Cactus Air Force: A Thorn in Japan’s Side – Sidebar: September ’98 Aviation History Feature

9/23/1998 • Aviation History

Wildcat vs. Zero

The Japanese fielded two improved versions of their already phenomenal Pearl Harbor-era A6M2 Model 21 Zero fighter in 1942. The A6M3 Model 22 was upgraded for long range and the clipped-wing Model 32 for speed and maneuverability. With 200 extra horsepower, they were eager to climb and turn but were reluctant to dive, and their performance came at a cost in armor protection, particularly for pilot and fuel.

The Bell P-39 Airacobra and its export version, the P-400, were curious mid-engine designs with cockpit doors that opened like a car’s. Lack of engine superchargers and the P-400s’ British oxygen system, incompatible with Marine recharging equipment, limited them to low altitudes. (The P-400, went a running joke on the Canal, was a P-40 [Curtiss Warhawk] with a Zero on its tail.) But the P-400 mounted a 20mm cannon, and the P-39 a 37mm, firing though the propeller shaft, plus a variety of .30- and .50-caliber machine guns and a 500-pound bomb or even a depth charge. To Japanese infantry they were the hated “long-nosed planes,” but their pilots called them “clunkers.”

The new Douglas SBD-3 dive bomber also made a respectable fighter. On the first day of the Guadalcanal campaign, Aviation Pilot 1st Class Saburo Sakai, with 59 kills to his credit, fired 232 rounds into one. With extra armor, self-sealing tanks and twin .30-caliber machine guns in the rear cockpit, the SBD not only escaped but wounded Sakai in the head, blinding him in one eye and putting him out of action for 20 months. Still, the SBD-3 was no great improvement on earlier models.

The Grumman F4F Wildcat, originally designed as a fixed-gear biplane, had been changed at the last minute to a mid-wing monoplane layout. The newest F4F-4 also featured more armor, plus folding wings for carrier stowage, a two-stage supercharger and two additional .50-caliber machine guns (six total). At Henderson Field, folding wings were pointless, the supercharger was unable to overcome the additional weight, and the extra guns used up the ammunition faster. According to Joe Foss, the conventional wisdom among Wildcat pilots was, “If you’re alone and you meet a lone Zero, run like hell–you’re outnumbered!”

Lieutenant Commander John S. “Jimmy” Thach, commanding Navy Fighter Squadron (VF) 3, had already abandoned the Navy’s outmoded three-plane formation, modeled on that of the British Royal Air Force, in favor of the German Luftwaffe’s “fluid-four” formation of two 2-plane elements flying loosely abreast. When attacked, each element (or each plane in an element) would turn toward the other. Any Zero following inevitably found itself attacked head-on. Dubbed the “Thach Weave,” this maneuver was an anathema to Japanese pilots, who disdained teamwork, and it proved their undoing.

“The Zero could outmaneuver, outclimb and outspeed us,” summed up one Wildcat pilot, “One Zero against one Grumman is not an even fight, but with mutual support two Grummans are worth four or five Zeros.”

Don Hollway