) of 906 Blackshire road, Wawaset Park was America’s first World
War II air hero. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, he took off in a P-40 Warhawk and shot down
four Japanese planes. Some historians believe that two more, mortally damaged, fell into the ocean
returning to their carriers.
Flying Bell P-39 Aircobras and Lockheed P-38 Lightnings in the South Pacific, Major Welch scored 12
more victories, making him a triple ace. Richard Bong, America’s top ace, said the Delawarean was a
much better marksman than he. In a 1944 news conference in the Pentagon, Bong said, “If I could
shoot like George Welch, I’d have 75 planes.”
After the war, Major Welch became a test pilot for North American Aviation at Edwards Air Force
Base, where he tested the Sabre fighter jet series that gave the United States aerial superiority over
Some observers asserted that in 1947 George Welch, diving an XP-86 Sabre, was first to break the
sound barrier. In his book Aces Wild, test pilot Al Blackburn, a contemporary at North American,
documents a strong case for this conclusion.
Major Welch died in 1954 testing the F-100 Super Sabre. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
A Peter Hurd painting of Major Welch hangs in Legislative Hall in Dover.
On 7 December 1941 at Wheeler Field, the principal pursuit base on the Island of Oahu, the first bombs
fell shortly after 8 am. Approximately twenty-five dive bombers approached the field at an altitude of
5,000 feet, went into a dive and released their bombs over the line of hangars. Within a few minutes the
air was full of planes circling in a counterclockwise direction but otherwise maneuvering in no
apparent planned fashion. Though the attack lasted for no more than fifteen minutes other planes, in a
second wave, strafed the field shortly after 9 am.
In comparison with the havoc wrought by the planes that the Japanese First Air Fleet threw against
Hawaiian air and naval installations, the reaction of the United States’ defending air units was pitiful.
The enemy had achieved the crushing advantage of surprise. Moreover, the U.S. Army Air Force planes
were concentrated for protection against sabotage, with an allowance of four hours’ notice to make
them ready for flight, instead of being dispersed in readiness for a prompt take-off. It was virtually
impossible to put up anything approaching an effective air defense. In spite of the handicaps, four P-40s
and two P-36s took off from Wheeler Field thirty-five minutes after the initial attack. Perhaps the most
successful interception was performed by six pilots of the 47th Pursuit Squadron including Lieutenant
George S. Welch.
During the attack, Lt. Welch shot down four Japanese aircraft and his squadron mate Lt. Ken Taylor,
at-tested to the fact that Welch had at least two additional victories but they crashed too far out to sea
to be confirmed. Senior staff officers on Oahu recommended that both Welch and Taylor be awarded
the Medal of Honor for their achievements but because the United States was not yet officially at war
with Japan during the attack and because their superiors at wing level complained that they had taken
off without official orders they instead received the military’s second highest honor — the
Distinguished Service Cross.
On the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Welch shot down three of the eight planes
destroyed during action over New Guinea. Now an “ace”, he added three more victories on 21 June
1943. Two more were claimed on August 21st and in a spectacular engagement on September 2nd he
added three more zeros and a bomber to his list of victories. When a debilitating case of malaria ended
his tour in the Pacific, he had flown 348 combat missions and had shot down 16 enemy aircraft.
Welch joined North American Aviation as a test pilot in July 1944 where he had established himself as
a crack pilot and was chosen to test the new XP-86 Sabre jet. At this time there was no official order to
at-tempt super-sonic flight, however, during the XP-86’s maiden flight from Muroc AFB (now Edwards
AFB) on 1 October 1947, Welch pushed the airplane to 35,000 feet and nosed it into a hard dive. He
noticed a slight wing roll and an odd jump in the airspeed indicator and those on the ground were
startled by a noise like thunder from a clear blue sky. Two weeks later Chuck Yeager in the X-1
officially broke the sound barrier.
George Welch’s death came on 12 October 1954 while on a test flight in the F-100 from the North
Ameri-can test facility at Palmdale, California. A B-47 crew flying at 25,000 feet reported that Welch’s jet
winged over and began a rapid descent passing within four miles of their position and diving at a
tremendous speed. The aircraft appeared to be under control but then disintegrated. At the time of his
death he was chief engineering test pilot for North American Aviation.
George S. Welch was born in Wilmington, Delaware on 18 May 1918. He attended Friends School and
St. Andrews School in Middletown where he was a wrestler and on the rowing team, graduating with
the class of 1938. Welch attended Purdue University.He graduated from flying school on October 4,
1940. In May 1962, one of Dover AFB’s schools was dedicated to the memory of Major George S. Welch
and in June, 1963 the first senior class of 32 students graduated. Today, the Welch school is now an
Source: Welch School dedication May, 1962; Delaware Today Magazine June 1999; Office of Air Force History,
The Army Air Force in World War II, Vol. 1.
|Delaware Military History