US Navy and Marine Corps Wildcats were sometimes initially hard-pressed to defend their ships and fields against the large forces of Betty bombers and their Zero escorts, which had ranges of 800 miles or more through the use of drop tanks. The Brewster Buffalo had little to show for its few encounters with the Japanese, which is difficult to understand given the type's early success during the Russo-Finnish War. The F2A-1, a lighter, earlier model of the -3 which served with the Marines, was the standard Finnish fighter plane. In its short combat career in American service, the Brewster failed miserably.
Thus, the only fighter capable of meeting the Japanese on anything approaching equal terms was the F4F, which was fortunate because the Wildcat was really all that was available in those dark days following Pearl Harbor. Retired Brigadier General Robert E. Galer described the Wildcat as "very rugged and very mistreated (at Guadalcanal)." He added: "Full throttle, very few replacement parts, muddy landing strips, battle damage, roughly repaired. We loved them. We did not worry about flight characteristics except when senior officers wanted to make them bombers as well as fighters." The Japanese also operated a unique form of fighter. Other combatants had tried to make seaplanes of existing designs. The U.S. Navy had even hung floats on the Wildcat, which quickly became the "Wildcatfish." The British had done it with the Spitfire. But the resulting combination left much to be desired and sapped the original design of much of its speed and maneuverability.
The Grumman F4F Wildcat, the only U.S. Navy fighter to serve throughout all of World War II, was first designed as a biplane in 1935. Designated the XF4F-1, this version soon showed that it could not compete with monoplane fighters and an alternate design was ordered in 1936. This was the XF4F-2, a mid-wing, all-metal monoplane with landing gear which retracted into the fuselage. In flight tests, it proved to be ten mph faster than its competitor, the F2A-1 Buffalo, which had earlier shown the F4F biplane designed obsolete.
Though the F2A won the fly-off tests in 1938, modifications to the Wildcat were pushed ahead and a new prototype, the X4F-3, with increased wingspan, altered tail design, and a more powerful engine, showed such promise that initial orders were placed for it in 1939. Other models followed, including F4F-4 and -7, and versions ordered by France and Britain.
The first Wildcats to be delivered to Navy squadrons, went to VF-4 and VF-7 at NAS Norfolk, assigned to Ranger and Wasp, respectively. By the end of 1941, the Navy and Marine Corps had received 248 of the stubby little fighters. These suffered their first combat losses at the Marine air stations at Ewa, Hawaii, and Wake Island on December 7, 1941, during Japanese attacks, but soon revenged themselves against raiding bombers at Wake before being overcome by the vastly superior numbers of the attacking force. This was not the F4F's first taste of combat. In the Royal Navy as Martlets they had already seen action against the Luftwaffe off Britain's coast.
The F4F-4 introduced in 1941, added a new feature to the Wildcat: folding wings. Though manually operated, this alternation added to the planes' utility, particularly on the small flight decks of escort carriers where they soon appeared as teammates to another Grumman product, the TBF Avenger, as part of the ASW effort in the ATlantic. Wildcats participated in the important sea battles of Coral Sea and Midway and served with the Marines at Guadalcanal. They also made up the Navy's fighter force during the North African landings in November 1942.
In April 1942, Eastern Aircraft assumed Wildcat production to allow Grumman to concentrate on the F6F. Eastern's versions were designated the FM-1's and -2's, and in British service, as Wildcat V's and VI's. The FM-2 was recognized by its taller stabilizer.
Though inferior in performance in certain respects to many of the fighters met in combat, Wildcats, because of their rugged construction and the well trained men who flew them, maintained a victory-to-loss ratio of nearly seven to one, even though they were the only carrier-based fighters operated by the Navy during the first half of the war in the Pacific.
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