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The Wilder Wildcats

General Motors Eastern Aircraft FM-2 proves to be a much improved Wildcat

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1997 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 22, Number 4, Winter, 1997 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

Less than 2 years after its founding in December 1929, Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation began to deliver carrier-based fighters to the U.S. Navy. The FF, F2F and F3F fighters were single-seat biplanes, with performance comparable to the British Gloster Gladiator and other contemporary biplane designs.

The biplane's short wing span made it a natural for use aboard aircraft carriers, allowing increased numbers of planes to be stowed in the hangar deck and easy movement between decks on the carrier's elevators. In the spring of 1936, Grumman had an improved biplane, the XF4F-1 on the drawing board, and the Navy ordered a prototype. However, the greater performance of monoplane fighters was becoming obvious, and Grumman changed the design to a monoplane, and the Navy ordered the XF4F-2 in July 1936.

The Wildcat Enters Service

Grumman's new fighter suffered a lengthy development period before the first production version, the F4F-3 began to enter squadron service with the U.S. Navy in November of 1940. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engine of 1,200 horsepower, early F4F-3s had a gross weight of about 7,050 pounds, while the addition of pilot armor and self-sealing fuel tanks added 400 pounds to later models. On Oct. 1, 1941 the Grumman fighter was officially named the "Wildcat", and fixed-wing Wildcats fought the early carrier battles, including the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.

One of the CAF's two Wildcats is painted as the F4F-3 flown by the U.S. Navy's first ace of World War II, Lt. Edward "Butch" O'Hare, who shot down five Japanese bombers attacking his ship, the USS Lexington, Feb. 20th, 1942.

In April, the carrier air groups in the Pacific began to receive new F4F-4s with folding wings. The fixed-wing F4F-3s were turned over to the Marines for use from land bases. Despite the increase in the number of fighters on each carrier, the new folding-wing Wildcats were found to be 500-700 pounds heavier than the fixed-wing Wildcats, significantly reducing the F4F-4's performance, especially its rate of climb.

The F4F-4 Controversy

The first large-scale combat for the F4F-4s was the Battle of Midway, on June 4-5, 1942. Powered by the same basic engine as the lighter F4F-3s, the heavier F4F-4's decreased performance caused some bitter reactions. Lt. Cdr. Jimmy Thach, commander of the Yorktown's Fighter Squadron Three (VF-3) during the battle, stated that the F4F-4 was "pitifully inferior in climb, maneuverability, and speed" when pitted against the Japanese A6M Zero. He went further, saying: "It is indeed surprising that any of our pilots returned alive."

Adm. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, noted the F4F-4 was "markedly inferior to the Japanese Zero" but in a report to his boss, Adm. King, added the following:

"These characteristics must be improved, but not at the cost of reducing the present overall superiority that in the Battle of Midway enabled our carrier fighter squadrons to shoot down about 3 Zero fighters for each of our own lost."

The uproar over the latest Wildcat's poor performance led to increased demands for a replacement, and by August 1943, Grumman's F6F Hellcat had taken the Wildcat's place on board the U.S. Navy's larger fleet and light carriers (CVs and CVLs).

Enter the Escort Carriers

However, the Wildcat still had a role to play, flying from the shorter decks of the smaller escort carriers (CVEs) which began to be produced in large numbers in 1943. First intended as aircraft transports and a means of replenishing the larger carriers' aircraft, escort carriers quickly proved their worth in anti-submarine, convoy escort and close-support duties.

The Casablanca class was typical, with fifty (CVE-55 to CVE-104) delivered by the Kaiser ship yards from July 1943 to July 1944. Carrying a composite squadron (VC) of 28 aircraft, the little carriers had a top speed of 18-19 knots, a flight deck only 477 feet long and were armed with a single 5-inch gun, eight 40mm and 12 20mm anti-aircraft guns.

Grumman's TBF Avenger and F4F-4 Wildcat were to equip the escort carriers, as their flight decks were considered marginal for the heavier F6F Hellcat. But increased demands on Grumman for the Hellcat and newer designs led to an agreement with auto maker General Motors to take over production of the Avenger and Wildcat.

The PK Planes

Long experienced in the mass production of automobiles, General Motors expected to assist the aircraft industry's war effort primarily by building sub-assemblies and components. However, in mid-1942, its Eastern Aircraft Division plants in Trenton, N.J. was assigned to build Avengers under the new designation TBM-1, while the Linden, N.J. site was to built the F4F-4 Wildcat, with the designation FM-1.

The FM-1 was identical to the Grumman F4F-4, except for mounting four instead of six 0.50 caliber machine guns. This return to the original F4F-3's armament allowed more ammunition to be carried for each gun, a point favored my many Navy pilots.

To ease the change over to building entire aircraft, Grumman delivered a number of complete TBFs and F4Fs as sub-assemblies, plus a few special "PK" aircraft, assembled with Parker-Kalon (PK) screws in place of rivets. These PK aircraft could be taken apart and studied in detail by the Eastern workers, and by September 1942 the first FM-1 had been assembled using Grumman-built parts. By early 1943, Eastern was building FM-1s and TBM-1s on its own.

Enter the Wilder Wildcat

In 1940, Grumman had built a version of the Wildcat for France, powered by the Wright R-1820, a 9-cylinder single-row radial, which was lighter in weight than the P&W 14-cylinder, double-row R-1830. These and other Wright-powered versions were delivered to the British after the fall of France, but in June 1942, after the criticism of the F4F-4's performance at Midway, and to improve operations from the smaller escort carrier, Grumman built two XF4F-8 prototypes powered by a 1,350 horsepower Wright R-1820-56. Weighing 530 pounds less than the F4F-4 and with a rate of climb almost 1,000 feet per minute faster, these came to be called "Wilder Wildcats."

With Wildcat production transferred to General Motors, the XF4F-8 became the prototype for the Eastern FM-2 "Wilder Wildcat." The FM-2 replaced the FM-1 on the assembly lines at the Linden, N.J. plant, the first being delivered to the U.S. Navy in September 1943.

During 1944, the FM-2 replaced earlier Wildcats aboard the escort carriers, but it was not until U.S. forces returned to the Philippines in October of that year, that the "Wilder Wildcats" saw combat in large numbers.

The Return to the Philippines

When American forces began landing on Saipan on June 15, 1944, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, ordered Operation A-GO to begin. Four days later, the First Mobile Fleet, consisting of the surviving Japanese carriers, commanded by Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, attacked U.S. carrier groups in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, also called the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" by U.S. airmen. Ozawa's aircraft were decimated, and his force lost most of its offensive power.

However, Toyoda still had a strong force of battleships, heavy cruisers and large destroyers, which could destroy the expected American invasion fleet, if only the U.S. carriers could be distracted long enough.

As U.S. troops began landing on Leyte and other islands in the Philippines, Ozawa's carriers were offered as bait, to draw the American carriers northward, away from the invasion beaches. The Japanese surface forces were spotted and attacked by U.S. submarines and aircraft, but one force led by Adm. Takeo Kurita managed to pass through the San Bernadino Straits in the early morning of Oct. 25, while the U.S. fleet carriers were taking the bait of Ozawa's carriers.

The Ordeal of Taffy Three

The only carriers in the Leyte Gulf area were Adm. Thomas Kinkaid's eighteen escort carriers, organized into three groups called Taffy 1, 2 and 3. Rear-Adm. Clifton Sprague's Taffy 3 consisted of the St. Lo, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, Kitkun Bay, Gambier Bay and flagship Fanshaw Bay. Taffy 3 was the northernmost of the groups, with the mission of antisubmarine patrol off the coast of Samar Island. At about 0645, both radar and lookouts on the Fanshaw Bay reported ships to the north. Ensign Hans Jensen, pilot of an Avenger on patrol radioed this startling message:

"Enemy surface force of 4 battleships, 7 cruisers and 11 destroyers sighted twenty knots to the northwest." When asked to confirm to confirm his identification of these ships, Jensen replied, "Identification of enemy force confirmed. Ships have pagoda masts." Sprague realized that his forces were all that stood between the enemy ships and the invasion beach, and they were not armed to attack battleships.

But as Kurita opened fire on the six little carriers and their six destroyer escorts, he made the mistake of assuming he was attacking large, fast fleet carriers, capable of 30 knots or more and armed with 80 planes each. Thus, he approached with care, never realizing how slow and vulnerable were the ships of Taffy 3.

Kurita's delay in pressing his attack on the carriers of Taffy 3 and a brief rain squall gave the TBM Avengers a chance to rearm with aerial torpedoes after dropping their depth charges on the enemy ships. While the Avengers attacked with the only really lethal weapon against the heavy ships, the Wildcats continued to attack with guns and rockets, often making "dry runs" even after all their ammunition was gone.

The FM-2 vs. the Zero

On board the Gambier Bay, Ensign Joe McGraw of Composite Squadron 10 (VC-10) raced for his FM-2 Wildcat as the battleships Yamato, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna and heavy cruisers Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma, Tone, Haguro and Chokai opened fire with 8-inch to 18-inch guns. His story is excerpted from Barret Tillman's Wildcat Aces of World War 2, which is reviewed later in this issue:

"I got off as the last fighter, I think, as I had to dodge a big hole on the forward port corner of the deck just as Capt. Viewig was throwing the ship into a turn."

Armed with small bombs, 0.50 caliber machine guns and 5-inch rockets, the Wildcats and Avengers attacked the Japanese ships, many FM-2 pilots making strafing runs on the bridges of the battleships. Planes from Taffy 1 and 2 plus those from land bases joined the attack, the carriers of Taffy 1 and 2 landing and rearming the planes as quickly as possible. On McGraw's third launch, his flight was vectored to attack a number of Val dive bombers and Zero fighters. He describes his FM-2's combat with a well-flown A6M5 Zero:

"The leader of the Zeros was good and he hit our division leader in the engine, putting him in the water (he was later picked up). As I had pulled up so hard and steep, I lost my wingman, but avoided the Zeros as they dove by." McGraw described how he got in position to shot down the Zero leader's wingman, and described what happened next:

"That either surprised or made the Zero lead really mad, because he did the tightest turn I've ever seen to try to get on me. Bit I also pulled up into a tight climbing left turn into him, and he missed his shot behind me. The FM-2's tight turn must have surprised him because I got around quickly on him into a head-on, and put a fast burst into his engine. That really made him mad, because he quickly pulled into me in what I thought was an attempt to ram. I had also pulled up hard to avoid him; it was a close thing."

McGraw last saw the Zero smoking heavily and diving for the clouds. He continued:

"I had the feeling he was an old hand and had expected the old Wildcats to be easy prey, so he was surprised and let his temper get the better of him – he probably didn't know about the much-improved FM-2 version. I don't know what happened to him, but with his engine shot up I don't suppose he made it back to base." By dark, McGraw had flown 11 hours in three missions and had to land aboard Manila Bay, his own ship, Gambier Bay, having been sunk by gun fire.

This battle also saw the first organized use of suicide planes, or kamikaze, by the Japanese, with several striking the little escort carriers. The CVEs proved much tougher than anyone had imagined, only the St. Lo being sunk when the kamikaze went through her flight deck and detonated the bombs and torpedoes in her hanger.

Kurita Retires

Shortly after noon, Kurita signaled his ships to retire, having lost three heavy cruisers and had several ships badly damaged. American losses were two escort carriers, two destroyers and a destroyer escort, with 1,130 killed or missing and 913 wounded. Japanese casualties are not known.

The Battle off Samar, as the contest came to be known, was probably the most unlikely victory of World War Two. That Kurita's powerful, well armed and armored ships could be routed by a bunch of "tin can" escort carriers with only TBM Avengers and FM-2 Wildcats for weapons, speaks volumes of the bravery and skill of all the crews and aircrews of Taffy 1, 2 and 3.

A New Role

As U.S. Marines discovered early in the Pacific "island hopping" campaign to capture bases from which to attack the Japanese homeland, naval gunfire support of the landings was essential. To be effective, the gunfire had to be observed and corrected – a role historically performed by floatplanes catapulted from battleships and heavy cruisers. In early Pacific battles, these observation planes were often damaged before they could be launched, and their supplies of highly flammable aviation fuel were a serious fire hazard. In late 1944, specially trained pilots flying FM-2s began to perform this mission.

Two observation composite squadrons, VOC-1 and VOC-2, spotted and adjusted naval gunfire in support of the landings in the Philippines, on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The sight of navy fighter pilots learning to adjust artillery fire at Fort Sill, Okla. may have caused some head scratching at the U.S. Army's Artillery School, but these Wildcat pilots soon put their training to good use.

Flying from escort carriers, the FM-2s of VOC-1 and 2 observed and adjusted naval and Marine gunfire both day and night, often carrying two underwing drop tanks, to extend their flying time. On one mission, a VOC-2 pilot, Lt. Spindler, provided some unusual support for a group of American soldiers struggling to haul heavy ammunition boxes, when he spotted a Japanese horse abandoned nearby, and herded it with his Wildcat. When last seen by Spindler, the GIs were loading their cargo onto the horse and waving thanks.

With their four 0.50 caliber machine guns, the FM-2s could defend themselves in the hostile skies over the invasion beaches. The pilots of VOC-1 were credited with 20 enemy aircraft downed, while VOC-2 Wildcats scored five kills at Okinawa, and their rugged FM-2s logged over 25,000 hours of combat flying by the end of the war.

The CAF's FM-2 based in California, proudly wears the markings of a VOC-1 Wildcat flying from the decks of the USS Wake Island and USS Marcus Island in 1945.

The Final Score

Eastern's "Wilder Wildcat", racked up a total of 432 enemy aircraft shot down by V-J day. The top scoring FM-2 unit was VC-27, with 61.5 kills by its Wildcat pilots flying from the deck of the USS Savo Island, including nine kills credited to Lt. R. E. Elliott, the leading FM-2 ace.

From Grumman's first fixed-wing F4F-3 to Eastern's final version, the FM-2, few American fighters can match the Wildcat's combat service record from the darkest days of Pearl Harbor to the deadly skies and waters around Okinawa and Japan itself.

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