Home » Legendary naval aviator Jimmy Thach possessed 27 F4F Wildcat fighters

Legendary naval aviator Jimmy Thach possessed 27 F4F Wildcat fighters

by Till Daisd
0 comment

Being the first and sole pilot in his squadron, Thach test-flew each of the 27 aircraft he was given, noting any anomalies for his maintenance team to address while he waited for more pilots to show up

Jimmy Thach was in confusion the day before the Battle of Midway because his squadron had been effectively disbanded by the transfer of its strength to VF-2 to support that unit in the Coral Sea. Thach was instructed to train a new group of novice Ensigns arriving from the States at a time when his squadron was at its lowest point of strength. Thach, a seasoned pilot who had flown a wide range of aircraft, handled everything with ease. Thach joined Fighter Three as the unit’s gunnery officer in 1939 after a varied prewar aviation career.

Thach’s proficiency with air-to-air gunnery served him well in battle as well as in his career. He stayed with Fighting Three so that he could use his abilities to help his unit.

“I progressed from gunnery officer to operations officer, and when the then-commanding officer, Cooper, was detached and Lieutenant Commander Sid Harvey took command of the squadron, I was made executive officer, No. 2 in command.”

Sadly, Sid Harvey passed away from a heart attack en route to his assignment, and Thach was fleeted up to temporary Command of the squadron after Lt. Cmdr. Harvey was detached for observer duty in Britain. Thach thus took control of Fighting Three as a Lieutenant, far ahead of his Naval Academy peers. Thach recalled receiving an intelligence report in the spring of 1941 that described the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero Sen and was probably written by Claire Chennault.

“This was the Zero, and I decided, well, we’d better do something about this, and remembering my days on the football field and basketball court, if you have somebody who’s faster than you are, you have to trap him somehow so that he can’t use his superiority, whatever it is. You’ve got to bait him or do something. I believed we had one advantage if we could ever get into a position to use it. We had good guns and could shoot and hit even if we only had a fleeting second or two to take aim. Therefore, we must do something to entice the opponent into giving us that one all-important opportunity-it was the only chance we had.”

Lt. Cmdr. John “Jimmy” Thach. A highly experienced Naval Aviator with flight time in fighters, various experimental aircraft, flying boats, and floatplanes, Thach was a prewar gunnery expert whose country upbringing clearly helped his air-to-air gunnery expertise. His Huckleberry Hound demeanor belied a strong tactical and operational sense, which was put to the test on the Eve of Midway when he had to rebuild his entire unit from scratch.

Thach himself described the process:

“I developed it before the war in the summer of 1941—summer and fall—on my kitchen table in Coronado. A lot of people don’t realize this. I’ve read in various places that I studied the combat reports of the Coral Sea Battle and then figured it out just before the Battle of Midway. This is not true at all. We’d been practicing this for a long time. Jimmy Flatley gave it the name Thach Weave. I didn’t.”

Instead, Thach had developed a formation that negated the benefit of a superior-performing aircraft, and he did so in such a way that it still had an impact on Navy fighter tactics and organization. Afterward, Thach made a remark about his time on Midway that is still applicable today.

“It may surprise people these days but as a lieutenant, I made more decisions than some very high-ranking officers have been making in the Vietnam War. I was making decisions in World War II that McNamara made in the Vietnam War, believe me. He was telling us how many planes to send, what formation to fly, and at what altitude.”

Following his cruise on board Lexington and O’Hare’s illustrious Fight on February 20, 1942, and the raids on Lae-Salamaua on March 10, Thach was sidelined in an unusual manner. The following provides an example of both the difficulties Thach experienced while working alone to rebuild his unit and his tenacity to complete the task. Thach received notification from Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch in April 1942;

“Your squadron is finally going to be increased to 27 aircraft, but I’m taking all your pilots and giving them to Paul Ramsey, and that will build up his squadron. Then you’ll get some more people, some more pilots, and 27 airplanes.”

Before Transfers left Thach as the only pilot in his squadron; Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3), Mar. 5, 1942. Standing, l to r: Mason, Clark, Sellstrom, Eder, Johnson, Lackey, Haynes, Stanley, Peterson, Dufilho, Lemmon. Sitting: Morgan, Vorse, Lovelace, Thach, Gayler, O’Hare, Rowell.

Despite a critical pilot shortage, Thach’s innovative arrangement of his squadron of one quickly proved successful. As the squadron’s initial sole pilot, Thach test-flew each of the 27 aircraft he was given, noting any inconsistencies so that his maintenance team could address them while he waited for more pilots to show up. As replacement pilots eventually poured in, Thach was able to confirm the usefulness of his equipment. Thach noted:

“Then I began to get a stream of young fellows right out of training, out of Pensacola. About this time, my executive officer (Don Lovelace) who didn’t go with Paul Ramsey, was detached, and he was scheduled to go back to San Diego and get a new squadron, get command of a squadron, going from the exec of my squadron of command, and that squadron was going to be VF-2.

(Note: Despite receiving orders to return to the United States, Lovelace chose to stay with Thach as his XO in order to try to assist in restoring Fighting Three.)

“I had another doctrine that I established, oh some time back, but it still held in the Battle of Midway. If there was a Lieutenant JG that was new, right out of Pensacola, and an ensign that had experience in combat, I would tell the lieutenant that he was going to be a wingman and the ensign was going to be the section leader because he’d had more experience, and I asked if he had any objection to that and he said, “no, thank goodness, I’d rather follow somebody for a while.”

Thach explains how he increased the novice pilots’ self-assurance in their abilities.

An embarrassment of Riches. Thatch’s Fighting Three was stripped of all its pilots to reinforce Fighting Two on the eve of Coral Sea, leaving Thach as the unit’s only assigned pilot.nnThach solved this organizational nightmare in a rather creative manner.

“I said “Look, you have landed aboard a carrier, right?” and they said, “Yes, Sir.” I said you have landed this airplane, right?” “Yes, Sir.” “All right. you are hereby qualified to land this airplane aboard an aircraft carrier. All you’ve got to do now when you go out is you just do it and prove it. Then that’ll be that. I don’t want to hear any more about it.” There was nothing more I could do.”

“A day or two before embarking in Yorktown, about fifteen pilots from VF-42 reported to me to fill out the roster of 27 pilots… So, we got the 27 airplanes and 27 pilots, and they called me up and gave me an inkling that there was something big coming up in the Central Pacific. They said it looks like the Japanese are going to try and hit us again… I had enough people so that the flight leaders, for instance, the ones leading a combat air patrol or the section leaders going with the strike group, those people had some experience, but maybe nobody following them, nobody else.”

The following tragedy occurred with his XO Don Lovelace during the Yorktown’s landing;

“He landed and he had taxied across the barrier, the barrier had just lifted behind him, and his wingman landed too hard, bounced clear over the barrier, and landed right on top of Don Lovelace and cut his head off, and that was the end of Don Lovelace. That was a pretty bad blow at any time. It was especially a difficult thing to accept at that moment because by this time we’d all been briefed on what was coming along, not only a sad thing to lose the life of a good friend, but to lose his ability and leadership and everything else in the air was a doubly bad blow.”

Grumman F4F-4 “Wildcat” Fighter (Bureau # 5171), of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3) at Naval Air Station, Kaneohe, Oahu, on May 29, 1942, with ground crewmen folding the starboard wing. On June 4, 1942, in the Battle of Midway, this plane was flown by Lieutenant Commander John S. Thach, VF-3’s Commanding Officer, during the afternoon combat air patrol defending USS Yorktown (CV-5), wherein Thach probably shot down Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga, leader of the attacking Japanese torpedo planes.

He gathered his squadron for the following since he was aware of the effect such a loss had on them:

“I got them all in the ready room immediately and told them that they had to just wash that out of their minds, that If I could do it, they could do it, because he was one of the best friends I ever had and the loss to me was far greater than they may imagine, and I was going to forget about it right now. We have work to do, we’re going to do it. We’re going in into a big battle and we can’t let something like this affect our performance in any way. So that’s the end of that, and I don’t want to hear any more talk about it. So, they took it that way.”

On the eve of the largest carrier battle in the history of the Pacific, Jimmy Thach went to war in this way with a unit that he had built from scratch.

[Note: All Thach quotes taken from the Reminisces of Admiral John “Jimmy” Thach, Volume 1, interviewed by Cmdr. Etta-Belle Kitchen, USN, (Ret.)]

Below you can see the Pensacola Aerospace Museum Turntable Rendering of Jimmy Thach’s White 23 F4F-4, which he flew on June 4, 1942, while escorting TBDs of Torpedo Squadron Three.

Check out Pensacola Aerospace Museum’s Facebook page for further aviation photos and stories.

Photo by U.S. Navy

You may also like

Leave a Comment