Wildcat vs. Zero: How America’s Naval Aviators Held Their Own Against Japan’s Superior Fighter

December 8, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: JapanJapan Air ForceU.S. Air ForceU.S. NavyWorld War II

Wildcat vs. Zero: How America’s Naval Aviators Held Their Own Against Japan’s Superior Fighter

It wasn't easy.

Japan began the Pacific War with two major technological advantages over the U.S. Navy: the much more reliable Long Lance torpedo, and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero carried-based fighter, a design that defied expectations by outperforming land-based fighters when in it was introduced into service in 1940.

Designer Jiro Horikoshi maximized the Zero’s performance by reducing airframe weight to an unprecedented degree by cutting armor protection and employing an “extra super” duralumin alloy.  Combined with an 840-horsepower Sakae 12 radial engine, the A6M2 Type Zero could attain speeds of 346 miles per hour, while exhibiting extraordinary maneuverability and high rates of climb. For armament, the Zero boasted two punchy Type 99 20-millimeter cannons in the wing—though only with sixty rounds of ammunition—and two rifle-caliber machine guns firing through the propeller.

The elegant airframe weighed only 1.85-tons empty, giving the Zero a tremendous range of 1,600 miles—very useful for scouting for enemy ships and launching long-distance raids. By comparison, Germany’s excellent contemporary Bf 109 fighter could fly only 500 miles, fatefully reducing its effectiveness in the Battle of Britain .

The Zero debuted fantastically in combat in July 1940, with thirteen land-based A6M2 Zeros shooting down twice their number of Russian-built I-16 and I-153 fighters in a three-minute engagement.

When Japan launched her surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and on British and Dutch possessions in the East Asia, the 521 Zeroes serving in the Japanese Navy quickly became the terror of Allied fighter pilots. U.S. Army P-39 Airacobras struggled to match the Zero’s high altitude performance. Even the pilots of agile British Spitfires found they were likely to be out-turned and out-climbed by a Zero.

The U.S. Navy at the time was phasing in the Grumman F4F Wildcat at the expense of the infamously awful F2A Buffalo. The tubby-looking Wildcat was heavier at 2.5 to 3 tons and had a range slightly over 800 miles. The Wildcat’s supercharged 1,200 horsepower R-1830 radial engine allowed it to attain speeds of 331 mph while armed with four jam-prone .50-caliber machine guns, or 320 mph on the heavier F4F-4 model with six machine guns and side-folding wings for improved stowage.

Thus the U.S. Navy’s top fighter was slower and less maneuverable than the Zero. But unexpectedly—after a rough start, and despite starting the war with less combat experience, Wildcat pilots managed to trade-off evenly with Zeroes. At Wake Island, just four Marine Wildcats helped repel besieging Japanese forces for two weeks and even sank the destroyer Kisaragi. In February 1942, Wildcat pilot Edward “Butch” O’Hare managed to shoot down three Japanese bombers and damage three more during a raid.

Though the Wildcat didn’t claim air superiority over the nimble Japanese fighters, they performed well enough to allow American dive and torpedo bombers to sink five Japanese aircraft carriers in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway—finally turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

How did they pull it off?

The Zero’s lack of armor and a self-sealing fuel tank (which have internal bladders that swell to close off holes) meant they were infamously prone to disintegrating or catching fire after sustaining light damage. Meanwhile, once a Zero pilot expended his limited supply of 20-millimeter shells, the remaining rifle-caliber machine guns struggled to down better-armored Wildcats. Navy and Marine Wildcat pilots learned to make slashing attacks from above leveraging their superior diving speed. But it simply wasn’t always possible to avoid getting into a turning dogfight with a Zero.

Contemplating this problem, naval aviator John Thach, devised the tactic called the Thach Weave in which two Wildcats flying side-by-side laid a trap for pursuing Zeros. Both the “bait” and “hook” plane would complete two consecutive 90-degree turns towards each other, forming a figure eight. A Zero choosing to pursue the bait plane would end up having its tail in the sights of the hook.

After successfully testing the maneuver with Wildcat ace Edward O’Hare, John Thach had a chance to try his Thach Weave the Battle of Midway. On June 4, Thach’s six F4Fs of VF-3 squadron from the carrier Yorktown were escorting Devastator torpedo bombers when they were bounced by fifteen to twenty Zeros, one of which immediately set a Wildcat ablaze while another knocked out the radio on the Wildcat of Thach’s wingman.

Thach called on the radio for rookie pilot Ram Dibb to help him perform the Weave maneuver. Steve Erling’s book Thach Weave recounts what happened next:

“With so many enemy planes in the air, Thach was not sure anything would work, but the answer came when a Zero followed Dibb during one of his turns… Thach found himself angry that the young inexperienced Dibb was the target of this Zero. Wisdom called for a short burst of shells to hopefully cause the Zero to break off the pass, but it was apparent this Zero was not going to break off. Anger rising, Thach continued straight ahead, the firing button depressed, rather than ducking under the Zero. At last the Zero broke off, and as he passed close by, Thach could see flames pouring from its underside.”

“Continuing the weave now discouraged the Zeros from following the Wildcats in their turns, but one made the same mistake as Thach’s first kill, and when he was too slow in his pullout, Thach shot him down and added a third mark on his kneepad. Soon after, Dibb erased another enemy fighter converging astern of Thach and Macomber .

By then the Zeros had shot down all but two of the torpedo bombers and might have finished off the Wildcats. But at that moment, two squadrons of SBD dive bombers came screaming out from the clouds on the now unprotected Japanese carriers. The Zeros were too low and far afield to intercept them, and bomber proceeded to fatally cripple the carriers Akagi and Kaga.

The Thach Weave was subsequently adopted by other Navy and Marine squadrons, and top Japanese ace Saburo Sakai described the maneuver vexing a squadron mate’s attack run over Guadalcanal in his biography.

The Wildcat never exceeded the Zero in performance, but over time the non-existent armor protection and loss of entire carriers took a heavy toll on Japanese aviators, eroding their experience advantage. In 1943, new, much faster U.S. fighters such as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair decisively won air superiority for the Allies. In the 1944 Great Marianas Turkey Shoot over the Philippine Sea, Allied fighters and flak gunners shot down over 500 Japanese warplanes for just 123 USN aircraft lost.

Both the Zero and Wildcat saw action through the remainder of World War II, many of the former ending their days as Kamikaze aircraft. The Wildcat carried on a little-known but surprisingly successful career with the U.S. and Royal Navies in the European theater, dueling French fighters over North Africa , flying from small escort carriers to hunt Nazi bombers and submarines, and even embarked on the last Allied air raid of the war, sinking a U-Boat in Norway on May 5, 1945.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring .