AN EAGLE WITH WINGS OF GOLD: THE REMARKABLE CAREER OF BILL TAYLOR.
Erwin Gibson Taylor was born on July 4, 1905, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where his father, an officer in the United States Army, was then posted. When he was four, the family moved to the Philippines where his father was sent to help quell the native insurgents who were fighting for the islands' independence from American rule. While in the Philippines, the family lived in the jungle in a house built on silts. Taylor remembered little else about life in the islands save for a particularly gruesome incident that left an indelible image on the youngster's impressionable mind. As he emerged from the house one morning, he found the sentry assigned to protect the family lying at the foot of the stairs with his head cut off. 
Willie or William, as he was called by the family, grew up in many places as the family followed their father from one military post to another. While Taylor was in high school he applied for and obtained an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. As Taylor recalled years latter, "I was headed for Annapolis and the Naval Academy. But I went down to South America on a freighter and was injured"  He never explained what he was doing on a freighter bound for South America, but the escapade cost him the opportunity to attend the Naval Academy Instead, he enrolled in the Guggenheim School of Aeronautical Engineering at New York University. While attending classes, Taylor met two naval officers, who were actively recruiting fledgling aviators for the Navy.  Enticed by the opportunity to fly, Taylor quit school at the end of the second semester to join the U.S. Navy. He enlisted on July 3, 1926, and was sent to Naval Air Station (NAS) Hampton Roads for flight training.  He successfully completed th e course of instruction in March 1927 and returned home in Queens, New York, to await his appointment as an ensign in the Naval Reserve and the official letter from Washington that designated him Naval Aviator No. 4407. 
Taylor spent the next six weeks wondering whether or not the Navy Department would assign him to active duty. When his orders finally arrived, the young aviator was thrilled to learn that he had been assigned to join the Red Rippers of Fighting Squadron Five (VF-5), one of the "hottest" in the fleet and the only fighter squadron then equipped with a full complement of aircraft.  When Taylor arrived in Hampton Roads, he found the squadron was flying the latest model Curtiss Hawk fighter, designated F6C-3. The Hawks were among the first aircraft capable of dive bombing, a technique that VF-5 had developed only a few months before Taylor's arrival in July. That fall, VF-5 was ordered to conduct the first experimental dive bombing practice against a moving target. Taylor was too junior to participate in the exercise, although he took his regular place in the routine practices leading up to the experimental bombing directed against a large barrel towed by the destroyer Putnam. 
On March 3, 1928, Taylor, along with the rest of the squadron and their aircraft, boarded the newly commissioned Lexington, which was to transport them to their new assignment on the West Coast with the battle fleet's aircraft squadrons.  The ship sailed from Hampton Roads on March 8, transited the Panama Canal on the 25th, and arrived in San Diego harbor on April 6.  The squadron's entire complement of twenty-three aircraft were flown off the ship that day and proceeded to NAS North Island, where they would be based when not aboard the Lexington.  VF-5 arrived too late to participate in the annual fleet cruise, depriving Taylor of the opportunity to become carrier qualified. By the time the Lexington and Langley returned from Hawaii, Taylor's tour as a naval reservist was up and he was released from active duty. 
Through a friend, he met the Chief of Marine Corps Aviation, Maj. Edwin H. Brainard, who offered him a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps.  Taylor promptly resigned from the Naval Reserve and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Volunteer Marine Corps Reserves.  At the time, he was one of only 146 aviators in the Marine Corps. He served as an instructor at Pensacola, Florida, until September 1929, when he was promoted to a first lieutenant and assigned to command the Marine Corps Reserve Aviation Unit at Squantum, Massachusetts.  He served there until July 5, 1932, when he was ordered to report to the Aircraft Squadrons East Coast Expeditionary Barracks, Quantico, Virginia, as a squadron officer and student in advanced flight training.
In March 1933, Taylor was assigned to command another Marine Corps Reserve Aviation Unit, this time at Gross Isle, Michigan, where his job consisted of visiting colleges to urge the students of the graduating class to join the Marine Corps. He remained at that post until June when he was ordered to inactive status in conjunction with a reduction of the reserves, caused by deep budget cutting mandated by Congress.
Nevertheless, Taylor managed to obtain a job with United Airlines as a copilot on their New York to Chicago route, flying the new Boeing 247s that were just entering United's fleet.  When Taylor started flying the 247, it represented the state-of-the-art in aircraft design. The low wing, all metal monoplane, was the first commercial airliner equipped with a retractable undercarriage and NACA cowlings for efficient streamlining of its engines. These features allowed the plane to cruise at the unprecedented speed of 160 miles per hour--50 percent greater than its predecessor, the Ford Trimotor. Despite its impressive performance, the 247, carried only ten travelers in its cramped passenger cabin.
The Chicago-New York run was the busiest segment of United's transcontinental route. Flying by commercial airliner was an expensive proposition in those days and the flights were patronized almost exclusively by the "rich and famous." Taylor flew with United Airlines until 1936, when he purchased a travel agency in New York City. At this time, he changed his name to William Erwin Gibson Taylor so that his legal first name would match the sobriquet adopted by his friends and family. 
How and why Taylor got into the travel business remains unclear. His scrap books are filled with pictures of movie stars and celebrities, leaving the impression that he was a socialite--a decided asset in such a venture. He knew many famous people, including Charles Lindbergh, according to the stories he told his close friends.  While on a visit to Cape Cod one day, he borrowed the famous aviator's plane to visit a lady friend on Long Island. After a short flight across Long Island Sound, Taylor landed in a cow pasture, where he left the plane for the night. When he returned in the morning he discovered, to his chagrin, that cows had eaten portions of the fabric wing coverings.
In August 1939, Taylor traveled to London on holiday. Whether he went there with other intentions is not known, but with war clouds gathering over Europe, he decided to reenter the military. Seeking to join the RAF, Taylor went to the American embassy in hopes that the assistant naval attache for air could help.  Taylor was sent to see a British admiral, who was charged with recruiting aviators for the Royal Navy. Taylor was subsequently offered a commission as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve Volunteers so that he could fly for the Fleet Air Arm.  Still in the U.S. Marines Corps Reserves, Taylor had to await word from Washington confirming his resignation from the Marines before he could accept a British commission.
On September 14, 1939,  Taylor was inducted into the Royal Navy at HMS Daedalus, and immediately began a refresher course in flight training there. Next he was sent to fighter school before being ordered to the Mediterranean aboard HMS Argus, where he qualified for carrier duty. He then returned to the British Isles, to fly Gloster Sea Gladiators, with 804 Squadron at Hanston in the Orkney Islands.  In April 1940, the squadron embarked in HMS Glorious to provide fighter cover in support of the British Army landings in Norway  Taylor saw combat for the first time on April 27, when his flight (Blue Section of 804 squadron) intercepted and damaged a Heinkel 111 while flying combat air patrol over the fleet. This was a remarkable feat for the obsolete Gladiator, a 530-hp biplane, whose top speed of 253 mph was 8 mph slower than the Heinkel 111E.  Time after time the Gladiators would climb to engage a target, only to see it give "a startled puff of brown smoke" from its engines and accelerate away to safety. 
Taylor saw more action in the late afternoon of May 1, when Blue Section drove off two more Heinkel ills and broke up a second wave of Junker 87s that were attempting to dive bomb Glorious.  Taylor's squadron made two trips to Norway aboard the Glorious before they were disembarked to make room for a squadron of RAF Hurricanes that were evacuated from Norway and flown out to the carrier. Had his squadron remained with the ship, Taylor might have been killed, for during the return voyage Glorious was caught and sunk by the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst. Only 43 of the 1,515 men on board survived, most of the others--officers and men of the Royal Navy, Marines, and Fleet Air Arm--perished in the icy waters of the Atlantic awaiting rescue. 
That summer, Taylor was sent to the United States to assist the British Purchasing Mission in its efforts to obtain the latest U.S. carrier aircraft that were urgently needed to replace the severe losses incurred by the Fleet Air Arm during the Norwegian campaign.  It was during this trip that he met the Sweeny brothers, leading to his appointment to command Number 71 Squadron, the all-American Eagle Squadron that the RAF established at the Church Fenton Air Station near York, 180 miles north of London. 
When Taylor arrived at the station on October 4, 1940, he was surprised to learn that Squadron Leader Walter Churchill, a seasoned combat veteran with eight kills under his belt, had preceded him.  The assignment of two commanders--Taylor as figurehead and Churchill as the man in charge--was not workable. Taylor bowed out with a temporary transfer to 242 Squadron for indoctrination in Spitfires.
Upon his return to 71 Squadron, now at Kirton-in-Lindsey, Churchill was still in charge.  Taylor was furious and sought out Lord Balfour at the Air Ministry to complain that he had been double crossed. He reminded the British Under Secretary of State for Air that he, as well as the press, had been told he was to have been given command of the squadron. Taylor said that he wanted sole command of the Eagle Squadron or be allowed to return to the Royal Navy. The situation was resolved at the end of January, when Churchill went on sick leave and Taylor took over. 
Under Taylor, the squadron reached operational status on February 1, 1941. For the next six weeks the squadron's Hurricane fighters patrolled the skies without meeting the enemy.  In April, it was relocated to Martlesham Heath, 65 miles northeast of London and with Number 11 Group assigned flying fighter cover for British ships operating in the English Channel and the North Sea. Taylor termed this assignment "pretty humdrum." 
Evaluations of Taylor's leadership during this period vary. Some Eagles claimed that another pilot, Peter Peterson, was the real flying commander before its move to Martlesham Heath.  Taylor claimed he was simply keeping the unit out of combat until it was fully manned. Whatever the real reasons, the squadron's reputation had not lived up to expectations. Not surprisingly, Taylor was called to group headquarters, where Air Vice Marshall T. L. Leigh-Mallory, told him that he had exceeded the allowable number of operational hours and that, at age thirty-six, he was too old to command a fighter squadron.  Although offered a promotion to wing commander of a fighter training unit, Taylor opted to return to the U.S. Navy, which had been asking for his return.
In mid-August 1941, Taylor returned to the United States via the American Clipper from Lisbon and immediately made his way to Washington, where he reported for duty, having accepted a commission as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve.  Within a week, he was on his way to Norfolk, Virginia, on temporary duty from the Bureau of Aeronautics to brief various fleet air detachments on his knowledge of radar interception and fighter direction. 
While in Norfolk, Taylor also briefed the pilots on the Yorktown. The ship was equipped with one of the first CXAM air search radars, but nobody aboard knew how to exploit it. Taylor "unloaded all he could," recalls Bill Leonard, a former VF--42 pilot aboard Yorktown.  He had us rehearse the proper fighter control vocabulary in the ready room before sending us off to practice radar intercepts in the air off Bermuda. According to Leonard's recollections, Taylor, impressed the heck out of us. He was a colorful guy with an impeccable uniform, that added an aura of authenticity to him.
After spending ten days on the Yorktown, Taylor briefly rode the Ranger before travelling to Hawaii, where he was assigned to Adm. Husband E. Kimmel's staff. While stationed on Oahu, he was loaned to the Army Intercepter Command to assist in setting up the Air Defense Information Center, then being established at Fort Shafter several miles east of Pearl Harbor.  They were still trying to pull the last threads together when the Japanese attacked on December 7th.
Several weeks after the attack, Taylor was called before the Roberts investigative commission, to testify on the status of the early warning system on the morning of the attack. "It was not ready by any means," he stated in response to a question raised by the commission's chairman, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Owen J. Roberts, "[not] for air warning, [but] for air interception." 
Taylor remained in Hawaii until February 1942, when he was recalled by the Bureau of Aeronautics to work on a special program to provide the Navy's carriers with radar-equipped night fighters. He was sent to MIT's Radiation Laboratory for duty as officer assistant for Project Roger for six weeks. He then took command of Project A firm at NAS Quonset Point, R. I., established on April 18, to develop tactics and equipment for the Navy's first night fighting squadrons.  Taylor's task was to adapt the new 3-cm Al radar set (XAIA), being developed at the Radiation Laboratory, for the F4U Corsair.
Under Taylor, Project Afirm converted the F4U-1 into the F4U-2, the Navy's first radar equipped fighter, and organized and trained its first night fighting squadrons. The initial step in this process was undertaken at the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia, where the starboard wing was modified to support a faired radar nacelle containing an 18-inch rotating scanning dish and the outboard gun removed to permit the installation of a wave-guide to the fuselage mounted receiver/transmitter.  The latter were installed at Quonset Point by Taylor's own people.
On April 10, 1943, VF(N)-75 squadron was established under Project Afirm's auspices, and led by Cmdr. William "Gus" J. Widhelm.  A detachment of six pilots and planes was ordered to the South Pacific on August 1. The squadron arrived at Munda, New Georgia, on September 23, and made its first combat air patrol on October 2. During the next four months the detachment shot down seven enemy aircraft.
In the meantime, Project Afirm was split into two units. One was transferred to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, to work exclusively with materiel, while the other, the Night Fighter Training Unit (NFTU) under Taylor's command, remained at Quonset Point to concentrate on training. NFTU was superseded by the Night Attack and Combat Training Unit (NACTU) on November 9, 1944. By then Taylor, who had been promoted to commander in July 1943, controlled 270 aircraft and was training 360 pilots. 
Taylor remained in command of the unit until November 30, 1944, when he was relieved and ordered to the Pacific as technical advisor on the staff of the Commander Carrier Division Seven. There he coordinated the night fighter detachments assigned to the Enterprise and Saratoga that had been designated to serve as night carriers within the Fifth Fleet's TF-58. Taylor served in this capacity until April 1945, when he was named as the air officer to the staff of Commander Naval Forces Northwest African Waters. From there he went on to command NAS Port Lyautey, French Morocco, with additional duty as Commander of the Moroccan Task Group. While at Port Lyautey, Taylor hosted one of the first nuclear capable bombing units deployed on foreign soil, Detachment A of the Army Air Forces 368th Bombardment Squadron.
Taylor's military career ended in 1951, when he was forced into retirement on permanent disability due to chronic hepatitis contracted from a Yellow Fever shot. After leaving the Navy, Taylor was the terminal manager for Braniff International Airlines in Panama. In 1955, he joined Scandinavian Airlines System as vice president for air political affairs, with work involving landing rights in the United States. He retired from this position in 1970. Taylor never married and had no immediate family.
In the 1980s, his flying career briefly achieved celebrity status, when his role as the first commanding officer of the Eagle Squadron was publicized in several newspapers articles and a book about the famed squadron. However, Taylor's passing went unnoticed when he died in 1992, and his accomplishments would have been forgotten had it not been for his scrapbooks, which remained in the hands of his executor until they were brought to the author's attention in 1999. These precious artifacts of a bygone era were subsequently donated to the National Air and Space Museum where they can be found today.
Thomas Wildenberg is an independent historian scholar who has written extensively about the U.S. Navy during the interwar period, the development of naval aviation and logistics at sea. He is the author of Gray Steel & Black Oil: Fast Tankers and Replenishment at Sea in the USN, 1912-1992, Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway and Carrier Air Power, and All the Factors of Victory: Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves and the Origins of Carrier Airpower. Mr. Wildenberg has served successive terms as Ramsey Fellow and Adjunct Ramsey Fellow for Naval Aviation History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. In 1998, he was the first recipient of the Edward S. Miller Naval War College Research Fellowship and received an honorable mention in the Ernest J. Eller Prize in Naval History in 1994.
(1.) Hazel Gleissler, "Bill Taylor, Ace Squadron Leader," St. Petersburg Independent, Feb. 21, 1980, p. 1B; Vern Haugland, The Eagle Squadrons: Yanks in the RAF, 1940 (New York: Ziff-Davis Flying Books, 1979), p. 33.
(2.) Viscount Halifax to Marquis of Lothian, Jun. 13, 1940, in "W. E. G. Taylor Scrap Book," National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
(3.) Vern Haugland, The Eagles War: The Saga of the Eagle Squadron Pilots 1940-1945 (New York: Jason Aronson, 1982), p. 6; Haugland, The Eagle Squadrons, p. 33.
(4.) Under Secretary of State, Air Ministry, to Taylor, Oct. 2, 1940; Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty to Taylor, Oct. 9, 1940, both in Taylor Scrap Book.
(5.) Gleissler, "Bill Taylor, Ace Squadron Leader."
(7.) Capt. Harden to USS Nimitz (CVN-68), Dispatch R 220939Z Sep. 1976 (hereafter Harden Dispatch), p. 1, "Taylor Scrap Book."
(8.) Ibid., "DIS-16 Work Sheet," Jan. 23, 1951, Taylor Papers, NASM archives.
(9.) Letter of Transmittal of Appointment in Naval Reserve, Acceptance, and Oath of Office, Bureau of Navigation to Ensign Erwin Gibson Taylor, A-F, USNR, Mar. 28, 1927, 00/Taylor, Erwin Gibson, Bureau of Aeronautics General Correspondence 1925-42, Office Services Division, RG-72, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter BuAer Correspondence); Bureau of Navigation to Ensign Taylor, Apr. 23, 1927, Taylor Papers.
(10.) Bureau of Navigation to Ensign Taylor, Jun. 8, 1927, BuAer Correspondence.
(11.) Thomas Wildenberg, Destined for Glory: Dive bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998), pp. 31-35.
(12.) Bureau of Aeronautics to Ensign Taylor, Feb. 20, 1927, BuAer Correspondence; Log Book USS Lexington, entry for Mar. 3, 1928, RG-24, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
(13.) Ibid., entries for Mar. 8 and Apr. 6, 1928.
(14.) Bureau of Aeronautics Newsletter, Apr. 18, 1928, Aviation History Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(15.) Harden Dispatch, p. 2.
(17.) Secretary of the Navy to Ensign Taylor, Jul. 10, 1928; Second Lieutenant's Commission, U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, Oct. 23, 1928, Taylor Papers.
(18.) Outline of William Gibson Taylor's Service to date provided by Maj. M. R. Thacher, USMC, in a "To Whom it May Concern" Letter dated Sep. 11, 1933, "Taylor Scrap Book."
(19.) Harden Dispatch, p. 2; James M. Minifie, "Eagle Squadron of Americans fighting in R.A.F. Is Formed," News Clipping from the New York Tribune, Eagle Squadron subject file, Archives, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
(20.) Supreme Court State of New York (Declaration of Name Change), Feb. 28, 1936, Taylor Papers.
(21.) As related by Connie Miller (Trustee of Taylor's Estate) during telephone conversation with the author Oct. 7, 1998.
(22.) Harden Dispatch, p. 2.
(23.) Admiralty Correspondence C. W. 17309/39, Sep. 12, 1939, Taylor Scrap Book.
(24.) Naval Attache London to Capt. William Taylor, Sep. 10, 1939, Taylor Papers; William Erwin Gibson Taylor, Royal Navy Official Record of Service, courtesy of Cmdr. David Hobbs, Curator, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Museum, RNAS Yeolvington, England.
(25.) Ibid.; Harden dispatch, p. 2; Christopher Shores, Fledgling Eagles (London: Grub Street, 1991), p. 248.
(26.) Ibid., p. 278.
(27.) The top speed of the He 111 was 261 mph at 13,124 ft according to John R. Smith and Anthony L. Kay, German Aircraft of the Second World War (London: Putnam, 1972) p. 260; 253 mph at 14,600 ft for the Sea Gladiator, according to Derek N. James, Gloster Aircraft Since 1917 (London: Putnam, 1987) p. 226.
(28.) John Winton, Carrier Glorious: The Life and Death of an Aircraft Carrier (London: Leo Cooper, 1986), p. 128. 29. "After Action Reports Operation DX," Notes of operational combat reports held by the Ministry of Defense, provided by Cmdr. Hobbs.
(30.) Ray Sturtivant, British Naval Aviation: The Fleet Air Arm, 1917-1990 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990), p. 40. Other sources put the number of survivors at 39.
(31.) Viscount Halifax to Marquis of Lothian, letter introducing Lt. Taylor, RNVR dated Jun. 13, 1940, "Taylor Scrap Book"; Taylor's copy of an unaddressed letter discussing the conference he attended at Wright Field on Aug. 5, dated Aug. 9, 1940, Taylor Papers.
(32.) Sally Squires, "He Recalls His Days as Head Eagle with RAF," undated clipping from the Largo-Seminale Times, Taylor Papers; Haugland, The Eagle Squadrons, p. 33.
(33.) Philip D. Caine, American Pilots in the RAF: The WWII Eagle Squadrons (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1993), p. 147.
(34.) Haugland, The Eagle Squadrons, p. 34
(35.) Caine, American Pilots in the RAF, p. 147.
(36.) "The New 'War Birds,"' The Aeroplane, Mar. 28, 1941, unpaginated photo copy, Eagle Squadron File, National Air and Space Museum Archives, Washington, D.C.
(37.) Squires, "He Recalls His Days as Head Eagle with RAF," p. 3.
(38.) Caine, American Pilots in the RAF, p. 156.
(40.) "Americans Pay on Days Off To Fly with R. A. F," unidentified newspaper clipping dated Aug. 18, 1941, "Taylor Scrap Book"; Harden dispatch, p. 2; Statement of Total Service [signed by Taylor], undated copy furnished via National Personnel Records Center, National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis, Mo.
(41.) Card entry for Aug. 26, 1941, Index Cards for William Erwin Gibson Taylor, Central Correspondence Name Index, Bureau of Aeronautics, RG-72, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
(42.) Bill Leonard, telephone conversation with the author, Mar. 26, 1999.
(43.) Harden dispatch, p. 3.; Gordon W Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), p. 500.
(44.) Commission to Investigate the Japanese Attack on December 7, 1941, on Hawaii, Pearl Harbor Liaison Office, Vol. 10, p. 1229, RG 80, National Archives, College Park, Md.
(45.) Chronology, Night Attack and Combat Training Unit (Atlantic) History 9 Nov 44-31 Mar45, p. 1, Aviation History Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C. [hereafter NACTU History].
(46.) "The F4U-2(N) in the Solomoas, 1 March 1944," pp. 9-10, Aviation History Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(47.) NACTU History, p.5.
(48.) Harden dispatch, p. 4.
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|Title Annotation:||military air pilot|
|Publication:||Air Power History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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