The Wildcat was outclassed and initially outnumbered by the Mitsubishi Zero. Its only advantage was that it was more survivable than the lightweight Zero, but the Japanese fighter was faster and more manoeuvrable. Worse, in an environment when experience was crucial, the Japanese started the war with a trained core of skilled pilots with experience from the war in China. Early in the Pacific war the Wildcat suffered heavy losses on the ground and in the air. However, not every Japanese aircraft was a Zero, and during the war the Wildcat shot down nearly seven Japanese aircraft for every one lost in air to air combat.
The only US Navy or Marine Corps fighters present at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 were 11 F4F Wildcats based at Ewa Marine Corp Air Station. On 7 December the Wildcats were surprised on the ground, and damaged by Japanese bombs.
The Wildcat’s first real combat experience in the Pacific came on 8 December, during the first Japanese attack on Wake Island. Twelve Wildcats were based on the island. On 8 December four of them were in the air, on combat air patrol (CAP) duty, but in poor weather they failed to intercept a Japanese bombing raid. Thirty-six Mitsubishi G3M bombers attacked the airfield on Wake, destroying seven of the remaining eight Wildcats.
Three days later, on 11 December, the Japanese made their first attempt to invade Wake. Four of the remaining Wildcats attacked the invasion fleet, helping to sink a destroyer and forcing the fleet to retire. By the time the Japanese returned, on 22 December, only two Wildcats were still flying. Honours were even – the two Wildcats shot down two Japanese aircraft from a thirty-nine strong raid, but were both lost themselves. The island was captured the next day.
The fighter aircraft present on the American carriers that launched the Doolittle raid against Japan were F4F-4 Wildcats. However, they were not called upon to defend the raiding force.
The battle of Midway was one of the crucial turning points of the war in the Pacific. The F4F Wildcat was the only American carrier based fighter involved in the battle (a small number of Brewster F2A Buffaloes were based on Midway Island itself). The three U.S. Carriers engaged at Midway each carried twenty seven F4F-4s. During the battle 23 were lost in action (including several forced to ditch after running out of fuel) and one in a accident, losses of 28%. The Japanese losses at Midway were staggeringly high, but this was because their four fleet carriers were sunk, with the inevitable loss of their aircraft. During the American attacks on the Japanese carriers, the small number of Wildcats that accompanied the bombers suffered heavy losses. When the Japanese launched their attack on the U.S.S. Yorktown, the Wildcats were unable to prevent the torpedo bombers from launching the attacks that crippled the American carrier.
The F4F-4 Wildcat played a crucial role during the battle for Guadalcanal. The Marines landed on the island on 7 August 1942. The next day they captured the air field the Japanese had been building which they renamed Henderson Field. Only twelve days later the air field was ready to use. On 20 August 19 Wildcats of Marine squadron VMF-223 and 12 Douglas Dauntlesses landed on Henderson Field, after launching from the U.S.S. Long Island, some way south of Guadalcanal. The next day the newly arrived American aircraft proved their value, strafing the Japanese troops launching the first major counterattack against the American position.
The presence of American aircraft on Henderson Field forced the Japanese to reinforce at night. In all eight Wildcat squadrons fought on Guadalcanal (seven Marine and one Navy). Only towards the very end of the battle, in early 1943, did the F4U Corsair arrive on Guadalcanal, and by then the crisis of the battle had passed.
By mid 1943 the Wildcat was being replaced by the F6F Hellcat but the FM-2 version remained in production to the end of the war. Surviving F4Fs become training aircraft, while the FM-2 was often used from smaller escort carriers. In the Atlantic these escort carriers played a crucial role in the battle against the U-boat. The Wildcat’s main role was to take on the long range German Fw 200s and He 177s that acted as the eyes of the U-boat fleet, although they were also used directly in anti-submarine warfare, despite a lack of specialised equipment.