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F6F Hellcat: Remembered Firsthand

The F6F Hellcat "whumped" Imperial Japanese naval aviation

“It was robust. It was powerful. And you had to learn it for yourself.”

Former Lt. (j.g.) Will Carroll was remembering the Grumman F6F Hellcat, the big brawler that arrived a little late for the Pacific war and left a path of destruction in its wake.

The all-silver XF6F-1 prototype made its first flight on June 26, 1942, piloted by Seldon A. Converse. The initial production version, the F6F-3, first flew on Oct. 4, 1942. Hal Andrews, an engineer with the Navy‘s Bureau of Aeronautics, said, “It may have been the only fighter that was completely right from the start. They almost didn’t need any prototype or testing. They rolled out the first one and it was near perfect.”

The Hellcat first saw combat Aug. 31, 1943, when Navy warplanes from several carriers went into action near Marcus Island, and Lt. Richard Loesch scored the first air-to-air victory to be credited to an F6F.

F6F Hellcats

Two Hellcats in flight: The Hellcat was able to maneuver in air-to-air combat with its under-fuselage fuel tank attached. Robert F. Dorr collection

Carroll, one of the aviators who provided first-hand recollections for this account, learned his new aircraft a few months earlier. “There was no instructor,” he said of his first flight in an F6F-3 (bureau number 04940) on April 15, 1943.

“At runway’s end, you were cleared for takeoff. You pushed the throttle forward and the airplane threw your head against the headrest. That’s the kind of plane it was.”

On Oct. 5, 1943, Ensign Robert W. Duncan scored a “first” when he became the first Hellcat pilot to shoot down two Japanese Zero fighters in a single engagement, a feat that would be often repeated.

Carroll recalled that the Hellcat was “always a little troublesome to get going, with its shotgun starter” in contrast to the hand crank on the F4F Wildcat. He noted that the Hellcat “was much bigger than it looked, with its 14-foot [4.26-meter] propeller.”

 

Super Fighter

The superiority afforded by the Hellcat was beyond dispute. On Oct. 5, 1943, Ensign Robert W. Duncan scored a “first” when he became the first Hellcat pilot to shoot down two Japanese Zero fighters in a single engagement, a feat that would be often repeated. In an air battle of enormous proportions near Kwajalein on Dec. 4, 1943, some 91 Hellcats tangled with 50 Zeros and shot down 28 with a loss of just two F6Fs.

F6F-3N

A Grumman F6F-5N Hellcat fresh off the production line is ferried from Grumman’s Long Island factory by a pilot of Navy ferrying squadron VRF-1 in 1944. Will Carroll photo

The Hellcat showed its stuff as a night fighter in February 1944 when F6F-3Ns from began to fly combat missions from the decks of Essex-class carriers. It became the practice for four Hellcat night fighters to operate with each fighter squadron aboard a carrier. Several additional night fighter squadrons participated in Pacific fighting and at least five Hellcat pilots became aces during the nocturnal hours.

F6F-3N night fighters belonging to a Marine Corps squadron began combat operations from Guam in August 1944. The following month, another Marine F6F-3N squadron arrived on Peleliu. Initially, the Marines achieved few results in their effort to take the night back from the Japanese – though it is difficult to measure the deterrent effect that night fighter operations clearly had – but in later months the story changed.

In continuing day fighting, on Feb. 17-18, 1944, during carrier strikes on Truk, Hellcats from ten squadrons destroyed 127 Japanese aircraft in the air and 86 on the ground. “Metal was flying around,” remembered Marine Capt. M. P. Curphey, “but the Hellcat handled well at low altitude and you could line up and shoot at ’em without having to make a lot of complicated adjustments.” On March 29 and 30, 1944, Hellcats from no fewer than eleven aircraft carriers shot down 150 Japanese aircraft in and around Palau.

“Metal was flying around,” remembered Marine Capt. M. P. Curphey, “but the Hellcat handled well at low altitude and you could line up and shoot at ’em without having to make a lot of complicated adjustments.”

 

“Magic” McCampbell

Medal of Honor recipient Capt. David McCampbell, described by a wingman as having “hands of magic,” used typical, colorless fighter-pilot talk to describe the Hellcat. “It’s a satisfying performer, and a stable gun platform,” McCampbell said.  McCampbell was pleased when the arrival of the F6F-5 variant provided a limited air-to-ground capability, including rails for the launching of 5-in HVAR (high velocity aircraft rockets).

Other leading U.S. Navy aces were Lt. Cmdr. Cecil Harris with 24 kills, Lt. Cmdr. Gene Valencia with 23, and Lt. Cmdrs. Alex Vraciu and Pat Fleming with 19 each. Vraciu flew both the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair, and was reluctant to praise one at the expense of the other. It was hardly necessary. Because the Corsair was long-delayed reaching the war, the Hellcat had no difficulty establishing its reputation.

“We whumped them,” said retired Lt. Cmdr. Hamilton McWhorter, one of the Navy’s celebrated Hellcat aces. (All quotes in this article are from interviews conducted a decade ago). “Compared to the earlier Wildcat it was more stable and was a beautiful gun platform. My practice gunnery scores went up when we got the Hellcats. It was very maneuverable. It probably had the biggest wing area of any American fighter. It would darn near land itself on the carrier without any help from the pilot.”

Hamilton McWhorter

Lt. Cmdr. Hamilton McWhorter was the first pilot to achieve double ace status (10 aerial victories) in the F6F Hellcat. McWhorter said the Hellcat “whumped” the Japanese. Jay Stout photo

Known as “One Shot” for his frugal use of ammunition, McWhorter said he used just 86 rounds of .50-caliber to shoot down a Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” twin-engined bomber near Tarawa on Nov. 19, 1944. McWhorter became the first Hellcat double ace, eventually credited with 12 aerial victories.

Every Navy ace in the Pacific flew the Hellcat. McCampbell became the Navy’s all-time ace of aces, with 34 kills. As skipper of carrier air group 15 aboard USS Essex (CV 9), McCampbell shot down nine aircraft in a single mission on Oct. 24, 1944.

Grumman manufactured 12,275 Hellcats between June 1942 and November 1945, the largest number of fighters ever produced at a single factory. The Hellcat was designed, built, tested, put into service, put into combat, and brought home faster than any of the other major types of American combat aircraft.

 

Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat

Type: Single-seat fighter

Powerplant: One 2,000-hp (1492-kW) Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10W Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial piston engine driving a three-bladed, constant-speed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propeller with a diameter 14 feet (4.26 m)

Performance: Maximum speed 386 mph (621 km/h) at medium altitude; initial rate of climb 3,410 ft (1039 m) per minute; service ceiling 37,300 ft (11369 m); range 1,040 miles (1674 km)

Weights: Empty 9,153 to 9,239 lb (4152 to 4191 kg); normal takeoff 12,500 lb (5670 kg); maximum takeoff 15,413 (6991 kg)

Dimensions: Span 41 ft 10 in (13.08 m); span with wings folded 16 ft 2 in (4.93 m); length 33 ft 7 in (10.23 m); height 13 ft 1 in (3.99 m); wing area 334 sq ft (31.03 sq m)

Armament: Six .50-caliber (12.7-mm) Browning M3 machine guns with 400 rounds per gun, plus provision for two or three bombs up to maximum total of 2,000 lb (907 kg) and six 5-inch (127-mm) high velocity aircraft rockets

First Flight: June 26, 1942 (XF6F-1); July 30, 1942 (XF6F-3); Oct. 4, 1942 (F6F-3)

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...