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06-27-06, 03:01 PM
July 03, 2006

The Lore of the Corps: WWII-era Marine pilots successful with Hellcat

By Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times

What may have been the Navy’s most famous fighter of World War II was equally important to the Corps.

The F6F Hellcat was remarkable because it went from drawing board to combat in a remarkably short time. The aircraft began with a 1938 proposal by Grumman Aircraft Engineering Co.; the new fighter was designed around the 1,600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2600 engine.

A popular myth holds that the F4U Corsair, which was almost as famous as the Hellcat and first flew on May 29, 1940, was “back-up” insurance against the Hellcat. The opposite was true. The Navy pushed Grumman in case the Corsair, built by Vought-Sikorsky, ran into delays. The Corsair did suffer developmental problems, and the F6F went into combat earlier than the F4U.

The Hellcat was the heavyweight, designed with enormous strength to survive against Japanese fighters armed with cannons. On June 30, 1941, the Navy awarded Grumman a contract for two prototypes. The first, an all-silver XF6F-1, made its maiden flight on June 26, 1942. The initial production version of the Hellcat, the F6F-3, first took to the air on Oct. 4, 1942, and was soon in action with the Navy.

In an era when American industry performed miracles churning out tools of war — nearly 100,000 aircraft were built in 1944 alone — there were problems. Grumman had inadequate space at its Bethpage, N.Y., factory. The company solved this by buying thousands of steel girders from New York City’s dismantled Second Avenue elevated railway to build a second Bethpage plant.

The F6F-5 — the major production Hellcat model — first flew on April 5, 1944. All F6F-5s were powered by R2800-10W engines with water injection and were equipped with bomb racks.

Specialized Hellcat models were used as night fighters and for photo reconnaissance. The best-known Marine versions were the F6F-3N and F6F-5N night fighters.

Marines used the Hellcat primarily as a night fighter, beginning in August 1944 when Marine Night Fighter Squadron 534, or VMF(N)-534, arrived on Guam with F6F-3N models intended for nocturnal operations. According to the book “Grumman Aircraft” by Rene J. Francillon, the squadron’s achievements included shooting down an enemy reconnaissance aircraft “which allegedly carried a high-ranking Japanese officer.”

A second squadron, VMF(N)-541, began combat in September 1944 at Peleliu in the Palau Islands. Supplied with more advanced F6F-5N Hellcat models, the squadron was credited with destroying 22 Japanese aircraft at Peleliu and during other operations in the Philippines.

During fighting on Okinawa, according to Francillon’s book, three more F6F-5N squadrons shot down 35, 18 and 15 enemy aircraft, respectively, all at night. Near the end of the war, at least five Marine squadrons operated the Hellcat as a day fighter from the decks of Navy escort carriers.

Grumman built 12,275 Hellcats between June 1942 and November 1945, the largest number of fighters ever produced at a single factory.

Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, lives in Oakton, Va. He can be reached at robert.f.dorr@cox.net.