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First Name: George

Last Name: Welch

Birthplace: Wilmington, DE, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: U.S. Army Air Forces (1941 - 1947)

Home of Record: Wilmington, DE
Middle Name: Schwartz

Date of Birth: 10 May 1918

Date of Death: 12 October 1954

Rank: Major

Years Served: 1939 - 1944
George Schwartz Welch

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


George Schwartz Welch
Major, U.S. Army Air Forces

George Schwartz Welch was born George Lewis Schwartz on 10 May 1918 in Wilmington, DE, but his parents changed his name to avoid the anti-German sentiment surrounding World War I. His father was a senior research chemist for Dupont Experimental Test Station at Wilmington, DE. He attended St. Andrew's School (1936). He completed three years of school toward a Mechanical Engineering degree from Purdue University, before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1939. While attending Purdue, he was initiated as a brother of Delta Upsilon.

Welch attended USAAC flight training schools at Brooks, Kelley and Randolph Fields, San Antonio, TX, as well as Hamilton Field, Novato, CA. After receiving his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, with the rating of Pilot in January 1941, Welch was posted to the 47th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group, at Wheeler Field, Oahu, HI, in February 1941.

World War II

At dawn on Sunday, 7 December 1941, then-2LT Welch and another pilot, 2LT Ken Taylor, were coming back from a Christmas dinner and dance party, with a big band orchestra, at a rooftop hotel in Waikiki, that ended in an all-night poker game. They were still wearing mess dress when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at approximately 8:00 AM. 2LT Welch telephoned Haleiwa Landing Field on Oahu's North Shore, approximately 10 miles away, where their squadron's planes were stationed, and told them to have 2 Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk fighters prepared for takeoff. He and Taylor immediately drove his Buick, under fire, at high speed to Haleiwa in order to join the air battle.

Immediately and on his own initiative, 2LT Welch took off to attack the invading forces without first obtaining information as to number or type of Japanese aircraft in the attacking force. He then proceeded to his initial point over Barbers Point. At the time of takeoff, 2LT Welch's P-40 was armed only with 30-caliber machine guns. Upon arrival over Barbers Point, he observed a formation of about 12 Japanese planes over Ewa, about 100 feet below and 10 miles away. Accompanied by only one other pursuit ship, 2LT Welch attacked the enemy formation, shooting down an enemy dive bomber with one burst from three .30-caliber guns. At this point one of his .30-caliber guns jammed. While engaged in aerial combat, 2LT Welch's plane was hit by an incendiary bullet that passed through the baggage compartment just behind his seat. 2LT Welch climbed above the clouds, checked the damage to his plane, returned to the attack over Barbers Point and attacked a Japanese plane running out to sea. He shot the plane down and it crashed in the ocean. With no more Japanese planes in sight, 2LT Welch proceeded to Wheeler for fuel and ammunition. After refueling and reloading were completed, but before his gun was repaired, a 2nd wave of about 15 Japanese planes approached low over Wheeler Field. Three planes came at him and 2LT Welch took off, headed straight into the attack, and went to the assistance of 2LT Taylor who was being attacked from the rear. The targeted enemy plane burst into flames and crashed halfway between Wahiawa and Haleiwa. During this aerial combat, 2LT Welch's plane was struck by 3 bullets from the rear gun of the ship he was attacking, striking his engine, propeller and cowling. At that time, the attack wave had disappeared so 2LT Welch returned to the vicinity of Ewa, where he found one enemy plane flying out to sea. 2LT Welch pursued, and shot down, the Mitsubishi Zero fighter about 5 miles off shore. He the returned to his station at Haleiwa Landing Field. 2LT Welch's initiative, presence of mind, calmness under fire against overwhelming odds in his 1st air battle, the expert maneuvering of his plane, and his determined action contributed to driving off this sneak enemy air attack.

Although both Welch and Taylor were nominated for the Medal of Honor by GEN Henry H. Arnold, they were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. Army medal for valor, for their actions.

After Pearl Harbor, Welch returned to the continental U.S. to give war bond speeches until being assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron of the 8th Fighter Group in New Guinea. Despite his aerial victories on 7 December 1941, Welch was dissatisfied with flying the poorly performing Bell P-39 Airacobra. When asked by a journalist what aspect of the P-39 he liked, then 7-victory Ace George Welch said, "Well, it's got 12 hundred pounds of Allison armor plate." When Welch inquired as to when his squadron (the 36th FS) would receive P-38s, he was told, "When we run out of P-39s." He repeatedly appealed to be assigned to the 80th Fighter Squadron (which flew the Lockheed P-38 Lightning) until he was granted a transfer. Between 21 June and 2 September 1943, flying a P-38H, Welch shot down 9 more Japanese aircraft: two Zeros, three Ki-61 Tonys, three Ki-43 Oscars and one Dinah. Welch flew 3 combat tours (a total of 348 combat missions with 16 confirmed aerial victories, all achieved in multiples, making him a Triple Ace) before malaria caused his retirement from the war.

George Welch was the first American Army Air Forces pilot to shoot down a Japanese airplane in the Pacific.

Mach 1 Claim

In the spring of 1944, now-Major Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a company test pilot. With the recommendation of General Arnold, Welch resigned his commission and accepted the job. He went on to fly the prototypes of the Navy's North American FJ-1 and later the P-86. North American originally proposed a straight wing version of the XP-86 and the Army Air Force accepted this on 1 May 1945. On 1 November, North American with the aid of captured German technology, proposed and was given permission for a major redesign of the XP-86 to a 35-degree swept-wing configuration. This was new technology and the USA's first high-speed swept-wing airplane and a significant advance over Republic Aviation's XP-84. Welch was chosen as Chief Test Pilot for the project.

In September 1947, the first of three XP-86 prototypes (SN 45-59597) was moved from North American's Mines Field (later Los Angeles International Airport) to the Muroc North Base test facility (now Edwards AFB), the same base at which the Bell X-1 was being tested. The maiden flight of the XP-86 was on 1 October 1947, flown by Welch.

After about a 30-minute flight, it was time to land and Welch lowered the flaps and gear. At this point, the nose gear refused to extend completely. Welch tried everything and 40 minutes more flight time was devoted to attempting to extend the reluctant nose landing gear. All attempts were unsuccessful and due to low fuel, he elected to land on Muroc Lake Bed without a fully extended nose gear. Upon touchdown, in a nose-high attitude, Welch cut the engine and as the XP-86 slowed the nose gear snapped down and locked. The aircraft was undamaged.

Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington had instructed North American that they were not, under any circumstances, to break the sound barrier before the X-1 achieved this milestone. He could exercise his authority in this regard because both the XP-86 and X-1 were Air Force programs. Welch's only complaints about the aircraft were the J35 engine lacked power and the rate of climb was a disappointing 4,000 ft. per minute. North American, however, had already contracted with General Electric for more powerful J47 engines for the production P-86As.

In his Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1 (1998), test pilot and author, Al Blackburn, claimed Welch broke the sound barrier 2 weeks before Captain Charles "Chuck" Yeager. Blackburn bases his contention on interviews of eyewitnesses, former North American employees and access to contemporary historical accounts. The story had also circulated at the time, amongst the Muroc personnel. Robert Kempel, author of The Race For Mach 1 contradicts the claim, contending it was impossible for Welch's aircraft to break the sound barrier with an underpowered engine. Bob Hoover, chase pilot for Welch and Yeager, has also gone on record to debunk the Welch story. Kempel contends that due to the very early stage of North American's flight test program, the aircraft was simply not ready for high-speed flight due to the limited airframe flight time and clearance. He notes that the XP-86 airframe was capable of transonic flight, but the interim low-power J35-C-3 limited its performance. The highest Mach number reached by Welch in 1947, as indicated by official flight test records, was about 0.93, in a maximum power dive from 45,114 ft. with the engine at 100.8-percent Military RPM (i.e. maximum power). North American conducted this test, their "High Mach Number Investigation," on 13 November. The USAF verified all North American results and this test Mach number in their own Phase II tests conducted in December 1947.

By the end of 1947, the XP-86 had logged 29 hours and 23 minutes of flight test time, most flown by Welch. On 14 October 1947, CPT Yeager exceeded Mach 1 in the Bell X-1. The claim of the XP-86 passing Mach 1, with Welch at the controls, was not made until 26 April 1948. Blackburn, however, maintains that a record on the Muroc radar theodolite, of the two flights Welch made on 13 November 1947 indicated supersonic flights, as well, noting 20 minutes before the X-1 broke the record, a sonic boom was heard over the desert, centered on the Happy Bottom Riding Club, dude ranch restaurant and hotel operated by Pancho Barnes.

Later Career

Welch went on to work as Chief Test Pilot, engineer and instructor with North American Aviation during the Korean War where he reportedly downed several enemy MiG-15 "Fagots" while "supervising" his students. However, Welch's kills were in disobedience of direct orders for him to not engage, and credits for the kills were thus distributed among his students.

After the war, Welch returned to flight testing; this time in the F-100 Super Sabre with Yeager flying the chase plane. Welch became the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight with this type of aircraft on 25 May 1953. However, stability problems were encountered in the flight test program, and on Columbus Day, 12 October 1954, Welch's F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre, 52-5764, disintegrated during a 7g pullout at Mach 1.55. When found, Welch was still in the ejection seat, critically injured, and was aided by NAA test Navion pilots, Robert "Bob" Baker and Bud Pogue. Welch was evacuated by helicopter, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the Army hospital.

Medals, Awards and Badges

Distinguished Service Cross
Silver Star Medal
Distinguished Flying Cross with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
Command Pilot Badge

Distinguished Service Cross Citation (Synopsis)

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Second Lieutenant (Air Corps) George Schwartz Welch (ASN: 0-398557), United States Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-40 Fighter Airplane in the 47th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group, HAWAIIAN Air Force, in action over the Island of Oahu, Territory of Hawaii and waters adjacent thereto, on 7 December 1941. When surprised by a heavy air attack by Japanese forces on Wheeler Field and vicinity at approximately 8 a.m., Lieutenant Welch left Wheeler and proceeded by car, under fire, to Haleiwa Landing Field, approximately ten miles distance, where his squadron's planes were stationed. Immediately, on his own initiative, he took off for the purpose of attacking invading forces, without first obtaining information as to number or type of Japanese in the attacking force, and proceeded to his initial point over Barbers Point. At time of take off he was armed only with thirty-caliber machine guns. Upon arrival over Barbers Point, he observed a formation of approximately twelve planes over Ewa, about 100 feet below and ten miles away. Accompanied by only one other pursuit ship, he immediately attacked this enemy formation, shooting down an enemy dive bomber with one burst from three .30-caliber guns. At this point one .30 gun jammed. While engaged in this combat, his plane was hit by an incendiary bullet which passed through the baggage compartment just in rear of his seat. He climbed above the clouds, checked his plane, returned to the attack over Barbers Point and immediately attacked a Japanese plane running out to sea, which he shot down, the plane falling in the ocean. No more enemy planes in sight, he proceeded to Wheeler to refuel and replenish ammunition. Refueling and reloading completed but before repairing guns, a second wave of about fifteen enemy planes approached low over Wheeler. Three came at him and he immediately took off, headed straight into the attack and went to the assistance of a brother officer being attacked from the rear. This enemy plane burst into flames and crashed halfway between Wahiawa and Haleiwa. During this combat his plane was struck by three bullets from the rear gun of the ship he was attacking, one striking his motor, one the propeller and one the cowling. This attack wave having disappeared he returned to the vicinity of Ewa and found one enemy plane proceeding seaward, which he pursued and shot down about five miles off shore, immediately thereafter returning to his station at Haleiwa Landing Field. Lieutenant Welch's initiative, presence of mind, coolness under fire against overwhelming odds in his first battle, expert maneuvering of his plane, and determined action contributed to a large extent toward driving off this sudden unexpected enemy air attack. Second Lieutenant Welch's unquestionable valor in aerial combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the Hawaiian Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.

War Department, General Orders No. 2 (1942)

In Media

Welch was portrayed by Rick Cooper in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!

Congressional Gold Medal

The Congressional Gold Medal, created by the U.S. Mint, is the highest civilian honor Congress can give on behalf of the American people. On 20 May 2015, leaders from the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate presented the Congressional Gold Medal [see photo] to the American Fighter Aces Association at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Emancipation Hall.

More than 60,000 American fighter pilots engaged in aerial combat during World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Of those pilots, only 1,447 earned the title of fighter “Ace” by downing at least five enemy aircraft. Major George Schwartz Welch was one of them, having been credited with 16 aircraft shot down in aerial combat, earning him the title Triple Ace). At the time of the presentation of the Medal, only 75 of those Aces remained alive.

Death and Burial

Major George Schwartz Welch died of injuries on 12 October 1954. He is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Arlington County, VA, in Section 6, Grave 8578-D.


Honoree ID: 3212   Created by: MHOH




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