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A Most Historic F4F Wildcat Lost to the Scrap Heap

9 January 2021

[This guest post, as well as small scale model, is by Mickeen Hogan who researches World War II U.S. Navy aviation.]

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Perhaps the most famous Grumman Wildcat of all time is the F4F-3 Bureau Number (BuNo) 4031—with the “-3” model being the last of the non-folding winged Wildcat made. As luck would have it, this particular Wildcat became historically significant as it was flown into many battles and became the highest scoring of the F4F-3 Wildcats. 

F4F-3 Wildcat (BuNo. 4031) was originally assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-211 which subsequently sent its Wildcat fighters, embarked on the USS Enterprise (CV-6), to Wake Island during November 1941. However, due to engine trouble, BuNo 4031 remained aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6) until its return to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—as fate had it, this ferry mission to Wake Island saved Enterprise from the infamous 7 December 1941 attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, BuNo 4031 was assigned to Fighting Squadron 3 (VF-3, the “Felix the Cat” squadron) aboard the USS Saratoga (CV-2), with the side code “F-15” in white (these colors can change). When Saratoga was forced back to port for repairs after getting torpedoed in the Battle of the Coral Sea, VF-3 was transferred to the USS Lexington (CV-2), as Lexington’s normal squadron Fighting Squadron 2 (VF-2) required training with their newly received F4F-3s—which were replacing their unspectacular Brewster F2A Buffalos. They soon became instrumental in the Navy’s defense of the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) with pilots like Edward Henry O’Hare, better known as “Butch”. He was the son of “Easy Eddie” O’Hare, a lawyer who aided in the tax evasion conviction of Al Capone, and was later killed for it. 

20 February 1942 found BuNo 4031 being flown on combat patrol by “Butch” O’Hare with his wingman Marion “Duff” Dufilho in another Wildcat near New Ireland in the PTO.The Navy was using the Lexington, one of their few precious aircraft carriers, to prosecute attacks near New Caledonia in order to blunt Japan’s initiative toward New Guinea—to stymy Japan’s goal of cutting Australia and New Zealand off from the Allies. O’Hare and Dufhilo had been held in reserve aloft after an initial spate of airborne contacts were identified and engaged by other fighters, either shooting the aircraft down or forcing the luckier ones to retire. These bandits were soon followed by nine Mitsubishi G4M bombers (Allied codename “Betty”) which O’Hare and Dufhilo subsequently were tasked with intercepting. The Bettys had come up from the reverse direction of the initial wave (the first contacts were a feint) and were a mere 12 miles from the Lexington when reported by radar.     

Upon initial contact Butch O’Hare’s wingman, Marion “Duff” Dufilio, experienced his four machine guns promptly jamming. O’Hare (flying F4F-3 BuNo. 4031 “White F-15”) not losing a beat, took on the nine IJN bombers by himself. In just five minutes, O’Hare shot down five of the bombers, becoming the Navy’s first World War II flying ace—four Browning 0.50 inch machine guns (450 rounds each) against nine Type 99 20mm cannon—in four gunnery passes. His accuracy with deflection shooting was an outstanding asset since he returned with only one hit from the aerial combat—avoiding much of the fire from the tail mounted cannon of the Bettys, as well. Once IJN records could be examined after Word War II’s end, the tally for Butch O’Hare that day was amended to four Mitsubishi Bettys shot down with three severely crippled. Importantly, and remarkably, these seven aircraft were damaged or shot up prior to bomb their release point—and with only 450 rounds per gun (i.e., less than a single minute of actual firing time).

Completing the mission, while on final approach, O’Hare was shot at by a trigger happy gunner on the Lexington, but it did almost no damage. After landing, Butch O’Hare went over to the edgy gunner and said “Son, if you keep shooting at me when I have my wheels down I will have to report you to the gunnery officer.” For this mission, Butch O’Hare was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor which was presented personally by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

When the Lexington returned to port in late March of 1942, F4F-3 BuNo 4031 was transferred to VF-2, Lexington’s normal fighter squadron, as they were replacing VF-3 as the Lexington’s fighter squadron. F4F BuNo 4031 also received a new side number “White F-1”, and became Paul Ramsey’s, the commanding officer of VF-2, assigned aircraft. However, due to the rush to put to sea for what became the Battle of the Coral Sea, the “Felix The Cat” symbol was kept on. In the Battle of the Coral Sea, this aircraft, now flown by Paul Ramsey, was used to shoot down two Zeros. This aircraft also flew in the combat air patrol the Lexington launched before experiencing debilitating explosions which resulted from an IJN torpedo attack. As a result, BuNo 4031 survived the battle by landing on the USS Yorktown (CV-5).

When the Yorktown returned to port, BuNo 4031 was placed in the reserve pool at Pearl Harbor, and later used at the Great Lakes training center stateside. After being struck off charge in 1944, this aircraft was used at a training school in Florida until it was scrapped in the mid 1950s. It is a shame such an important piece of our nation’s history was scrapped like an empty soda can.

This miniature 1:700 scale Grumman F4F Wildcat shown below uses Starfighter Decals, and is meant to honor F4F BuNo 4031 as well as F4F BuNo 12320 (the Wildcat recovered by A&T Recovery now on display at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport—and named in honor of Butch O’Hare). It portrays the scheme F4F BuNO 4031 used at the Battle of the Coral Sea serving with VF-2. We need to write about aircraft like F4F BuNo 4031 to honor and recall service people like Butch O’Hare and Paul Ramsey who fought and sacrificed so much for our nation’s freedom.

1:700 scale Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat model sitting on a penny—model and photo by Mickeen Hogan

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Pierre Lagacé permalink
    9 February 2021 23:30

    Reblogged this on My Forgotten Hobby III.

  2. 10 February 2021 05:17

    “It is a shame such an important piece of our nation’s history was scrapped like an empty soda can”
    Absolutely. Exactly the same thing happened to the RAF’s aircraft with only a very few surviving the desire to squeeze the last drop of money out of their aging metal frames. So we have very few Lancasters, no Wellingtons, no Hampdens, no Stirlings, very few Halifaxes and so on. No thought whatsoever given to remembering the aircraft!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      10 February 2021 11:52

      No argument from me! It seems ti be a paradox that so few to none of each type were saved considering the loss rate of RAF bomber command in WW II–the highest in the UK and exceeded only be the U-boat arm of the Kreigsmarine.

  3. Pierre Lagacé permalink
    10 February 2021 09:53

    One note about this…

    took on the nine IJN bombers by himself

    In my research on Marion Dufilho I have found that he made mock attacks on the Japanese bombers.

    https://richardharmervfn101.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/marion-william-dufilho/

    This is my tribute to him.

    https://richardharmervfn101.wordpress.com/2017/04/10/marion-william-dufilho-2/

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      10 February 2021 11:49

      Thank you very much 🙂

      • Pierre Lagacé permalink
        10 February 2021 12:12

        I thought important to add this information. Thank you for your post on the Wildcat which is one of my favorite WWII plane.

Trackbacks

  1. A Most Historic F4F Wildcat Lost to the Scrap Heap — Travel for Aircraft | A tribute to Richard "Chick" Harmer and US Navy Night Fighter Squadron VF(N)-101

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