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SS Youth in
Beyond Normandy




Leyte Gulf: Second-Generation U.S. Aircraft
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2008

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 like Midway 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. Roosevelt.

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 built.

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 built.

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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