Grumman F4F Wildcat

The old sweats of VF-42 weren’t exactly overjoyed with the armament changes.

Compared to their previous F4F Dash-3’s, the new Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters had a number of drawbacks. Besides the fact that the pilots had been reluctantly assigned to VF‑3, which was being reformed after the Coral Sea battle, Lt Cdr Fenton’s recent subordinates were skeptical about increasing the number of fighter pilots now embarked on board the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.
The new fighter was to blame for the situation. The F4F-4’s folding wings allowed the mother ship to carry 27 machines instead of the previous 18 non-folding winged F4F-3’s. Smaller ammunition magazines represented another significant disadvantage. The F4F-4’s armament of six machine guns could fire a 22-second salvo, which was a major decrease in performance compared to the 42-second salvo of its predecessor. As if that wasn’t enough, the six half-inch Brownings were synchronized in quite an unusual fashion. Their salvos converged in pairs at distances of 800, 1000 and 1200 feet. This type of scattered fire covered a wide area but at the same time made it impossible to focus on a chosen target. “Felix the Cat’s” pilots had other reservations about Grumman’s product as well. One of the pilots casting a critical eye over the latest Wildcat was Lt(jg) Elbert McCuskey. An aviation enthusiast since childhood, he had quickly found his way from his hometown of Stuttgart (Arkansas) to naval flying school, where he was in his element. Time passed very quickly until the beginning of the war. He and his Wildcat, numbered black “F-2”, were in action from the very first days. By May 1942 McCuskey had tallied a Japanese H6K flying boat and an A6M fighter. Now battle with the shipborne forces of Nagumo’s Midway invasion fleet was imminent.

F4F-3A of the VMF-111. One of the first but also the last user of the first-line F4Fs. South Carolina maneuvers; August 1941. [Via Andre R. Zbiegniewski]

The carriers USS Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet lay in wait for the enemy flattops in the heavy swell of the mid-Pacific north-east of Midway. On 4 June news of the opening skirmishes did not suggest that McCuskey’s flight would encounter the enemy soon. At least, not during the initial operations over the Japanese fleet. After waiting for many hours the pilots were chosen for a cover patrol over their own ships. Bored VF-3 pilots clambered up into their Wildcats’ cockpits. It was almost noon. Suddenly the fighter controller’s voice resonated in the earphones: “Radar reports many bandits. They’re coming straight at us. Distance: 35 miles”.
The twelve F4Fs scrambled aloft in record time and powered up into the sky. Clawing up to the attackers’ altitude in accordance with the controller’s instructions, they struggled to take up position between the approaching enemy and Yorktown’s port side. There was no time to circle and throttles were against the stops. The Wildcats’ loose formation was led by Lts Barnes and Woollen. McCuskey and his wingman Gibbs, both trailing a little way back, were climbing even faster. The other machines lagged behind. There was still quite a distance separating them from their planned altitude. Meanwhile enemy planes were emerging out of the mists in front of them. Eighteen D3A dive bombers flying in threes at much higher altitude. The leading couple of Wildcats desperately pulled up their noses in an attempt to cut across the path of the incoming Japanese.
Salvos from twelve machine guns fired by Woollen and Barnes sprayed the air around the Vals. Unscathed, the bombers pressed on. They were only eight miles from the aircraft carrier. McCuskey and his wingman now closed on an interception heading. Disregarding the enemy gunners’ fire, McCuskey bore in on his first victim, opening fire on the run, closing rapidly, until he was literally meters away from the bullet-shredded enemy machine. It tipped over into a terminal dive, plummeting into the waves. The F4F reduced its speed and began to fish-tail, snapping off more salvos that ripped into the formation of tightly packed dive bombers. Three planes in the middle soon began to show signs of damage from this attack. McCuskey kept up his fire, hammering out short bursts, more precise, from close range. Years later, when recalling this action, the pilot stated that he wasn’t even using his gun sight. The distance was too short. His bursts of fire accounted for several machines and more importantly perhaps broke the Japanese fighting elan. They realized that if they failed to react quickly, they were likely to be wiped out. Their formation broke up, the bombers scattering across the sky. VF-3’s fighters hurtled after them, squeezing out constant salvoes of hot lead. The F4F-4s’ magazines were soon emptied. Even though they received radar warnings about a second wave of the Japanese raid, the vulnerable Wildcats (although they had only been in the air for 15 minutes) had to land to replenish their munitions. Lt(jg) McCuskey brought home a triple victory to Yorktown, achieving Wildcat ace status in the process. He would carry out subsequent missions accompanied by colleagues from VF-6, based on USS Enterprise. Still flying the same F4F-4 BuNo5153, McCuskey would claim two more Zeros before dusk.