One of the pivotal events in the development of US Navy fighter tactics in World War II took place on Jun. 4, 1942 during the Battle of Midway.
As told by Edward M. Young in his book F4F Wildcat vs A6M Zero-sen Pacific Theater 1942, that morning lieutenant commander (LCDR) John Thach, commanding VF-3 embarked in Yorktown, took off with five other F4F-4s as escort to VT-3´s TBD Devastators on their way to attack the Japanese carrier force. Approaching their targets, the formation ran into the Zero-sen combat air patrol, which immediately dove to attack the US Navy formation, shooting down one Wildcat from Thach´s division of four.
Thrown onto the defensive, Thach led his two remaining Wildcats in a series of evasive maneuvers as the Zero-sens swarmed around them. He decided to try out the Beam Defense tactic he had worked out before the war began and that he and his wingman, ENS Robert “Ram” Dibb, had practiced.
Sending Dibb out to his right, and with LT Brainard Macomber clinging closely onto his wing, Thach waited for his opportunity.
As Thach recalled years later, “I got a shot at one or two of them and burned them. One of them made a pass at my wingman, pulled out to the right and then came back. We were weaving continuously, and I got a head-on shot at him. Just about the time I saw this guy coming, “Ram” said “There´s a Zero on my tail”. He didn´t have to look back because the Zero wasn´t directly astern, but at about 45 degrees, beginning to follow him around. This gave me the head-on approach I desired. I was mad because, here, this poor little wingman who´d never been in combat before – in fact he had had very little gunnery training – and was experiencing his first time aboard a carrier, was about to have a Zero chew him to pieces. I probably should have decided to duck under this Zero, but I lost my temper a little bit and I decided I´m going to keep my fire going into him and he´s going to pull out, which he did. He just missed me by a few feet, and I saw flames coming out of the bottom of his airplane”.
Thach´s maneuver worked as well as he had hoped. Dubbed the “Thach Weave” by LCDR James Flately, who successfully employed the tactic during the Battle of Santa Cruz, Thach´s maneuver became the standard defensive counter employed by all US Navy and US Marine Corps fighter pilots when dealing with the Zero-sen´s superior maneuverability.
F4F Wildcat vs A6M Zero-sen Pacific Theater 1942 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Gareth Hector via Osprey