The Wildcat will always be best known for its role in the epic battles of 1942; from Coral Sea to Midway to Guadalcanal. But this type actually remained in production until 1944!
After the jump, a brief look at a late war Wildcat.
Many of the early war types remained in production long after their replacements started arriving at the front. Some of that is just because it takes time to implement new training and parts, and some is because wastage is always so high in wartime; new aircraft types have to fill out squadrons even as they’re being expended in combat.
But the Wildcat proved to be useful all the way to the end of the war when a new role emerged for it early 1943. Both the US and British Royal Navy were putting large numbers of Escort Carriers into service at this time. These little aircraft carriers, or “Baby Flat Tops” were converted from various types of merchant ships. These carriers were first intended to protect merchant shipping, convoys, wherever they might sail. They would also be used extensively to provide close support for invasion convoys. So while the role of the “Fleet Carrier” was offensive, the role of the Escort Carrier was mostly defensive.
Size was a big issue for little aircraft carriers. They were intended to operate around 30 aircraft (compared to 80 or so on a Fleet Carrier). Well the new generation of powerful carrier based aircraft were all much bigger than earlier sorts, so the US and Royal Navy both decided to use the older, smaller Wildcat as the standard fighter on their Baby Flat Tops.
Grumman was overwhelmed with production for their TBF Avenger and F6F Hellcat, so continuing production of the Wildcat (and some for the Avenger too) would be passed to General Motors’ recently formed “Eastern Aircraft” division. There was actually much concern over if an auto maker’s mass production techniques could be applied to the world of military aviation with its much tighter tolerances and quality issues. So Grumman engineers and production specialists were assigned to work closely with General Motors. The first result of this cooperation was the FM-1 Wildcat (see “What’s in a Name – United States” for the explanation of how the designation changed!) which was an F4F-4 Wildcat with only a very few changes.
Meanwhile, Grumman had also been working on a much improved Wildcat for use on the Escort Carriers. Under the Grumman designation XF4F-8 this redesign was much lighter and switched from an R-1830 engine to a newer R-1820*. This would have been a pretty inconsequential switch (earlier Wildcats had actually used both engines) but super-charging was changed dramatically. Instead of the more sophisticated two-stage two-speed supercharging a simplified single-stage supercharger was used. This was because this version Wildcat was not expected to need high altitude performance. So a little more powerful engine, 250 lbs less of super-charger, and 500 lbs of other weight saving led to what was known as the hot rod, or wilder Wildcat. It was ordered into production by General Motors as the FM-2.
This new version of Wildcat was faster down low, more maneuverable, and was very easy to handle on the tight deck space of an Escort Carrier. It was the exclusive fighter on US Escort Carriers, and most common choice on Royal Navy Escort Carriers. It was often used to provide top cover for convoys out in the middle of the ocean, and occasionally chased off long range patrol aircraft. A pair of Wildcats with a single Avenger often comprised a sub-hunting team; the Wildcats with machine guns and rockets could keep a submarine busy while the Avenger set up for the kill. And Wildcats often flew close support missions for amphibious operations.
This particular aircraft was part of the most unlikely battle any such support group ever found itself involved in. In October of 1944 this plane was based on the USS Gambier Bay, which was a part of a Task Group known as “Taffy 3” under Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague. On the morning of October 25, due to good Japanese planning and sloppy American communications, Taffy 3 was ambushed by heavy units of the Imperial Navy. That’s a nice, understated way of putting it. The Japanese had four Battleships (including Yamato), eight Cruisers and eleven Destroyers. Taffy 3 was 6 Escort Carriers escorted by three Destroyers (DD) and four Destroyer Escorts (DE; that means small destroyers!) . This encounter could be sub-titled “Godzilla Meets Bambi”. Considering the Escort Carriers are essentially merchant ships with flight decks that means only the DDs and DEs counted as true warships. So any one of the Japanese Battleships outweighed the entire American surface force by five-to-one.
The short version would be; the Escort Carriers ran, the Destroyers and Destroyers Escorts charged to attack, while the carriers launched every plane available to attack the Japanese fleet. None of these planes were armed for armored warships. They carried weapons for anti-sub patrols, or to support troops ashore. Some were even empty and short of fuel. But they all attacked. And when they were out of ordnance they pretended to attack.
An hour into the attack Admiral Sprague wrote “by this time I expected to be swimming”. But the Japanese broke off. They were apparently confused by the aggression of the American response. They had actually lost three Cruisers. They had sunk two DDs, a DE and the Gambier Bay. But American aerial response was increasing as aircraft responded from other Task Groups, more of these aircraft were properly armed too. As the Japanese turned away Admiral Sprague recalled one sailor near him yelling “damn it boys, they’re getting away!”.
I highly recommend “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” by James D. Hornfischer. Its an excellent account of one of the most epic and amazing naval battles in history.
This example is the Hobby Boss kit with Tech Mod decals. I have serious reservations about this kit. It is fiddly and difficult, especially the landing gear. But that’s not the worst of it. Hobby Boss has kits of the entire Wildcat family, but there’s maybe a little too much commonality of parts. The nose profile here simply looks wrong to me. The FM-2 had a shorter, blunter nose than earlier Wildcats because of the engine change. The R-1820 was a single row engine of greater diameter than the two-row, but smaller around R-1830. I would look forward to any other company making another try at this important aircraft!
* – just to be clear, these two engines are of similar age and capability. But a newer, slightly more powerful version of the R-1820 was chosen here.