by Kevin Millington
I recently enjoyed a chat with Donna Esposito, an avid historian of World War II Pacific Theatre aviation. Donna had just returned from a historical tour of the Pacific Ocean island of Guadalcanal, site of the famous August 1942 battle, and we both felt that the Grumman F4F Wildcat played a major role in this early American victory of WW II. As such, I thought I’d profile this famous, and under-rated, fighter.
The Wildcat originated from a 1936 request from the U.S. Navy for a new carrier-based monoplane fighter. Grumman Aircraft responded with its XF4F design, which incorporated many of the characteristics of its earlier fighters, namely the FF-1, F2F, and F-3F biplanes, such as a squat-shaped fuselage, a manually operated main landing gear, which retracted into the fuselage, and a rugged construction. The new monoplane featured large wings, providing high lift, and permitting short take-offs and slow speed landings, necessary for carrier operations, as well as good maneuverability. Initially, the Navy selected the Brewster F2A Buffalo as its new fighter, but authorized Grumman to build an upgraded prototype of the XF4F. In 1940, the Navy subsequently adopted the F4F Wildcat as its new fighter. Initially, the Wildcat entered service in late 1940 with Great Britain’s Fleet Air Arm (and named Martlet); in October 1941 it began equipping U.S. Navy and Marine Corps squadrons. At the onset of American involvement in WW II in December 1941, the Wildcat was the only effective U.S. fighter in the Pacific Theatre, where it was operated by the Navy from aircraft carriers, and by the Marine Corps from island land bases.
In combat, the Wildcat has frequently been portrayed as inferior to its principal opponent, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. In fact, the Wildcat more than held the line against Japanese forces during the early stages of WW II. While the Zero was more maneuverable and had a faster climb rate, the Wildcat compensated for these deficiencies with its rugged construction, able to absorb heavy battle damage, selfsealing fuel tanks, and its superior armament of four, and later six, 50 caliber machine guns. In addition, Navy and Marine Corps pilots developed very effective tactics when engaging Japanese fighters, such as head-on and diving attacks, as well as a maneuver invented by Navy pilot Jimmy Thatch, known as the “Thatch Weave”, whereby two Wildcats would cover each other’s tail, providing protection from stern attacks. During combat operations, Wildcat pilots established a 7:1 kill ratio against Axis opponents. As such, the Wildcat has my vote as the most under-rated fighter of the war!
When production of the F4F ended in 1944, 7,888 had been manufactured. In 1943, Grumman was so committed to production of its new F6F Hellcat that it sub-contracted with General Motor’s Eastern Aircraft Division for production of the Wildcat. The Wildcat participated in most, if not all, of the major battles in the Pacific, and was flown by many notable aces, such as Joe Foss, Butch O’Hare, and Marion Carl. The F4F was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engine, providing 1,200 horse power, and a top speed of 330 mph and a range of 850 miles.
A true legend of World War II aviation!