Aviation History

Did you Know on the Eve of the Battle of Midway Legendary Naval Aviator Jimmy Thach had 27 F4F Wildcat fighters and was his Squadron’s Only Pilot?

Initially the only pilot in his squadron, Thach personally test flew all 27 airplanes he was assigned, noting their discrepancies for his maintenance crew to fix while he waited for pilots to arrive.

On the day before the Battle of Midway, Jimmy Thach was reeling from a series of events since his squadron had been virtually dissolved by transfer of its strength to VF-2 to reinforce that unit for Coral Sea. At the low point of his squadron’s strength, Thach was told to train a new group of inexperienced Ensigns inbound from the states. A veteran Aviator who had flown a wide variety of aircraft types, Thach took it all in stride. After a varied prewar flying career Thach first reported to Fighting Three in 1939 as the unit’s Gunnery Officer. Thach’s mastery of Air-to-Air Gunnery paid dividends both for his career and in combat. He remained with Fighting Three, where he could put his skills to use on behalf of his unit;

“I progressed from gunnery officer, to operations officer, and when the then-commanding officer, Cooper, was detached and Lieutenant Commander Sid Harvey took command of the squadron, I was made executive officer, No. 2 in command.”

After Lt. Cmdr Harvey was detached for observer duty in Britain, Thach was fleeted up to temporary Command of the squadron, though sadly Sid Harvey would die of a heart attack while en route to his assignment. Thus, Thach obtained command of Fighting Three as a Lieutenant, well before his Naval Academy peers. Thach noted in spring 1941 he received Intelligence Report which described the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero Sen, and was likely written by Claire Chennault.

“This was the Zero, and I decided, well, we’d better do something about this and remembering my days on the football field and basketball court, if you have somebody who’s faster than you are, you have to trap him somehow so that he can’t use his superiority, whatever it is. You’ve got to bait him or do something. I believed we had one advantage, if we could ever get into a position to use it. We had good guns and could shoot and hit even if we only had a fleeting second or two to take aim. Therefore, we must do something to entice the opponent into giving us that one all important opportunity-it was the only chance we had.”

Lt. Cmdr John “Jimmy” Thach. A highly experienced Naval Aviator with flight time in fighters, various experimental aircraft, flying boats, and floatplanes, Thach was a prewar gunnery expert whose country upbringing clearly helped his air to air gunnery expertise. His Huckleberry Hound demeanour belied a strong tactical and operational sense which was put to the test on the Eve of Midway when he had to rebuild his entire unit from scratch.

Thach himself described the process;

“I developed it before the war in the summer of 1941-summer and fall-on my kitchen table in Coronado. A lot of people don’t realize this. I’ve read in various places that I studied the combat reports of the Coral Sea Battle and then figured it out just before the Battle of Midway. This is not true at all. We’d been practicing this for a long time. Jimmy Flatley gave it the name Thach Weave. I didn’t.”

Instead, Thach had come up with a formation which negated the advantage of a superior performing aircraft and did so in a way which impacted Navy fighter tactics and organization to this day. Thach noted later regarding his Midway experience but equally relevant here;

“It may surprise people these days but as a lieutenant I made more decisions than some very high-ranking officers have been making in the Vietnam War. I was making decisions in World War II that McNamara made in the Vietnam War, believe me. He was telling us how many planes to send, what formation to fly and at what altitude.”

After his cruise aboard Lexington and O’Hares famous Fight of Feb. 20, 1942 and the Mar. 10 Lae-Salamaua raids, Thach was sidelined in a rather unique way. The following illustrates both the challenges Thach faced in singlehandedly rebuilding his unit, and his indefatigable nature to get the job done. From Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch, Thach was notified in April 1942;

“Your squadron is finally going to be increased to 27 aircraft, but I’m taking all your pilots and giving them to Paul Ramsey and that will build up his squadron. Then you’ll get some more people, some more pilots and 27 airplanes.”

Before Transfers left Thach as the only pilot in his squadron; Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3), Mar. 5, 1942. Standing, l to r: Mason, Clark, Sellstrom, Eder, Johnson, Lackey, Haynes, Stanley, Peterson, Dufilho, Lemmon. Sitting: Morgan, Vorse, Lovelace, Thach, Gayler, O’Hare, Rowell.

Thach’s creative reorganization of his squadron of one soon paid dividends despite his critical pilot shortage. Initially the only pilot in his squadron, Thach personally test flew all 27 airplanes he was assigned, noting their discrepancies for his maintenance crew to fix while he waited for pilots to arrive. Thus was Thach able to verify the utility of his equipment as replacement pilots finally trickled in, with Thach noting;

“Then I began to get a stream of young fellows right out of training, out of Pensacola. About this time, my executive officer-(Don Lovelace) he didn’t go with Paul Ramsey was detached and he was scheduled to go back to San Diego and get a new squadron, get command of a squadron, going from exec of my squadron of command, and that squadron was going to be VF-2.

(NOTE Lovelace decided to remain with Thach as his XO to try to help rebuild Fighting Three despite having orders to return to the States.)

“I had another doctrine that I established, oh some time back, but it still held in the Battle of Midway. If there was a Lieutenant JG that was new, right out of Pensacola and an ensign that had experience in combat, I would tell the lieutenant that he was going to be a wing man and the ensign was going to be the section leader because he’d had more experience, and I asked if he had any objection to that and he said, “no, thank goodness, I’d rather follow somebody for a while.”

Thach describing how he boosted the confidence of his new pilots in their skills;

An embarassment of Riches. Thatch’s Fighting Three was stripped of all its pilots to reinforce Fighting Two on the eve of Coral Sea, leaving Thach as the unit’s only assigned pilot. Thach solved this organizational nightmare in a rather creative manner.

“I said “Look, you have landed aboard a carrier, right?” and they said “Yes, Sir.” I said you have landed this airplane, right?” “Yes, Sir.” “All right. you are hereby qualified to land this airplane aboard an aircraft carrier. All you’ve got to do now when you go out is you just do it and prove it. Then that’ll be that. I don’t want to hear any more about it.” There was nothing more I could do.”

A day or two before embarking in Yorktown about fifteen pilots from VF-42 reported to me to fill out the roster of 27 pilots…. So, we got the 27 airplanes and 27 pilots, and they called me up and gave me an inkling that there was something big coming up in the Central Pacific. They said it looks like the Japanese are going to try and hit us again…. I had enough people so that the flight leaders, for instance the ones leading a combat air patrol or the section leaders going with the strike group, those people had some experience, but maybe nobody following them, nobody else.”

While landing aboard Yorktown, the following tragedy occurred with his XO Don Lovelace;

“He landed and he had taxied across the barrier, the barrier had just lifted behind him, and his wing man landed too hard, bounced clear over the barrier, and landed right on top of Don Lovelace and cut his head off, and that was the end of Don Lovelace. That was a pretty bad blow at any time. It was especially a difficult thing to accept at that moment, because by this time we’d all been briefed on what was coming along, not only a sad thing to lose the life of a good friend, but to lose his ability and leadership and everything else in the air was a doubly bad blow.”

Grumman F4F-4 “Wildcat” Fighter (Bureau # 5171), of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3) At Naval Air Station, Kaneohe, Oahu, on May 29, 1942, with ground crewmen folding the starboard wing. On Jun. 4, 1942, in the Battle of Midway, this plane was flown by Lieutenant Commander John S. Thach, VF-3’s Commanding Officer, during the afternoon combat air patrol defending USS Yorktown (CV-5), wherein Thach probably shot down Lieutenant Joichi Tomonaga, leader of the attacking Japanese torpedo planes.

Knowing the impact such a loss had to his squadron, he gathered them for the following;

“I got them all in the ready room immediately and told them that they had to just wash that out of their minds, that If I could do it, they could do it, because he was one of the best friends I ever had and the loss to me was far greater than they may imagine, and I was going to forget about it right now. We have work to do, we’re going to do it. We’re going in into a big battle and we can’t let something like this affect our performance in any way. So that’s the end of that, and I don’t want to hear any more talk about it. So, they took it that way.”

Thus did Jimmy Thach go to war with a scratch-built unit, on the eve of the Biggest Carrier Battle in the Pacific to Date.

[Note: All Thach quotes taken from the Reminisces of Admiral John “Jimmy” Thach, Volume 1, interviewed by Cmdr. Etta-Belle Kitchen, USN, (Ret.)]

Below you can see the Pensacola Aerospace Museum Turntable Rendering of Jimmy Thach’s White 23 F4F-4 he flew on Jun. 4, 1942 while escorting TBDs of Torpedo Squadron Three.

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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