United States Navy Carrier Air Groups

Snub-nosed with a rotund fuselage and plank-like wings it was never going to win any beauty awards, but the Grumman F4F Wildcat proved there was more to an effective fighter than svelte looks. In fact, it is hard to see how Allied navies, particularly that of the USA, could have managed without the sturdy, pugnacious Wildcat. A typical product of the Grumman `Iron Works,’ the F4F could also hand out punishment as well as take it. Its battle honours were as good as they come: the Battle of the Atlantic, the heroic defence of Wake Island, Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway.

The United States Navy began deploying Grumman F4F-3 fighters aboard its carriers in January 1941. Powered by a 1,200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engine, it could reach 328 miles per hour at 21,000 feet, cruise at 155 miles per hour, had a range of 845 miles, and was armed with four 0.5-inch wing machine guns. Pilot armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and robust construction made the F4F a tough opponent. A version with folding wings and six machine guns entered service in mid- 1942. Speed fell to 315 miles per hour and range dropped to 770 miles. The Royal Navy acquired large numbers of F4Fs as Grumman Martlets and made extensive use of the type.

The F4F’s successor was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, designed as a private initiative in response to feedback from fleet aviators, which entered front-line service in mid-1943. Although over 8,000 Wildcats were built, 6,000 were manufactured by General Motors, leaving the Grumman factory free to concentrate on the F4F’s successor, the F6F Hellcat. It was powered by a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, giving it a maximum speed of 376 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 168 miles per hour, and a range of 1,090 miles on internal fuel or 1,590 miles with a 150-gallon drop tank. The F6F was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and also could carry rockets or bombs. The Royal Navy also operated substantial numbers of F6Fs as the Grumman Hellcat.

The United States Navy’s chosen successor to the Grumman F4F was the Vought F4U Corsair. With a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, it reached 417 miles per hour at 19,000 feet, cruised at 182 miles per hour, and had a maximum range of 1,015 miles. It was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and most versions also could carry rockets or bombs. The F4U’s deck landing characteristics, however, were judged unsatisfactory. So, from February 1943, it was issued for front-line service only with shore-based United States Navy and Marine Corps squadrons. The Royal Navy also received large numbers which, since it needed every modern carrier fighter possible, successfully undertook an urgent modification and trials program to suit the Corsair for carrier operation. Corsairs began front-line operations aboard British carriers in the spring of 1944 and were in action by the beginning of April. As a result, the United States Navy conducted new carrier trials the same month and Corsair began operations from American carriers in the late summer of 1944, going on to become probably the most successful carrier fighter of the entire war.

USN NAVAL AVIATORS

The basic curriculum established in October 1939 served the United States Navy well throughout World War II. Aspiring aviators first spent one month at a naval reserve air base for elimination flying training, by the end of which they made their first solo flights. Those who successfully completed this indoctrination period became aviation cadets and proceeded to one of several training bases. Primary training required three months flying biplane trainers, combined with ground school. Successful cadets then moved onto intermediate training, learning basic formation flying and instrument and blind flying using obsolete front-line types and monoplane advanced trainers. Finally, cadets went to advanced training, where they practiced formation flying, aerobatics, night flying, gunnery and dive bombing, and simulated carrier landings. The total training period, including indoctrination, was seven months, after which graduates received commissions as reserve ensigns with about 200 hours of flying time in their log books. Between 1941 and 1945 the United States Navy trained over 65,000 pilots.

Until mid-1941 newly commissioned ensigns completed their operational training with front-line fleet squadrons that were shore based for routine refresher training. This was very inefficient and, as a result, the navy created advanced carrier training groups, initially one for each coast, that could undertake this task. The curriculum for newly-minted aviators devoted seventy-five hours to teaching navigation, advanced gunnery, dive and torpedo bombing, and night and instrument flying, culminating in carrier landing qualification (eight successful landings) after extensive practice on dummy flight decks ashore. From mid-1942 further advanced carrier training groups were created to accommodate the rapidly growing number of new aviators. Several escort carriers spent much of their careers serving as deck landing training vessels and two Great Lakes paddle steamers were fitted with flight decks for the same purpose.

As the United States Navy’s ambitious program of carrier construction hit its stride, it needed to create new air groups for the new carriers. The navy also adopted a policy of withdrawing existing air groups from carriers and replacing them with new groups rather than allowing them to be ground down completely in combat. These new groups coalesced around a core of combat-experienced squadron and flight leaders with the balance of their complements made up of new graduates from the advanced carrier training groups. Before embarking on their first cruise, these new groups spent several weeks “working up,” so that the novices could start to learn all they could from the veterans.

SQUADRONS

From early 1943, the Royal Navy also began forming new squadrons that were to equip with Lend-Lease aircraft in the United States itself. These squadrons completed all their operational training in the United States before moving to the operational zones in Europe or, later, the Far East and Pacific.

A fundamental organizational difference between the American and British naval air services, on the one hand, and that of Japan, on the other, had a major impact on aircrews’ operational experience and wartime careers. Both the United States and Royal navies adhered to a squadron-based organizational pattern. The overwhelming majority of squadrons were established to operate a single aircraft type, usually between 12 and 24 machines but sometimes, especially late in the war among fighter units, with as many as 30 or more. Squadron rosters often included more aircrews than aircraft, and also included the all-important maintenance personnel: mechanics, airframe repairmen, electricians, armorers, and so on. Essentially, each squadron was self-sufficient from an operational perspective. Almost invariably, new squadrons formed or older units returning from combat re-formed around a nucleus of combat-experienced aircrew amidst a larger number of freshly-trained personnel, so that the veterans could impart their hard-won skills to the new crews.

Each British or American carrier embarked a number of squadrons to endow it with an air group made up of the appropriate mix of aircraft types to suit operational requirements. By the later stages of the war, most air groups undertook some coordinated training prior to embarking on their carriers, but the bulk of such training still took place afterwards. After an extended period of combat or heavy losses, it was straightforward to replace a carrier’s air group without withdrawing the ship itself from operations, thus maintaining a high level of operational tempo and also ensuring that the aviators could recuperate from combat stress and also prepare for a return to action as the core leadership of fresh squadrons and air groups. Furthermore, an individual squadron that suffered disproportionately high losses could be replaced very simply by an available fresh unit.

During the course of World War II the aircraft carrier demonstrated its unrivalled flexibility and effectiveness in combat. In addition to engaging other carriers and major fleet units in full scale naval battles, aircraft carriers supported major landing operations; raided and interdicted warship and shipping movement on the high seas and in the littoral; attacked and destroyed shore installations and facilities; protected merchant shipping against submarine, surface, and air attack; and hunted submarine and surface raiders. This great flexibility sprang from the relative ease with which carriers could both upgrade their capabilities through embarking superior aircraft and change missions by taking aboard air groups with varying compositions of aircraft types. Carriers attained capital ship status not only because of their flexibility but also because, especially from 1941 onward, they could deploy both long-range power and overwhelming local force. This combination of capabilities reduced battleships, previously the arbiters of naval power, to a subsidiary role.

The wartime combat experience of the United States and Royal navies, the only fleets still operating carriers by the end of the war, profoundly influenced their approaches to carrier aviation in the postwar era. The dominant mission of carriers during the war, combat against their cohorts, became irrelevant with the dominance of the United States Navy and the disappearance of carrier-operating potential enemies. In its place, the projection of power from the sea against an enemy homeland and the protection of naval and mercantile assets, mainly against submarine and air attack, took center stage. As carrier-operating navies and those with ambitions to join their ranks entered this new environment, the role of carriers shifted subtly away from the traditional mission of capital ships, like on like combat, into this less clear-cut realm.

World War II dramatically altered the world’s naval situation. Thanks to the realization of its immediate prewar building plans and an additional massive wartime construction program, the United States Navy’s fleet enjoyed an overwhelming preponderance in both numbers and overall quality relative to any other individual navy or combination, either friendly or potentially hostile. Nowhere was this more apparent than in comparing strengths of carrier fleets: by December 1945 the United States Navy possessed twentyone modern fleet carriers and eight light carriers, while the Royal Navy, the only other carrier operator, had but six fleet carriers and six light carriers.

The first US Navy ace of World War II, Lt Edward Butch O’Hare seated in the cockpit of his Wildcat circa spring 1942. The aircraft is marked with five Japanese flags, representing the five enemy bombers he was credited with shooting down. He was killed in November 1943 when he was shot down by friendly fire.

WILDCAT ACES

Given the relatively small number of pilots involved and the intensity of the fighting in the first 12 months of the war in the Pacific, there was no shortage of Wildcat aces.

A total of 25 US Navy and 34 USMC F4F pilots were credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft and therefore became aces. The first of them was Lt (jg) Edward `Butch’ O’Hare of VF-3 who was credited with shooting down five Mitsubishi G4M `Betty’ bombers in a single engagement in February 1942.

During the Battle of Midway three further F4F pilots became aces. Lt Cdr John S. Hatch CO of VF-3 took his total score to 6.5 as did the battle’s top-scorer, VF-3’s Lt (jg) Scott `Doc’ McCuskey. The Navy’s top-scoring F4F pilot was Donald E. Runyon of VF-6 who shot down eight enemy aircraft during three engagements in August 1942.

The Guadalcanal fighting resulted in 30 USMC aces including the war’s top three Wildcat pilots. Between them VMF-223, VMF-121 and VMF-224 claimed to have downed 315 Japanese aircraft. Maj Joseph J. Foss had 26 victories, Maj John L. Smith 19 and Maj Marion E. Carl 16.5. All three survived the war.

`I noticed one Zero skirting in and out of clouds and as I made pass at him, he promptly ducked back into them. I played cat and mouse with him for several minutes until I climbed into the sun to let him think I had retreated. When I came down on him for the last time, he never knew what hit him as his wing tanks and cockpit exploded. I ended up splashing four Zeros that day to bring my total aerial victories up to nine kills. Little did I know that within six months I would more than double that score.’

Lt Alex Vraciu recalling one of his victories that made him the US Navy’s fourth highest ranking ace.

HELLCAT ACES

A total of 307 F6F pilots were credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft to make them aces and the Hellcat the most successful US fighter ever. Not for nothing was the Hellcat also known as the `ace maker’. Hellcat pilots claimed three-quarters of the aerial victories attributed to the US Navy in the Pacific. Navy and Marine F6Fs flew 66,530 combat sorties (45 per cent of the total) of which 62,386 were flown from aircraft carriers. Against its principal adversary, the Mitsubishi Zero, which it had been intended to counter, it achieved a 13:1 kill-to-loss ratio. David McCampbell was the top USN ace, but three other Hellcat pilots scored 20 or more victories against the Japanese.

CORSAIR ACE

US Marine Corps squadron VMF-124 was the first Marine squadron to take the F4U into combat. One of its pilots, Lt Kenneth A. Walsh, proved to be amongst the top scoring Marine Corsair aces in the war with 21 confirmed kills. The unit arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal on the morning of 12 February 1943 with 12 F4Us, and by the middle of August Walsh had already become a double ace with 10 kills. Later in the month he was involved in one of the most exciting dogfights to take place in the Pacific theatre, for which he would receive the Medal of Honor for his fighting prowess.

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