Gulf: Second-Generation U.S. Aircraft
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte
Gulf resulted in tremendous American victories
for a number of reasons. The U.S. command
planned well, the admirals executed those
plans, and the sailors and airmen fought superbly.
The Americans also had a serious numerical
advantage. But the most telling American edge
was in the quality of their aircraft.
In earlier games in the Second
World War at Sea series, it’s the
Japanese who have a slight edge in aircraft
quality. The A6M Zero is a fine fighter, and
Japanese attack planes generally have at least
equal striking power to their American counterparts
and significantly greater range. In games
the Japanese player can be assured of aerial
parity, and in Eastern
Fleet and Strike
South Japan holds a serious edge
in aircraft quality.
The standard American fighter plane of those
early years is the F4F Wildcat. This small
fighter could stand up to the Zero in the
hands of a hot pilot, but the Japanese plane
had serious advantages in speed and maneuverability.
By 1944, however, the Wildcat remained in
service on American escort carriers, which
could not operate bigger fighters like the
Hellcat or Corsair. Most of the later-war
Wildcats rolled out of General Motors assembly
plants, Grumman having switched over to the
Hellcat, and were designated FM-2.
While popular imagination calls the F6F
Hellcat a response to the Zero (even conflating
its design with the capture of an intact A6M
in the Aleutian Islands), like many things
“everyone knows” this is not exactly
true. Every major weapon system deployed by
the United States in World War II was at least
on the drawing board before Pearl Harbor,
a testimony to the foresight of Franklin D.
The Hellcat was ordered in June 1941, and
first took to the air exactly one year later.
Only four more months elapsed before the first
production model rolled off the lines, and
the new fighter made its operational debut
in January 1943.
Physically, the Hellcat resembled a bigger
version of the stubby, fairly ugly Wildcat,
and that’s exactly what it was. But
the far more powerful plane proved more than
a match for front-line Japanese fighters.
Its similarity to the Wildcat and essentially
simple design allowed for rapid and efficient
mass production, and more than 12,000 were
American designers produced more elegant
fighters as well, including the deadliest
carrier fighter of the war, the Vought F4U
Corsair. This plane initially served only
in land-based squadrons, as the odd cockpit
position caused questions about visibility
in carrier take-offs and landings. The first
prototype flew in May 1940, but fine-tuning
took a very long time. The first land-based
Corsairs saw action in February 1943 from
Guadalcanal and the first carrier squadron
began operation in April 1944.
In the early Pacific battles, American striking
power usually comes from the SBD Dauntless,
the “Slow But Deadly” dive bomber
introduced in late 1940. These planes sank
three Japanese carriers in two minutes at
the Battle of Midway. But even as the Dauntless
entered service, American designers had finished
work on its successor, the SB2C Helldiver.
This much bigger plane carried a heavier bomb
load, with enormously greater range and also
a better armament. It went into service in
November 1943 and became a mainstay of American
carrier air groups, with over 7,000 planes
The dive bombers could not have destroyed
Japan’s sea power at Midway without
the sacrifice of the American torpedo planes.
Squadron after squadron flung themselves at
the Japanese fleet, heedless of their own
losses. When the dive bombers appeared, the
Japanese fighters could not return to higher
altitudes in time to stop them.
The Douglas TBD Devastator was the Navy’s
first low-wing monoplane, and entered service
in 1937. By 1942 it was obsolete, and 36 of
the 41 present at Midway were shot down by
the Japanese. In the same battle the first
six examples of its replacement, the Grumman
TBF Avenger, made their debut. Five of them
were shot down, but the plane’s fine
combat characteristics had been noted and
almost 10,000 would be built. The Avenger
would stay in service for years after the
war, with the last front-line squadron of
the Japanese Marine Self-Defense Force retiring
its planes in 1962. General Motors built most
of the Avengers to see action, and these planes
were designated TBM.
This piece originally appeared in January 2005.
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