John Thach and His Weave
Early in the Pacific War allied air forces were badly outmatched by the Japanese. The Japanese Army and Navy were highly selective and trained to an excruciatingly high standard. Plus, they’d been at war with both China and the Soviet Union in the proceeding years.
The US Navy was the only regular military service that was able to have a positive kill ratio in those first six months (add The Flying Tigers if we count irregular units!). John Thach was one of the key reasons. After the jump, I’ll look at an important tactician and his weapon.
John Thach was one of the old hands, the seasoned professionals of the US Navy before the war ever started. As commander of VF-3 (“Fighting Three” based on the USS Lexington) he had taken a young Ensign Edward O’Hare under his wing as a favored protege. In the months before the war Thach had heard rumors that the Japanese had a fighter that was faster and more maneuverable than anything the US was using. These would typically be considered THE major elements in determining who has the upper hand, so LCDR Thach set about working on tactics for dealing with such a disadvantage. He experimented with formations using match sticks on a table; and practiced by allowing half is squadron to use only 2/3s throttle, and trying to see what advantage they could gain in spite of that handicap.
Thach came up with something he called the “Beam Defense Maneuver”, but Fighting Two Commander Jimmy Flatly called “The Thach Weave”. It involved two pairs (“sections”) flying side by side at a distance equal to half their turning radius. Each section was responsible for watching the other’s tails. If one section was jumped, the other would initiate a turn towards them, and the first section would respond the same way. So both sections would be running at each other head on, and the one section could “clear the tails” of the other.
Leading up to The Battle of Midway, squadrons were frantically being re-arranged to deal with six months of hard combat, the loss of the USS Lexington, and an influx of new pilots. LCDR Thach found himself commanding a reconstituted Fighting Three on the USS Yorktown. In the organizational and administrative chaos there was no time to train all the new pilots on the Weave.
One June 4, 1942, the climactic day of the Battle of Midway, Thach found himself with only three other pilots to provide top cover for the Yorktown’s Torpedo Squadron (actually there were six Wildcats, but two were providing close escort). They were quickly overwhelmed by more than a dozen Zeros and one young pilot was promptly shot down in flames. That left three, and only Thach’s own wingman, Ens R.A.M. Dibb, knew the Weave. So they adapted it for two. Thach and Dibb spaced themselves to start weaving towards each other. The rookie stayed close behind Dibb. In twenty minutes of combat all three scored kills, they were credited with six, plus two probables. Thach was credited with three himself, then claims to have lost count. Dibb believed Thach made ace on that single mission (five kills). The remaining three pilots all returned to the Yorktown, and the “Thach Weave” was canonized as a highly effective defensive protocol that has been taught to Navy pilots ever since.
For more on John Thach, his weave, the Battle of Midway… pretty much anything involving carrier operations in the first six months of the Pacific War I highly recommend The First Team by John Lundstrom.
This Wildcat is from the Tamiya kit. The markings of John Thach’s mount on June 4, 1942 are by Superscale Decals.