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When Cactus Air Force, during fended off every Japanese onslaught

by Till Daisd
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Guadalcanal Wildcat

The Cactus Air Force, which was primarily equipped with the rugged Wildcat fighter and the unrivaled Dauntless dive bomber, successfully repelled every Japanese onslaught

Control of Henderson Field was at the heart of the fight of Guadalcanal, which turned the tide of the Pacific War. Less than two weeks after the US Marines arrived, the unfinished airstrip was captured and made operational. The “Cactus Air Force” stationed there had a basic airfield and was low on supplies, pilots, and aircraft. However, as long as the airstrip was controlled by the Americans, the Japanese were unable to send the large convoys they required to retake the island.

The Americans had to keep Henderson Field operational in the face of constant attack from Japanese bombers and their Zero escorts, and even against battleship bombardment. The Cactus Air Force, primarily flying the rugged Wildcat fighter and the incomparable Dauntless dive bomber, weathered every Japanese assault and emerged victorious.

The key to defending Henderson Field, as described by Mark Stille in his book Guadalcanal 1942–1943, was successfully intercepting Japanese raids. Coastwatchers and radar were two of the Marines’ main means of alerting them to avoid Japanese raids. Every minute of early warning was essential since the Wildcats needed to acquire enough slow-climbing to reach their preferred interception height of 30,000 feet or higher. The airplane climbed just 500 feet per minute once it reached 20,000 feet. If inadequate early warning was available, the result was usually a failed interception.

Here’s how Cactus Air Force was able to Repel every Japanese Assault during the Battle of Guadalcanal

The fighters were controlled by a rudimentary mechanism. When the Marine air operations officer made a radar contact, he launched fighters as if it were a one-man show. The Wildcats’ effective radio range was only 10-15 miles, therefore once in the air, they were not dispatched too far from the airfield to undertake a radar-directed interception. A recovered aircraft radio fitted on his truck allowed the air operations officer to communicate with the airborne fighters. The officer who raised the air raid warning also served as an observer to spot enemy planes. Two navy officers who had completed the Navy’s fighter pilot training program arrived in Guadalcanal in October.

They had to deal with the same defective radars and poor communication between the airborne aircraft and 90mm gun batteries. One master technical sergeant was largely responsible for resolving the radar issue because he had the uncanny ability to identify the number, type, and approximate altitude of Japanese aircraft in a formation long before they were near Henderson Field. All of the radars on the island were connected by November 1942, and communication between fighters and antiaircraft guns had significantly improved. The system was able to withstand the 82 air strikes that were registered by the 3rd Defense Battalion between the beginning of the operation and November 15.

Given that the Wildcat and Zero were different in many ways and that many Marine fighter pilots lacked expertise, air tactics were critical. The commander of VMF-223, Major Smith, developed strategies that he taught to his pilots and that took advantage of the Wildcat’s strengths. Smith’s chosen attack strategy was approaching the bombers from a point where he had a 5,000-foot height advantage. After achieving this position—which was challenging given the Wildcat’s minor speed advantage over the Betty—Smith preached a diving attack with a focus on the formation’s trailing aircraft. A right-to-left diving attack across the bomber formation at a distance of 1,000 feet was the desired firing range.

This strategy had a lot of important benefits. The Japanese formation was unable to dodge it, and it posed a good shot on Betty’s weak-wing fuel tanks. It also leveraged the Wildcat’s superior dive speed to slip past any escorting Zeros. The Wildcats were instructed to exit the dive after the initial attack and do a climbing left turn before making another reassess. Smith advised the Wildcats to try again at the bombers if the Zero escort had not intervened. The intercept’s main goal was to disperse the bomber formation.

Obviously, the Zeros were not going to let the Wildcats attack the bombers without intervening, so when they did make an appearance Smith told his pilots not to get into a dogfight with the extremely maneuverable Zeros. The wise move was to clear the area or look for safety in a cloud using the Wildcat’s superior dive speed.

Here’s how Cactus Air Force was able to Repel every Japanese Assault during the Battle of Guadalcanal

Lt. Col. Harold Bauer, the fighter unit commander for Cactus Air Force, issued a new order on October 23. Hendiscerned that the quality of Zero pilots had declined, and he was sure that the Wildcat pilots were now better. As a result, he instructed his pilots to engage the Zeros in dogfighting whenever possible during the Oct. 23 interception. The outcomes from that day appeared to support his judgment.

If the Marine pilots were shot down, even Japanese lines, there was a good chance they would reach the Marine perimeter and return to duty. This was made possible by the heroic work of the island’s loyal residents and coast watchers. Over half of the pilots that were shot down over or close to Guadalcanal later returned to fight.

The Dauntless crews and the Wildcat pilots both contributed significantly to the campaign’s success. Each Dauntless carried two crewmen, the pilot, and the rear gunner. There were Navy dive-bombers flying out of Henderson Field in addition to the Marine dive-bomber squadrons stationed on the island. When carrying 1,000 lb bombs, the Dauntless had a small battle radius. Dauntlesses were despatched into the “Slot” (the channel between the central Solomon Islands leading to Guadalcanal) in the morning and the afternoon to look for Japanese ships. The Japanese ships that were met the most frequently were destroyers on transport missions through the Slot.

These were vulnerable to assault if they went too close to Guadalcanal in the late afternoon or were late in leaving the waters around the island at night and had not steamed out of range by daylight. When carried out by a trained crew, dive-bombing was a precise way of attack, but any dive-bomber pilot would find it challenging to hit a ship as swift and maneuverable as a destroyer. Although strikes on destroyers were uncommon, the pilot would try to line up his attack down the length of the ship to create a larger target.

Only a few kilometers from Henderson Field, the Tokyo Express discharged its troop and supply cargo at night. It was tempting for the Dauntless pilots to launch night attacks. Given that they were operating from an unlit airfield, these were dangerous. Additionally, they were useless because the Japanese destroyer captains discovered how to remain undetected in the darkness by avoiding shooting at the dive-bombers and reducing their speed to lessen their wake.

Guadalcanal 1942-43 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

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