F4F WILDCAT FIGHTERS IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC

Without making unwarranted claims about the type, it is possible to state that the Grumman F4F Wildcat made an outstanding record against the Japanese Imperial Navy air arm during the Solomon Island campaign. Other American fighter types went on to greater glory, but the lowly Wildcat – with notable assistance from the Vought Corsair and Army Lockheed P-38 – won the day over the South Pacific from the beginning of the war until it was supplanted in mid-1943.

Other examples of records exceeding the reputation of performance for various types include the P-51 in Europe. The redoubtable Mustang achieved nearly double credited aerial victories to those credited to other major American types. However, the lesser considered P-38 actually outgunned the Mustang by approximately one-hundred victories during the course of the Mediterranean campaign. During the battle of Britain the lesser regarded Hawker Hurricane accounted for about four-fifths of all confirmed aerial claims. In point of fact, the Hurricane outnumbered the superlative Supermarine Spitfire roughly two to one in the battle. When the total record for World War II is considered there is no question about the Spitfire’s dominance, but the Hurricane made its point.

Pre-Pearl Harbor marked F4F-3 Wildcats in loose formation circa autumn 1941
Pre-Pearl Harbor marked F4F-3 Wildcats in loose formation circa autumn 1941

The Wildcat was, in fact, a contemporary of the Hurricane and Spitfire, making its first flight as a biplane in 1936. Finding less than successful fare as the F4F-2, the Wildcat lost a production contract to the Brewster Buffalo. It took a strengthening of the wings and updating of engine installation to finally reach production as the F4F-3 in early 1940. The aircraft carrier, USS Ranger, was the first to accept the new Grumman fighter on board in December, 1940.

While the F4F was deficient in some ways it had the potential of standing toe to toe with current Japanese types. Its speed and maneuverability were below the standards of the A5m “Claude” and the new A6m Zero, but it possessed a robust frame and the installation of four or six heavy machine guns. Although it possessed some clumsiness on the ground with its knock-kneed landing gear, retracted by 38 ½ turns on a bicycle type chain via a hand crank on the left side of the cockpit.

Actually, the first blood drawn by the Wildcat was in its British form, known as the Martlet with the Royal Navy. A German bomber was claimed by a Martlet on Christmas day 1940. Relatively few claims were made, however, but an exception was a raiding Fw 200 four-engine anti-shipping bomber which fell to the guns of a Royal Navy Martlet in September 1941.

By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 the Wildcat was the standard shipboard fighter in the U. S. Navy. All American carriers happened to be out to sea during the attack, so very little naval response was made to counter the audacious Japanese operation. No claims were made during the attack, but the Marine contingent was about to draw first blood at Wake Island.

F4Fs arranged on a carrier deck. Photo dated August 1942, a late date for such early markings.  This suggests that the scene is more likely VF-6 Wildcats aboard Enterprise earlier than August 1942
F4Fs arranged on a carrier deck. Photo dated August 1942, a late date for such early markings. This suggests that the scene is more likely VF-6 Wildcats aboard Enterprise earlier than August 1942

Eight Wildcats of VMF-211 were flown off the deck of the U. S. S. Enterprise on December 4, 1941 to form the air echelon of the Wake Island defense. One fortuitous fact is that Enterprise sailed back into Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of December 7, after the attack. Inadequate preparations such as incomplete radar with poorly trained operators failed to supply sufficient warning to prevent the loss of most VMF-211 Wildcats during the first Japanese attack on December 8. The next day another Japanese raid saw the first American Wildcat victory when Lieutenant David Kliewer and Tsgt William Hamilton shared credit for the shooting down of either a G3m Nell or G4m Betty bomber, according to various sources. Before Wake capitulated on December 22, another seven Japanese aircraft were claimed shot down, including two Zeros on the day the island fell.

Not long after the fall of Wake the American fleet struck back, including strikes at the recently lost island and the first fleet claims of Japanese aircraft shot down. The three aircraft carriers of the American force struck the Gilberts and the Marshalls plus a single attack at the new Japanese bastion of Rabaul during January and February 1942. On the first day of February, Enterprise Wildcat pilot Lt. (jg) Wilmer Rawie was trying to catch up with Lt. James Gray’s section when he encountered two Mitsubishi Type 96 Claude fighters a few thousand feet above him. The Japanese fighters had just taken off from the island of Taroa intercept the intruding Americans.

Rawie advanced his throttle, straining to reach the rear of the enemy pair from below. The lead Claude was being flown by Lieutenant Kurakane, who was unknowingly being stalked by a Wildcat approaching from out of the early morning darkness. Drawing up close from below, Rawie opened fire with a long burst that raked Kurakane’s fighter. The Japanese was rudely startled by the damage to his aircraft, and rolled the burning Claude over on its side to bail out. American sailors on ships below saw the speck of Japanese broken fighter falling toward the island suddenly burst into flame and disappear into the distance. It was the first American fleet victory for the Grumman F4F Wildcat in World War II.

Cdr. John Thach
Cdr. John Thach

February 20, 1942 was a great day of combat for Lexington’s VF-3. Lt. Commander Jimmy Thach opened the day’s scoring by sharing a Kawanishi H6k Mavis patrol bomber with his wingman, Ensign Edward Sellstrom, east of Rabaul. Thach also claimed a twin-engine, and shared yet another later in the day. He became known as the creator of the Thach weave, a tactic that emphasized coordination of a flight of fighters to maneuver into offensive position on formations of Japanese aircraft. Commander James Flatley simultaneously developed attack methods that made the best use of Wildcat strengths to attack Japanese fighters from the most advantageous positions to give the American fighter maximum chance to defeat the superior A6m Zero. These American tactics were highly successful in the imminent fighter struggles over the South Pacific.

Cdr. Jimmy Flatley
Cdr. Jimmy Flatley

The day proved quite successful for Lexington’s VF-3 with nearly twenty Japanese raiders claimed shot down. Undoubtedly the most impressive performance was that of Lt. (jg) Edward O’Hare who was credited with five Betty bombers destroyed and another probably destroyed. O’Hare’s division was held in reserve over the main battle while other Lexington formations claimed about fourteen Japanese bombers between 4:40 and 5:15 in the afternoon. Eight Betty bombers of the 1st Chutai, 4th Air Group were sighted coming in from the east by American spotters. The Japanese attackers were only a few miles from the Lexington when frantic calls went out to O’Hare and his wingman, which was the only force able to intercept the enemy.

VF-3 F4F-3 Wildcats of Thach and O'Hare
VF-3 F4F-3 Wildcats of Thach and O’Hare

O’Hare let the left vee of bombers slide beneath him while he made a high side attack on the right formation of three. Making an effective run on the right hand bomber, O’Hare started an engine smoking and burning and watched the Japanese fall inexorably toward the water below. Shifting his aim to the left hand bomber, he fired once again and forced the Betty flown by Po1 Mori to fall away, later to ditch. O’Hare zoomed back to the left, and noticed that his wingman was out of position in an effort to clear jammed guns. Taking the offensive once again, O’Hare fired at the bomber flown by Po1c Maeda on the left side of the center formation and set it ablaze to fall out of formation. Maeda’s crew managed to staunch the flames licking at the fuselage and probably made it back to Rabaul. Attacking the leading vee of three bombers, O’Hare set each one afire, and claimed two more bombers destroyed and another probably destroyed. Some of the Japanese bombers made an ineffective bomb run on the Lexington, but O’Hare ran in and out of the intense return fire to the enrapt attention of American witnesses below. His valiant single-handed feat over his aircraft carrier had endured only minor damage by return fire as well as American anti-aircraft fire, and eventually won the Congressional Medal of Honor for him.

Sea action subsided for the next two months while the American and Imperial Japanese fleets sparred with other during the Japanese march across the Pacific. The brash move of the Doolittle strike in April upset Japanese psychological equilibrium. Neutralization of Australia was paramount in the now hurried minds of enemy planners, and the supposed final engagement with Allied ships was anticipated in the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia itself.

That action took place in the second week of May when the Japanese fleet encountered the aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown. Furious action accounted for the loss of IJN light carrier Shoho and the abandoning of the Lexington, which later was sunk. More than twenty Japanese aircraft were claimed as downed or written off in crash landings. Jimmy Flatley accounted for either a Claude or Zero fighter before he ran into a host of enemy aircraft and was lucky to free himself to return home.

A more disastrous encounter came for the Japanese less than a month later when no fewer than four Japanese carriers were lost during the three-day battle of Midway. More than fifty Japanese aircraft were claimed in the air with an estimated two-hundred others going down with the sinking wreckage of Japanese ships. Lt. Cdr. Thach was credited with four Zeros during the air battles to justify his doctrine of slashing attacks by Wildcat formations. Beyond the tactical victory there was the momentous shift of power in the Pacific that put the Allies on the offensive in an instant.

Five Japanese carriers had been eliminated to two for the Americans. The next six months would see the initiative sway back and forth between the adversaries until American production and effective training methods won the struggle in the Solomon Islands. The training and tactics of the American Navy would take the day, even with a fighter like the F4F Wildcat, considered inferior to its main Japanese counterpart – the fabled Mitsubishi Zero.

Imperial discontent reached an even higher plain when the American invasion of the Solomon Islands became evident early in August. Reports of at least two American aircraft carriers covering a major landing force created near panic in the Japanese high command. Japanese forces had easily occupied the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi among others in what became known as the slot, or a sea passage through the area. The Solomon island position not only formed a forward outpost for the Japanese but also created an eastern threat toward Australia.

No time was lost when the Japanese sent twenty-seven Betty bombers covered by thirty-nine Zeros from the distant base of Rabaul to disrupt the American landings on Guadalcanal. American strikes had already damaged Japanese installations, claiming at least thirteen seaplanes at their moorings. Among the Zero pilots descending on the transports off Guadalcanal and Tulagi were the highest scoring IJN aces of the war. The Zero unit known as the Lae Kokutai (Wing) sent its elite pilots to stop the American invasion. Wildcats from VF-5 (Saratoga) VF-6 (Enterprise) and VF-71(Wasp) would offer opposition to the coming whirlwind of action about to join off the disputed shores.

Among the Tainan Kokutai pilots on this escort to Guadalcanal were Saburo Sakai, already unofficially rated as the leading IJN fighter ace; Junichi Sasai, Sakai’s unit commander and Chutai (flight) leader on this operation; Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, who would eventually be rated the leading Japanese ace before he was killed in a transport over the Philippines in October 1944. Nishizawa would claim a remarkable six Wildcats during the day’s fighting, notwithstanding only about eight Grummans were actually lost, including one certainly claimed by Saburo Sakai and several other multiple claims by other Japanese Zero pilots.
The Japanese bomber formation appeared over the forthcoming battle area around one o’clock in the afternoon. They were almost over the American transports when Lieutenant James Southerland of Saratoga’s VF-5 noticed them slipping out of the clouds. He was in a bad position below the enemy formation when he noticed the bomb bay doors open and felt the urgent need to attack. Coming in from the right side, Southerland fired at one Betty and noticed flames streaming back from the doomed enemy machine. He tried to zoom away from the return fire from the other bombers, but his Wildcat was hit several times, striking the windscreen and leaving an acrid stench from hits behind his cockpit. Even so, he attacked another bomber which also caught fire around the right engine before Southerland realized that he was virtually out of ammunition.

Three Zeros of Saburo Sakai’s flight were in the area and immediately engaged Southerland and his three Wildcats. Two Grummans were shot down and the third was badly damaged before it could escape the whirling battle. That left Southerland facing the Zeros with nothing left in his guns. He made a wild fight of it, maneuvering with two Zeros in spite of the Japanese advantage in turning combat and the fact that Southerland was virtually without offensive clout.

Sakai was engaged with Saratoga’s Scarlet 8 when he joined up with Lai kokutai leader Junichi Sasai. Looking around to find his wingmen Sakai was startled to observe them below jousting with a single Wildcat, which seemed to be holding its own. Sakai signaled Sasai that he was diving to the aid of his men, and immediately engaged Southerland. The next few minutes saw Southerland giving the top Japanese ace as good as he was getting until Sakai gained the advantage, shooting up the Wildcat until Southerland took to his parachute and drifted toward the Guadalcanal shore, where he evaded until he was picked up later by friendly forces.

This first engagement over Guadalcanal airspace resulted in some notable results. Apparently, two Zeros of the Tainan Kokutai and about ten bombers were claimed for eight Wildcats lost, with four American pilots listed as recovered. Saburo Sakai was initially impressed with his first F4F Wildcat encounter, later commenting to writer Henry Sakaida, “Much better than the P-40 and P-39 in dogfight, but still inferior to the Zero. I felt the pilots were full of combative spirit.”

This first engagement of Navy Wildcats and Zero was perhaps a conditional success for the invading Americans, but the next day saw a definite victory for carrier-based F4Fs when six Japanese aircraft were claimed for no losses during a subsequent raid on the beachhead. However, the conditions of battle were decidedly untenable when commanders were understandably nervous about leaving three aircraft carriers in dangerous proximity while the airfield that was to become known as Henderson Field underwent completion to accept fighters and dive bombers.

Transport aircraft is about to land on Henderson Field on August 22, 1942
Transport aircraft is about to land on Henderson Field on August 22, 1942

Construction on the Guadalcanal airstrips proceeded furiously to be ready by August 20 for the arrival of the first nineteen brand new F4F-4 Wildcats of Captain John Smith’s VMF-223. Along with twelve new SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers, the marine fighters were met with wild cheers from ground troops who had felt naked against Japanese air and sea raids since the withdrawal of aircraft carrier cover. A sea battle fought a few days previously around Savo Island had given the Japanese temporary domination in the area to torment American troops on Guadalcanal with air and sea bombardment and interdiction of resupply of the Henderson Field perimeter.

Marines extinguishing fire on Guadalcanal F4F after it was damaged in a Japanese air raid
Marines extinguishing fire on Guadalcanal F4F after it was damaged in a Japanese air raid

Little time was lost for the pilots of VMF-223 when they met an incoming raid west of Savo Island and claimed three Zeros shot down. Two of the claims were credited to young Second Lieutenant Charles Trowbridge, and one other to Captain John L. Smith. Both of these F4F pilots would become aces over the next few weeks. Indeed, Smith would win the Medal of Honor, being credited with downing nineteen Japanese aircraft between August 21 and October 10, 1942. Trowbridge would add a bomber on August 22 with another bomber and a Zero claimed two days later to become an F4F fighter ace.

Guadalcanal pilots Smith, Mangrim and Carl in flight jackets not normally required on Guadalcanal
Guadalcanal pilots Smith, Mangrim and Carl in flight jackets not normally required on Guadalcanal

By August 26, John Smith had been promoted to major to make his rank commensurate with his duties as leader of VMF-223. On that date around the noon hour, nine Wildcats of VMF-212 and VMF-223 met an estimated eighteen bombers covered by a number of Zeros from the Tainan kokutai over the Henderson Field area. The bombers were able to release their loads to destroy a field radio station, and damage some parked aircraft before the Wildcats exerted their fury. One F4F-4 was lost for claims of four bombers and four Zeros shot down.

John Smith in color photo of him in F4F cockpit
John Smith in color photo of him in F4F cockpit

Actual Japanese losses were three bombers and three Zeros, but one of the Zero losses was Junichi Sasai, a leader of the Tainan Kokutai who was known as “the Richtofen of Rabaul” for his ambition of surpassing the premier World War I air ace. His actual final score was established at around twenty-seven victories. It is speculated that Sasai’s victor was perhaps John Smith, who claimed two Zeros; Captain Marion Carl, who had one Zero to his credit during the Midway battle, and four other claims during the August 24 battle; and Lieutenants John King and Charles Trowbridge with three other Zeros claimed between them.

August and September were hellish months for the Americans who hung on tenuously to a small perimeter around Henderson Field. The effects of lost sea battles gave the Japanese the initiative in shelling American positions, and desperate air raids from the direction of Rabaul made life miserable for the harassed defenders of that perimeter. Two Wildcat squadrons fought valiantly but sometimes in exhausting overstressing conditions to counter the seemingly endless air attacks. Losses were heavy on both sides in September, the sixteen victory Japanese ace Toraichi Takatsuki being claimed shot down, probably by Wildcats of VMF-223. Major John Smith tallied his sixteenth victory when he downed a Zero over Sea lark Channel on that day. In turn, there were only eleven flyable Wildcats available for service on Guadalcanal with losses from all causes by the middle of September.

Captain Joe Foss of VMF-121 on Guadalcanal
Captain Joe Foss of VMF-121 on Guadalcanal

Morale was boosted on October 7 when nine Wildcats of VMF-121, led by Captain Joe Foss, who was to become leading marine ace on Guadalcanal, landed on the bomber strip. An exultant Major John Smith drove up in a Jeep to greet Foss and his welcome reinforcements. Foss was not long in getting into the fighting and scoring when he found a Zero that had overshot his own Wildcat on October 13. He was known as an indifferent pilot, but was also rated a great deflection shooter; he gave the Zero a brief gun burst and believed he saw it explode. No Zero losses were reported in Japanese records for this day, and Foss learned a great lesson when he evaded several angry Japanese fighters behind him to crash land his own damaged Wildcat.

W. C. Wethe, Tom Mann, Lowell Grow, Art Hehf, D. C. Owen and D. K. Allan were VMF-121 pilots on Guadalcanal
W. C. Wethe, Tom Mann, Lowell Grow, Art Hehf, D. C. Owen and D. K. Allan were VMF-121 pilots on Guadalcanal

VMF-223 and 224 were relieved when VMF-121 and several other units including VMF-212 replaced them during the month. Action was unabated during October and November during which time the Japanese made desperate lunges at Guadalcanal to retake the area. Joe Foss had sixteen confirmed victories by the end of October. On November 7, he claimed a Rufe – the Nakajima float version of the Zero currently used as a supplement for the IJN aircraft carrier Zeros no longer available to assault Guadalcanal – and two Mitsubishi biplane reconnaissance F1m Petes. However, he was shot down around the island of Malaita, to swim through salt water crocodile infested water to be rescued by a coast watcher with some friendly natives in the near pitch blackness of the night. One of the signal losses for the Tainan kokutai occurred on October 21 when thirty-four victory Warrant Officer Ota failed to return from a Guadalcanal sortie. Five Zeros were claimed by VMF-212 for the day, and Ota probably fell to one of that squadron’s pilots.

Captain Greg Loesch was a VMF-121 pilot with 8.5 credited victories, including a Zero and one half on October 23, 1942 and two Vals on January 5, 1943
Captain Greg Loesch was a VMF-121 pilot with 8.5 credited victories, including a Zero and one half on October 23, 1942 and two Vals on January 5, 1943

One of the last major actions in which Navy Wildcats participated was the Battle of Santa Cruz on October 26, 1942. Commander Jimmy Flatley took his brand new VF-10 aboard the Enterprise in October. The complement of the squadron included a stellar cast of pilots including Lt. (jg) John Leppla who had already claimed a Zero while flying an SBD Dauntless and Lt. James “Swede” Vejtasa who would score heavily during the battle.

The goal of the Japanese was to retake Guadalcanal by force, and the signal for sea action in the Santa Cruz Island area would be a message that the airfield known as Henderson field was in Japanese hands. As it happened, Henderson was heavily assaulted but remained in American hands until the Japanese fleet was short of fuel, requiring them to retire from the area in spite of the fact that the U. S. S. Hornet was sunk. No matter that the IJN carriers Shokaku and Zuiho were badly damaged, each losing about a dozen aircraft on the hangar decks. The worse loss to the Japanese was the more than sixty airborne aircraft and crews which were claimed by the Wildcats and American anti-aircraft fire. Swede Vejtasa was the star of the day when he was credited with five torpedo and two dive bombers. Ensign George Wrenn of VF- 72 also became an ace in a day when he claimed five more B5n Kate torpedo bombers as they approached the American aircraft carriers. Jimmy Flatey scored a single Zero for his third confirmed victory. The Japanese won a tactical victory with the Hornet sunk. However, the loss of more than sixty experienced aircrew meant the reduction of IJN carrier aviation to the point that very little chance existed for offensive Japanese carrier action during the rest of the war.

VMF-121 pilots on Guadalcanal
VMF-121 pilots on Guadalcanal

Grim air action still dominated between Wildcats on Guadalcanal and Japanese fighters coming down from the direction of New Britain. Joe Foss accounted for four more Japanese aircraft in November before he was stricken with malaria and dysentery, taking him out of action until January 1943 when he claimed three more Japanese aircraft before he was evacuated with his squadron. Lt. Col. Harold “Indian Joe” Bauer earned the Medal of Honor for air actions in September and October when he claimed five Zeros and five Zeros. His valor continued until he was observed to succumb in the sea off the coast of Guadalcanal in November. Major Robert Galer accounted for about fourteen Japanese aircraft in September and October 1942 including several close incidents that earned his medal.

F4F marine aces Smith, Frazier, Dobbin and Galer on Guadalcanal
F4F marine aces Smith, Frazier, Dobbin and Galer on Guadalcanal

The First Marine Division was relieved in December 1942, and the transport IJN destroyers known as the Tokyo Express started to take off all Japanese troops from Guadalcanal by February 1943. At about the same time the first squadron equipped with F4U Corsair fighters arrived on Guadalcanal to replace F4F Wildcats as primary fighter aviation for the Solomon Islands. Army P-38 fighters had begun operations from Henderson in November 1942 to give the American forces more formidable presence.

Publicity photo of General Holcomb being briefed on fighter tactics by Joe Foss
Publicity photo of General Holcomb being briefed on fighter tactics by Joe Foss

However, Japanese resistance did not flag immediately and continued throughout the end of 1942 and first months of 1943 with desperate fury. Admiral Yamamoto devised what became known as Operation I-Go, which threw heavy attacks into the Solomon Islands as well as the northeast coast of New Guinea until he was forced to relent in April 1943. During this period two Wildcat pilots earned the last of seven Medals of Honor for the Wildcat. On January 31, 1943 Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc of VMF-112 was on an escort mission for dive and torpedo bombers against Japanese shipping in Vella Gulf when he encountered a heavy Japanese interceptor force. Three floatplanes (Rufe Zeros?) and two standard Zeros were claimed by DeBlanc when he was forced to abandon his damaged Wildcat which was inconveniently running out of fuel. He landed on the island of Kolombangara where he and an enlisted marine who had also abandoned his stricken bomber were picked up by a coast watcher, and returned to Guadalcanal two weeks later. Another marine Wildcat pilot who won the medal was Lt. James Swett of VMF-221 who rashly attacked an assaulting force of D3y Val dive bombers on the way to implement an air raid of Operation I-Go on April 7, 1943. Lt. Swett succeeded in downing seven Japanese bombers, and was attacking yet another when his engine was hit by return fire, and he was forced to abandon his fighter. An American rescue boat identified him as friendly by his salty reply to their hail!

VNF-441 Wildcat on Nanumea Field, Ellice Isands in September 1943
VNF-441 Wildcat on Nanumea Field, Ellice Isands in September 1943

Wildcat operations diminished during the second half of 1943 when new Corsair and F6F units took over the burden of the campaign in the Solomon Islands. The F4U Corsair was considered the best carrier fighter of the war when it overcame difficulties to be assigned on carriers later in the Pacific war. The F6F Hellcat was dominant on carriers and land units, being credited with well over five thousand Japanese aircraft shot down to almost three thousand for the Corsair. The Wildcat probably claimed more than one thousand enemy aircraft before it was relegated to escort carrier duty as the General Motors FM-2 in the Pacific and South Atlantic, where it gave yeoman service in the anti-submarine role.

The little Wildcat was tractable, and a delight to fly according to the reports of its pilots. It was quite robust with an ability to absorb much battle damage. Most F4Fs were armed with four or six heavy .50 caliber machine guns (a feature of the Wildcat was the gun selector switch which offered the pilot an option of two, four or six guns – a luxury that most pilots ignored in favor of the overwhelming firepower of all guns blazing away at the target). It was a matter of fortune that allowed the Grumman to find a role in the crucial fight for Guadalcanal, similar to the Hawker Hurricane during the signal Battle of Britain.

Sources:

Robert Sherrod USMC Aviation in World War II
John Lundstrom The First Team (and Volume 2, The Battle for Guadalcanal Aug–Nov 1942)
Foss and Simmons Joe Foss, Flying Marine
Frank Olynyk Stars and Bars
Miller, Thomas G. Cactus Air Force
Also indebted for photographic and background support from Jack Cook

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