F4F Grumman Wildcats
The first production F4F-4 was delivered to Anacostia on November 25, 1941, with the R-1830-86, Curtiss propeller, and the air intake on the upper cowl. Six .50-caliber guns with 1,440 rounds were in the manual folding wings, and 164 pounds of cockpit protection were installed. By December 31, 1942, 1,169 had been delivered. Two 58-gallon drop tanks could be attached under the wings of late examples, instead of the two bombs. Grumman also delivered 220 F4F-4Bs (Martlet IV) for the Royal Navy from February 27 to November 23, 1942, with folding wings and six guns, but these used the Wright R-1820-40B Cyclone and Hamilton propeller.
December 30, 1941, saw the first flight of the F4F-7, a long-range photographic version that had two cameras and replaced the guns with unprotected wing tanks that increased fuel capacity to 672 gallons. Weighing 10,328 pounds loaded, it was expected to have a 3,700-mile range. Twenty more were accepted by December 18, 1942, while ten F4F-3P camera planes had been converted from early Wildcats by Navy shops to fill out VMO-251 in the South Pacific until the -7s arrived.
Another 100 F4F-7s had been ordered, but were completed as fixed-wing F4F-3s from January to May 1943, the last of 1,978 Wildcats built by Grumman. They were used for training, except for one flown February 28, 1943, as the F4F-3S seaplane with twin floats. Although seaplane fighters were widely used by Japan, they were finally considered too slow and unnecessary by the U.S. Navy.
The growing escort carrier fleet led to Wildcat production by General Motors’ Eastern Aircraft Division at Linden, New Jersey. An April 18, 1942, contract provided the FM-1, identical to the F4F-4 except for having four 50-caliber wing guns with 1,720 rounds. First flown August 30, the 1,150 FM-1s delivered by December 1943 included 312 (of which 297 arrived at destinations) lend-leased to Britain as the Martlet V, then renamed Wildcat V in 1944 to fit the American system.
Hellcats replaced the Wildcats at Grumman, but the older type was still needed for the escort carrier’s small decks. Efforts to improve Wildcat performance included fitting the first XF4F-5 with a turbosupercharged R-1820-54 and achieving 340 mph at 26,400 feet by February 1943. More practical was the lighter R-1820-56 on the XF4F-8 first flown November 8, 1942; a second example had a larger vertical fin.
The production version of the XF4F-8 was the General Motors FM-2, which became the most widely used Wildcat, with an R-1820-56W, high fin, four 50-caliber wing guns and 1,720 rounds, 142 pounds of armor, and fittings for two 250-pound bombs or six 5-inch rockets. Takeoff distance with a 15-knot headwind was 301 feet, compared to 428 feet for an F6F-5 Hellcat, so the FM-2 served escort carriers until the war ended.
From September 1943 through August 1945, 4,777
FM-2s were built, including 340 Wildcat VIs for Britain (of which 338 arrived at destinations). An XF2M-1 project with a turbosupercharged Wright R-1820-70W was canceled.
Wildcats in Combat
The first U.S. Wildcats to fight were the Marine F4F-3s of VMF-211 on Wake Island. Although seven of its 12 planes were lost on the ground, the remaining pilots claimed eight enemy planes and their small bombs sank a destroyer before Wake was captured. On February 20, 1942, on the Lexington’s first intrusion into enemy waters, Lt. Edward H. O’Hare became the first Navy ace by shooting down five G4M bombers attacking his ship.
While four-gun F4F-3s flew the combat sorties of the first five months, they were replaced by the folding-wing, six-gun F4F-4s, with 81 aboard the three carriers that won the battle of Midway on June 3-6, 1942. Wildcats were flown by every carrier fighter squadron in 1942, and were our only carrier fighter in action for the first half of the war, fighting in all the major naval battles. Royal Navy Grummans protected their carriers in 1942-44, and remained on the escort carriers to the war’s end.
Of all of the American wartime fighters, the Wildcats were the slowest, even among carrier-based types, yet the Wildcat was often successful, for the generous wing’s low loading permitted better maneuverability than some faster types. Inferior to the Mitsubishi Zero in performance, but possessing internal protection and more firepower, the Wildcat’s victories were due to the superior tactics of U.S. fighter pilots. Using their own strong points against the enemy’s weaknesses, American pilots used two-plane elements to dive, fire, and dive away, avoiding any attempt to turn and twist with the lighter Zeros.
Top Wildcat ace was Marine Major Joseph J. Foss, whose F4F-4 scored 26 victories near Guadacana1 from October 13, 1942, to January 15, 1943. At the war’s end, Navy figures claimed Wildcats destroyed 1,327 enemy aircraft for a loss of 191 Wildcats in combat, a ratio of almost seven to one. Of these victories, 377 were claimed during the war’s last year, for the combat loss of only nine FM-2s.
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