Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat

Joe Foss

The Guadalcanal Campaign was the first extended campaign of the Pacific War that clearly ended in an Allied victory.

It also saw dozens of aces made, let’s take a look at one of the most notable.

With 26 kills Joe Foss was the top Marine ace of World War II. It amazes me how many sources try to give Gregory Boyington that honor. Boyington was the first American to top Eddie Rickenbacher’s total from World War I; Richenbacher had 26 kills, like Foss, while Boyington had 28. But six of Boyington’s kills came as a Flying Tiger, so he only had 22 as a Marine.
Not only did Foss score 26 as a Marine, but all of his kills were in the Wildcat and 19 of them were over Zeros.

Captain Joe Foss [photo via Wikipedia]

The Guadalcanal Campaign was six months of intense combat from August 1942 to February of the following year. It was a complete air, land and sea war. It was also before the American advantage in industry could tell. That made things close in every dimension. It was commonly referred to as “Operation Shoestring” because of short supply and how narrow every margin was. American forces were only just learning that they could successfully fight and what their exploitable advantages were. One indicator of the intensity and importance of this campaign would be a listing of the top 12 Navy and Marine fighter squadrons of 1942 (measured by kills), seven of them (and the top four) scored all their kills at Guadalcanal.
VMF-121 was the second most successful squadron of the campaign, only lagging behind VMF-223 which had arrived on the island a month earlier. Joe Foss was the XO of VMF-121. As such, he had a regular command of eight pilots that were considered the squadron’s second section; but became known as “Joe’s Flying Circus”. Four of those pilots became aces. Obviously Foss was always first and foremost among them. He was a very aggressive pilot and big believer in the Thach Weave (which he called the “Thach-Flatley Weave”) as the ultimate defensive maneuver. He favored high speed diving attacks that played to the Wildcat’s strength. He was also willing to dogfight when the situation called for it, and he favored getting so close to shoot that others claimed his kills could be identified by their powder burns. No surprise, he was shot up several times as well.
In late October the Japanese launched a massive coordinated attack that involved carrier strikes (and led to the Battle of Santa Cruz) and a major attempt to seize Henderson Field. October 24 dawned with 16 Zeros circling overhead, with orders to land when the Army indicated they’d captured the airfield. Foss led six Wildcats in a climbing scramble to engage the Zeros. Clearly NOT playing to the Wildcat’s strengths; yet Foss still scored a kill and his section brought down two more for only one loss.
November 14 was known as a black day at Cactus (Henderson Field’s radio call sign), it was the day Lt Col Harold Bauer was lost. He had been overall fighter director at the time and was an ace with 10 kills. But during the large, and failed, search and rescue mission that followed Foss scored another kill even though he had a 103 degree fever from malaria. He was grounded immediately after and this became a recurring part of the rest of tour until January of 1943.
It was during one of Foss’ recovery periods in Australia that he was assigned to brief incoming Australian pilots on fighting the Japanese, an experience Foss recalled as utterly frustrating because his advice was not taken seriously. Pilots who had faced Messerschmitts were not ready for the message that started with, “if you find yourself alone and see a single Zero, run like hell, you’re outnumbered.”
Foss was awarded the Medal of Honor on his return home and embarked a period of War Bond promotions. In January 1944 he returned to action as CO of the F4U Corsair equipped VMF-115, but he scored no additional kills and his tour ended early with another occurrence of malaria.
Post War he commanded the South Dakota Air National Guard, rising to the rank of Brigadier General and accumulating 1500 hours in Mustangs. In 1955, at age 39 he became Governor of South Dakota. After one term he was the founding commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. He hosted a couple TV shows (three seasons of American Sportsman) ran several charities and became president of the National Rifle Association in 1988. No doubt a larger than life sort of personality.

During his tour on Guadalcanal, Joe Foss never had a regularly assigned aircraft. Conditions were too chaotic, airframe life too short for such niceties. Available pilots flew available hardware. Capt Foss flew “Black 53” on October 23 when he scored his eighth victory, by shooting a Zero off the tail of one of his section pilots.
I would say this is a pretty standard and unremarkable aircraft for this period; but the Cutting Edge decal sheet helpfully informs that Joe Foss was personally consulted to make this the most accurate possible depiction of “White 53”. Errr…. I’ll assume that is accurately called a typo, about a completely stock/standard aircraft with no special markings…
This is the Tamiya kit, which is the definition of an easy and fun build. It does have a couple of well hidden inaccuracies, that I’m not going to tell you about. So if you don’t know they’re not there! The Cutting Edge decals also performed flawlessly, even if we can’t say the same about their documentation.

Regular, almost daily combatants over Guadalcanal. For six months. Many Wildcat pilots made ace and Japanese airpower was shattered.
Major components of the Cactus Air Force. Dauntless and Avenger provided close support help and solid anti-shipping power. The Army Air Force added the 67th Fighter Squadron with its P-400s, also good for close support. Wildcats were the backbone of air defense throughout.
Its good that I’ve built another Wildcat so you my readers can appreciate the complexity and diversity of Navy and Marine colors and markings during the period.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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11 Responses to Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat

  1. Jeff Groves says:

    LOL at your last caption, I’d build a whole lot more USN aircraft if that wasn’t the case!

    • atcDave says:

      There is no doubt naval (and marine) action from June through November 1942 is THE most interesting part of the entire War to me. But the same can not be said for markings options! There are so many pilots and crews whose planes I want to build, and they all look alike!

  2. Pingback: Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat – My Forgotten Hobby III

  3. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Great tribute to the plane and the pilot.

  4. jfwknifton says:

    I don’t know if you’ve heard of Eric Brown, the British test pilot who flew 487 different types of aircraft, but he had the Wildcat top of the list as the best aircraft he’d flown. He particularly liked the fact that it was designed to float while they looked for you.

    • atcDave says:

      Sorry this got stuck in spam filter!\

      But yes, I’m familiar with Eric Brown and have quoted him a few times here. I know he was a big fan of the Wildcat. He’s best known as a test pilot, but he had two kills, both in the Wildcat. He absolutely considered the best Allied carrier fighter of the early War years. One of these days I hope to build one of his Wildcats.

  5. Ernie Davis says:

    We’ve talked before about how while Midway may have been the end of Japanese dominance in the Pacific, where they could go where they wanted virtually at will, it wasn’t really until we prevailed at Guadalcanal that the US established ours. As you mentioned, the war production hadn’t really reached the theater yet (and in some cases like the China/Burma theater to me it seems it almost never did) and the men who fought there had to make do with what they had, fighting it out with arguably obsolete aircraft and the sporadic support of a battered fleet. Quite a testament to the bravery and skill of those who made do with what they had. And also to the reliability and sturdiness of those “obsolete” aircraft they “made do” with.

    • atcDave says:

      Yes, absolutely to all of that! It was a period of desperation and uncertainty for both sides on that island. We look at the War now and sometimes wonder “what was Japan even thinking”. But at the end of 1942 it wasn’t clear we would prevail.

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