As dawn broke on December 7th, 1941, the people of Hawaii roused from their slumber to find a sky filled with the war machines of the enemy. Hundreds of Japanese aircraft screamed through the crisp morning air, the sound of their propellers punishing the atmosphere transforming a quiet morning into a chorus of thunder. The United States of America was under attack. For two hours, the Japanese machines rained destruction upon Pearl Harbor, the home of the Navy’s Pacific fleet and the seat of American power in the Pacific. When the attack finally ended, the Japanese had claimed 20 American naval vessels, eight of which were great lumbering battleships, and over 2,000 soldiers and sailors of this country were lost. It was a spectacular victory for the Japanese military, but it was also the beginning of their demise. The sleeping giant had awoken, and it was angry.
The Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the plane that doomed Pearl Harbor, was considered the most capable carrier-based fighter in the world. Its combination of blazing speed, fantastic maneuverability and an extremely long flight range made it the perfect airborne enforcer for the Japanese Navy’s operations. From 1940-1943, the Zero’s rule over the Pacific theater’s skies was absolute; its proficiency in fighter to fighter combat resulting in a monstrous 12 to 1 kill ratio and a legendary reputation for success in dogfights. In the early years of the war, the United States had no answer to the Zero’s domination of the Heavens; the U.S. Navy’s F4F Wildcat and F2A Buffalo primary fighters were too slow and didn’t have the range to compete with it. A new shipboard fighter was desperately needed to challenge the Zero for the skies. In September 1943, that challenger arrived.
The Grumman F6F Hellcat began its life as Prototype XF6F, a carrier fighter specifically designed to kill Zeros. The aircraft was often described (and named to reflect the lineage) as the F4F Wildcat’s big brother, even though its chassis was an entirely new design and replaced the crank-based landing gear of the Wildcat with a hydraulic system. The Hellcat’s model incorporated lessons learned from the Wildcat’s failings in its engagements with the Zero- resulting in the Hellcat being equipped with the more powerful and efficient Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double wasp 18 cylinder radial engine. This engine allowed the F6F to rival the A6M Zero in speed, performance at altitude and flight distance, but with a heavier compliment of weapons. The standard Hellcat weapon system consisted of six browning air cooled machine guns, six High Velocity Aircraft Rockets, and a bomb load of up to 2,000 pounds, making it perfectly suited to ground combat in addition to air engagements. The F6F Hellcat was bred to hunt Zeros, but was armed to end wars.
In September of 1943, the F6F Hellcat debuted in the skies above the Pacific. One month later, Ensign Robert W. Duncan became the first Hellcat pilot to shoot down two Zeros in a single engagement, a feat that would be repeated with increasing frequency. In June of 1944, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Hellcat pilots shot down so many Zeros with so few losses, the aviators nicknamed the aerial battle “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” On the back of the F6F Hellcat, American air superiority was achieved, leaving Japan without a significant aerial victory for the rest of the war. Finally, after three years of terror, the reign of the Zero was over, the skies over the ocean answered to a new king.
What the F6F Hellcat offered over the Pacific mirrored what its cousin, the P-51 Mustang, delivered in the European skies; complete American dominance. In total, F6F Hellcats are credited with destroying a total of 5,223 enemy aircraft while in service, more than any other Allied Naval aircraft. Over the entirety of the war, Hellcats owned an unbelievable 19 to 1 kill to loss ratio, and against the mighty Zero specifically, a healthy 13 to 1 kill ratio. The US Navy’s all time leading ace, Captain David McCampbell, scored all 34 of his kills in the cockpit of an F6F Hellcat.
If the P-51 Mustang is the proverbial “plane that won the war,” then the F6F Hellcat is the plane that ruled the ocean. It was a war machine tasked with a single purpose, a purpose in which it was not only successful, but at which it excelled. In all, countless Japanese aircraft sank beneath the blue waves of the Pacific after engaging the F6F in combat, the swift beating of its three-bladed propeller becoming synonymous with victory. It is the artist of the greatest aerial power shift in history, turning the path of a war with its force and reliability. A testament to the twin hands of desperation and ingenuity, the F6F Hellcat stands alone, earning its place in the pantheon of American Steel..
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