Leroy Grumman's F4F Wildcat was not the fastest or most advanced fighter aircraft of World War II, but during the dark months after Pearl Harbor, Wildcat pilots stood firm, held the line, and stopped the Imperial Japanese military air forces when they seemed invincible. After war erupted in the Pacific, the Grumman F4F Wildcat was the primary fighter aircraft operated by the United States Navy and the Marine Corps. By 1942 every American Navy fighter squadron flew the F4F. Wildcat pilots encountered Japanese pilots flying the Mitsubishi A6M Zero (see NASM collection) more than any other enemy aircraft. The Zero could outmaneuver the F4F, but the Wildcat's heavy armament and solid construction gave it an advantage when flown by skilled pilots.
Leroy Grumman's F4F Wildcat was not the fastest or most advanced fighter aircraft of World War II. But during the dark months after Pearl Harbor, Wildcat pilots stood firm, held the line, and stopped the Imperial Japanese military air forces when they seemed invincible. After war erupted in the Pacific, the Grumman F4F Wildcat was the primary fighter aircraft operated by the United States Navy and the Marine Corps. By 1942 every American Navy fighter squadron flew the F4F. Wildcat pilots encountered Japanese pilots flying the Mitsubishi A6M Zero (see NASM collection) more than any other enemy aircraft. The Zero could outmaneuver the F4F, but the Wildcat's heavy armament and solid construction gave it an advantage when flown by skilled pilots.
By the mid-1930s, the fast, low-drag monoplane was rapidly replacing the biplane in every major air arm in the world. A team lead by Grumman Chief Designer William T. Schwendler created the first Grumman monoplane fighter, the XF4F-2. Extended development trials delayed production and led the Navy to award a production contract for the first United States carrier-based naval monoplane to the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. Brewster built several hundred F2A Buffalos but Grumman engineers reworked the XF4F and came up with a greatly improved model that outperformed the Buffalo. The Navy accepted the Grumman design and awarded contracts to the company to produce thousands of F4F fighters.
Wildcats went to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and to the French, who desperately needed military aircraft. When France capitulated, the British Purchasing Commission assumed that country's production contracts. The F4F was named the Martlet and it served with the Fleet Air Arm. It became the first U.S. aircraft flown by a British pilot to shoot down a German aircraft in World War II, a Junkers Ju 88 twin-engine bomber that fell over the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow, Scotland, on Christmas Day, 1940.
In the Pacific during December 1941, American Wildcat pilots finally met the enemy as they tried to defend Wake Island. On December 8, the first day of the battle, Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-211 lost eight of its twelve F4F-3 Wildcats. The remaining four fighters flew day and night, fighting heroically for two weeks, breaking up many air attacks and sinking a cruiser and a submarine with 100-pound bombs before the last two Wildcats were destroyed on December 22. That day, the Japanese landed on Wake.
Despite similar losses throughout the Pacific, pilots flying this tough fighter destroyed an average of seven enemy aircraft for every Wildcat lost. By 1943, Grumman was ready to introduce a new naval fighter, the F6F Hellcat, but the Navy still needed the F4F. The Wildcat's small size and modest weight made it suitable to operate aboard convoy escort carriers.
To make room for Hellcat production at the Grumman plant, the company transferred Wildcat manufacturing tools and equipment to the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors. GM built two versions of the F4F that the Navy designated the FM-1 and FM-2.
The Wildcat in the National Air and Space Museum, Navy Bureau of Aeronautics serial number 15392, is the four-hundredth FM-1 built at the Linden, New Jersey, Eastern Aircraft Division plant. The Navy accepted it on July 21, 1943, and it operated almost entirely from Naval Air Station Norman, Oklahoma. After thirteen months of service, the Navy struck the fighter from the active roster and placed it in storage. It was transferred to NASM in 1960.
In 1974 the Grumman Aerospace Corporation agreed to restore the Wildcat for exhibit in the new National Air and Space Museum building set to open in 1976. Former and active members of the company worked on the fighter -- many of them had built Wildcats for Grumman during the war. Early in 1975 the Wildcat emerged, looking like new and in nearly flyable condition. It wore new paint that duplicated the U. S. Navy blue-gray camouflage used early in the war. The markings were patterned after an FM-1, aircraft number E-10, that operated from the escort carrier U.S S. "Breton" in the Pacific in mid-1943.
At some time during storage, a major component went missing from this FM-1, the nose cowl ring that covered the front of the engine. This discovery led NASM officials to search for a spare. In 1965 the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, Virginia, lent NASM the nose cowl ring from the Wake Island Memorial. When the Grumman craftsmen received it, the ring cowl was still riddled with bullet holes incurred during the Japanese assault. This historic component perpetuates the memory of those Marines who fought and died on the island. The Wake Island Memorial reads, "dedicated to the gallant Marine, Naval, Army, and Civilian personnel who defended Wake against overwhelming Japanese invasion armadas, 8 thru 23 December 1941." That cowling was removed and returned to the National Museum of the Marine Corps.