F4F Wildcat vs. A6M Zero-sen
Contributor: Andrew Nguyen
Review Date: 3 Aug 2016
When Japan began the war in the Pacific, its foes all believed that Japan had second rate equipment that could not match that of their own forces, despite intelligence coming in from China on what Japan was truly capable of. Thus they were in for a rude shock as the Japanese military blitzed it way through Southeast Asia, conquering nearly the entire region in four months.
Leading the charge was perhaps one of the greatest fighter planes of World War II, Japan's Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Serving in the land based units and more famously Japan's carriers with pilots that were amongst the best in the world, the A6M Zero cleared the skies of allied aircraft, allowing Japanese bombers to devastate Allied ground and naval forces. It eventually obtained the same awe and reverence as with the British Royal Air Force's Spitfire.
By May 1942, the only air forces capable of challenging Japan was the United States with the US Navy, in the form of its aircraft and aircraft carriers, serving as the main arm of retribution. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were three US aircraft carriers in the Pacific with two fully operational and at sea while the third undergoing maintenance on the West Cost. This turned out to be good fortune as they escaped the horrific carnage of December 7, 1941.
For the US Navy, which would be the prime Allied asset in the war against Japan it had in its fighter squadrons the F4F wildcat. In most cases, the Zero outmatched the Wildcat in speed, range and most famously of all, maneuverability. Fortunately, key pilots with in the US Navy realized quickly that they had to play to their strengths of an aircraft heavily armed and armored and a willingness to take them on despite the cost.
The 54th book in the Osprey "Duel" series, F4F Wildcat vs A6M Zero-sen chronicles the struggle of the premiere fighters of the US and Japanese navies during the first critical year of the war. Written by Edward M. Young, the book deals with different aspects of the planes and the nations that built them that made them deadly weapons of the day. As the Zero served as the main fighter for the Japanese Navy throughout the war while the Americans transitioned from the F4F Wildcat to the F6F Hellcat, this book can be considered a two book series on the main carrier fighters of the Pacific War. The Wildcat dealt with the early stages while the Hellcat dealt with the later stages of the war.
As with all other books in the Osprey "Duel" series, F4F Wildcat vs A6M Zero-sen begins with an introduction of both planes. Next is the design and development of the two weapons followed by the technical specifications. The book then moves to the discussion of pilot training, and the combat tactics of both sides. It then goes to the final arbiter of weapons testing, the actual combat that the machines and their crews waged in the specified period. In this case, the battles covered are the key carrier battles of 1942 and the air battles over Guadalcanal. A comparison is made of the performance of both machine and man before the book concludes with the aftermath of the action that they waged.
In developing the Zero, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Japanese aviation can be said to have pushed the boundaries of Japanese fighter design. Jiro Horikoshi had already pulled off an amazing feat with the Zero's predecessor, the A5m Claude and with the Zero he would do so again. In designing and building the A6M zero to the specifications desired by the Navy, Horikoshi and Mitsubishi would make compromises that delivered the requirements the Navy specified. In doing so, they created one of the legendary weapons of World War II although with risks that although they attempted to rectify, would not be fully known until Guadalcanal.
As for the Wildcat, it came about due to the transition on its end from bi-plane fighters to mono-plane fighters. Surprisingly, the first prototype models performed poorly in comparison to both bi-planes as well as their competitors the F2A Buffalo. However both Grumman and the US Navy saw potential and after making improvements, the Wildcat became the standard fighter of the US Navy. The F4F Wildcat would see service with the British Royal Navy first before it saw service with the US Navy. Although the Zero was clearly superior to the Wildcat in multiple areas, the Wildcat inherited design capabilities learned from observation of the combat in Europe, mainly armor plate and self-sealing fuel tanks. As with the Zero, the Wildcat underwent improvements although they were more modest and in some ways had negated performance of the plane although not to the extent as that had occurred with the Zero. Overall when they engaged the A6M Zero, the US Navy and the Marines had to make do with the best they got.
In describing the battles, it shows that despite their foes rudely taking them by surprise, the US Navy managed to adapt quickly to the Japanese threat. As for the Japanese naval air force, while they fought exceptionally hard and had superior aircraft, they operated with a faulty doctrine and questionable command decisions that eventually lost them the air battle on Guadalcanal.
The description of the combat although more towards the American side is still a bit more balanced compared to its sequel. The key sections of the book are the technical aspects and development histories of both fighters along with the training of the soldiers who would use these weapons and the tactics they employed. With the space limitations of the "Duel" series, this particular "Duel" book does its job admirably, considering the importance of the fighting in the indicated time period. In this particular book, the technical aspects of the planes and the training of their pilots also display the mindset that the warning nations approached the Pacific War. The use of diagrams, drawings, and photos does help in providing a visual representation of the combat and of the capabilities of both weapons. Overall as with all Osprey "Duel" series books, it mainly serves as a good introduction to both weapons and a starting point for those willing to research more about them.
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General Douglas MacArthur at Leyte, 17 Oct 1944