The first of Grumman’s “Cats” and their first monoplane began life on the drawing board in 1935. It was the U.S. Navy’s sole carrier-based fighter at the start of World War II. A contemporary of the Japanese Zero, its performance was inferior in many respects, yet the F4F held its own because of superior armament, rugged construction and well trained pilots.
The F4F-4 Wildcat entered service at the beginning of World War II, and was the Navy’s frontline carrier-based fighter aircraft by the time of the Battle of Midway in June of 1942. Grumman’s design for the F4F-4 evolved in several stages over the course of seven years. It was initially conceived as a biplane in 1935 for the Navy, the XF4F-1, but Grumman lost the contract to a monoplane design by Brewster. Not to be outdone, Grumman redesigned the biplane into a monoplane, the XF4F-2, yet the design was considered underpowered. Finally, with the addition of a more powerful supercharged Pratt and Whitney 1830 Twin Wasp engine, Grumman was awarded a Navy contract. This was the F4F-3 which was also produced for France and Britain, where it went by the designation “Martlet.”
Grumman looked to improve combat capabilities of the design further in the F4F-4. They added two more 50 caliber machine guns in the wings (making a total of six), self-sealing fuel tanks, armor, and folding wings, a unique feature invented by Grumman and first installed in the Wildcat F4F-4. This feature was a great advancement in naval warfare because it meant that a carrier could accommodate more than twice the complement of fighters than was possible previously. Although easily outperformed by its Japanese counterpart, the A6M Zero, the F4F-4 often held its own in combat. The Achilles heel of the Wildcat was its limited maneuverability and range. At the Battle of Midway, range proved crucial when Wildcats were only able to engage the enemy briefly, until they were forced to return to their carriers. Moreover, many had to ditch on the return trip back due to lack of fuel. Yet the addition of drop tanks improved range substantially, and experienced and well trained pilots were able to overcome limited maneuverability by using tactics that took advantage of the Wildcat’s speed and firepower. Although by mid-war it began to be replaced on carriers by more advanced Hellcats and Corsairs, the F4F-4 still had attained an impressive record, and by the end of the war was credited with over 1,500 victories.
The Museum’s F4F-4 wildcat was attached to the USS Wolverine for carrier training when it crashed into Lake Michigan and sank on November 23, 1942. Its wreckage was recovered by the Navy in 1995, and loaned to the Museum in 1996 for restoration. Museum volunteers restored it in the markings of Marine Corps Squadron VMF-223, as the aircraft flown by Captain Marion E. Carl, third ranking Wildcat ace with 16.5 victories. The aircraft is currently on loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola, Florida and is on exhibition in the Museum’s World War II gallery.