Mar 5

Admiral Thach: A Tactical Artist

Tuesday, March 5, 2019 12:01 AM

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Lieutenant Commander John Thach in the cockpit of an F4F Wildcat, 10 April 1942 (NHHC)

LTCDR John Thach in the cockpit of an F4F Wildcat, 10 April 1942 (NHHC)

Standing about six feet tall and weighing a measly 135 pounds, it is hard to imagine how young Jack Thach felt as he prepared to begin his plebe training at the United States Naval Academy. It was the summer of 1923, and at his initial physical assessment, Jack’s frailty evoked great skepticism from the examining physician. Told to eat and exercise more, time would tell if Jack could translate his high school football success in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to achievement at the Academy. Two weeks into his first academic term, Midshipman 4/C Thach received failing grades in every subject. After two consecutive shoulder injuries on the football field as a member of the practice squad, the Academy physician banished MIDN Thach from the football team for fear of future injury.[1] Jimmie began his naval career aloof to the priorities and responsibilities of a midshipman, making it easy to question whether he had what it took to be an officer and excel at the Naval Academy.

While the latter may have been true, those who know the history of U.S. Naval fighter maneuvers and tactics know the Thach name well. Despite early setbacks, MIDN Thach kept memories of his mother’s words dear to his heart, never forgetting her counsel that “…you can do anything you want. You just have to want it badly enough.” MIDN Thach wanted to be an officer badly; after a rough beginning at the Academy he began to study with intense fervor, and chose a different demanding sport to play, wrestling.[2] Later known for his demand of excellence in the air and an unassuming, confident demeanor, ADM “Jimmie” Thach exemplifies the individual standard of tactical excellence we should strive for in our modern Navy.[3] Gifted with an incessant, competitive spirit, Admiral Thach’s devotion to service and ability to adapt to any situation enabled him to become one of the U.S. Navy’s most notable Naval Aviators.

Despite academic and physical setbacks, MIDN Thach did in fact receive his commission as an officer in the U.S. Navy. Finishing near the bottom of his class of 579, ENS Thach survived an attrition rate of about half.[4] Although he never expressed interest in aviation, he spent the summer following graduation taking a short, mandated aviation course. Surprisingly, the future ace stated that at the time he “just found it [the aviation course] interesting”, and had no burning desire to be an aviator.[5] Reporting to his first ship, the Mississippi (BB-41), Jack, now known as “Jimmie”, had an eleven month tour of duty ahead of him.[6] Jimmie enjoyed serving aboard the Mississippi, a World War I battleship still in original condition, as one of several assistant radio communication officers. During this assignment, an opportunity presented itself to attend an aviation “elimination” course as a follow up to his previous instruction at the Academy. Not one to turn down opportunity, Jimmie attended the new course and flew an aircraft solo, to his surprise, after less than six hours of dual instruction. Still lacking zeal for aviation, Jimmie merely indicated that he may be interested in future flight training.[7]

Jimmie’s focus remained seaward, and although he desired to continue his service aboard battleships, the notorious “needs of the Navy” took precedence. Jimmie carried out his orders and report to Pensacola in February 1929, with some resignation. Jimmie had ups and downs throughout the flight school program. While Jimmie seemed to lack the self-confidence and desire, aviation quickly grew on him. A significant moment in training occurred when Jimmie received a stern warning that if he earned one more poor flight grade he would be eliminated from the program. In an interview, ADM Thach recalled his feelings after this reprimand: “By that time [in flight school], I felt if I didn’t get through Pensacola I’d go out and shoot myself. I really believed it. I wanted it more than anything I’d ever wanted.”[8] The Admiral then continued to explain that he worried so much he lost ten pounds (that he couldn’t afford) but managed to fly phenomenally in the next two flights. When all was said and done, Jimmie stood first in his flight school class in both flying and ground school academics.[9]

Fighter Squadron 1B (VF-1B) in flight, tied together by lines running from wingtip to wingtip ca. 1930 (NHHC)

Fighter Squadron 1B (VF-1B) in flight, tied together by lines running from wingtip to wingtip ca. 1930 (NHHC)

It is safe to say that Jimmie finally found his element in the cockpit. Due to class standing, Jimmie chose to attach with fighter squadron VF-1B, the famous “High Hat” squadron based in San Diego, California. Upon reporting, Jimmie, as author Steve Ewing said, “began his apprenticeship in the air.”[10] Training in the squadron entailed formation flying, aerial target practice, heightened navigation skills, and robust ground inspections of aircraft. At that time, the squadron flew the Curtiss F8C-4 Helldiver, a scout and dive bomber which had a top speed of 146 miles per hour. In the early thirties, aerial target practice consisted of shooting at a cloth target towed by another airplane. Jimmie excelled at hitting these targets from different angles of attack, which simulated real scenarios. Ground inspections included the calibration of compasses, which Jimmie accomplished with care. Formation flying, for which the squadron was famous at that time, entailed nine plane formation flights with all planes connected by 21 thread manila line. The nine-plane formation completed the prescribed maneuvers from takeoff to landing, to include aerobatics, with the threads attached. [11] These aerial skills served as the foundation for Jimmie’s future margin of excellence in flight, a margin that would prove essential for survival in combat.

Death, an ever-present danger in aviation, provided a constant reminder for the cost of carelessness and mistakes, as well the mental preparation required for combat. Jimmie, now a LT (j.g.), seemed to cope well with this possibility. He lost several classmates to mishaps in Pensacola. In addition, during squadron training he lost his first flight instructor, “Bubbles”, to an over-zealous dive which caused him to overstress the airframe during the recovery and rip the wings off the airplane. In his personal memoirs, ADM Thach recalled that while he believed “a certain amount of aggressiveness” remained necessary for fighter pilots, an even more essential element became “being able to capitalize on one’s experience and get better each day and each year.”[12]

Lieutenant Commander Thach, wearing flight helmet, goggles and inflatable life vest, 1942-1943 (NHHC)

LTCDR Thach, wearing flight helmet, goggles and inflatable life vest, 1942-1943 (NHHC)

Confidence, as well as mastery of his airplane and gunnery techniques earned LT (j.g.) Thach an array of desirable assignments in his early career. Following service with VF-1B in San Diego, Thach reported to a test pilot squadron for two years, allowing him to obtain coveted flight time which was otherwise sparse due to the Great Depression and associated financial cutbacks. From 1934 – 1939, Thach served with patrol and scout plane squadrons which flew heavier, multi-engine airplanes. In June 1939, at age thirty-four, now LT Thach returned to fighters – this time to the Fighting Squadron 3, the “Felix the Cat” squadron.[13]

ADM Thach’s most notable tactical achievement was the creation of the famous “Thach Weave” maneuver. During the spring of 1941, Thach received an intelligence report from China which provided specifications of the Japanese fighter, the Zero. The reports indicated the airplane boasted a five thousand feet per minute climb capability, a very high maneuvering speed, and a small turn radius. Concerned, Thach got to work hashing out this predicament tactically. Thach wanted to capitalize on the squadron’s advantages – precision gunnery. Using matches to represent airplanes, Jimmie spent countless hours visualizing different formations and engagement scenarios. Admittedly displeased with the current practice of a three fighter formation, which air forces practiced globally, Thach moved toward the idea of using a two fighter formation. In this arrangement, planes traveling in pairs would have a greater ability to engage or retreat while providing cover for each other. [14]

Grumman F4F-3 "Wildcat" of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3) flown by LTCDR Thach and LT Edward O'Hare (NHHC)

Grumman F4F-3 “Wildcat” of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3) flown by LTCDR Thach and LT Edward O’Hare (NHHC)

While the idea of switching from a three to two fighter formation demonstrated novelty in itself, Jimmie still grappled with the question of dealing with superior performance. He decided, through matchstick gyrations, that in a four-plane combat unit the two planes should be separated by the distance of the tactical diameter of the aircraft (the term at that time for the diameter of the tightest circle the airplane could make quickly). This way, the enemy would have to commit to one of the two targets. If the enemy would “take the bait” and commit to one of the two pairs, one pair would have a head on encounter while the other pair would quickly execute a tactical turn to get in place for cross-fire. This would all be executed without signals – when the pair entering a head on encounter with the enemy would be in almost lethal range, the other pair, far enough away to potentially be unnoticed by the enemy, would quickly execute a tactical turn and open fire.[15]

The “Thach Weave”, as this maneuver later became known, could also be executed by just two airplanes. The planes would scissor back and forth in a pair. If an airplane approached from the stern, a lookout doctrine applied. The plane on the right would always watch over the port side of the tail on the left aircraft, while the aircraft situated to the left would always watch over the starboard side of the tail of the right aircraft. This lookout doctrine allowed the pilots to execute the maneuver without communicating.[16] As Thach himself said,

That is the beauty of it. You needed no communication. You were flying along watching the other two planes of your combat unit. They suddenly made a turn. You knew there was somebody on your tail and you had to turn in a hurry. That’s all there was to it. You didn’t need any radio.[17]

The Thach Weave is not only a defensive maneuver. If two planes with inferior performance are attacking an airplane with superior performance, they can continue the weave while pursuing, increasing shot opportunities for the non-pursuing airplane at each convergence.

To the relief of his wife Madalyn, Jimmie’s “eureka” moment of formulating the “weave” maneuver came late at night in their Coronado home. Jimmie presented the idea to the squadron, and after discussing the nuances of the maneuver, the squadron executed practice flights with excellent results. This gave the squadron an enormous morale boost in the face of a brewing war. As Thach stated, “It also gave us something of a plan… you’ve got to have a plan. Even if it proves to be a lousy plan, at least that is better than having no plan.”[18]

After formulation, ADM Thach’s tactic was put to the test. During the Battle of Midway, Thach’s squadron engaged in the most fighting out of the various naval air squadrons involved. Thach’s leadership and tactical innovation helped his men, despite five planes and two pilots lost, to attain thirty-one Japanese kills.[19] Historic Naval Aviators such as LTCDR James H. Flatley, Jr., called the Thach Weave in 1942, “undoubtedly the greatest contribution to air combat tactics that has been made to date.”[20] Adopted by the Army Air Corps in World War II, the weave was employed in Korea and Vietnam by the U.S. Air Force.

LTCDR John Thach, 5 May 1942, Commanding Officer, Fighter Squadron Three (VF-3) (NHHC)

LTCDR John Thach, 5 May 1942, Commanding Officer, Fighter Squadron Three (VF-3) (NHHC)

Whether it be seamanship, airmanship, or marksmanship, our individual skill must also be honed. ADM Thach’s mental and physical effort towards prowess in his trade required toughness and persistence to develop. Our Chief of Naval Operations, ADM John Richardson, put it well, “If we keep the competition in mind — we want to be doing things better than our competition, outfoxing our competition, constantly thinking of ways to beat them.”[21] We must emulate the mental effort and discipline that lead to Thach’s late night tactical epiphany, and we must continue to emphasize the individual development of tactical artists in every community across our great Navy through the repetition of basic skills.

Whether you are fighting an aircraft, ship, submarine, engaging the enemy on foot, or supporting a vessel or warfighter in some essential role, we must as a Navy focus on the roots of our tactical excellence. A focus on fundamental skills of our respective trades, driven by aggressiveness, forward-thinking, and persistence may enable a tactical artist. In the case of aerial warfare in Midway, it only took one unique idea to greatly affect the outcome. The lessons of ADM Thach demonstrate the personal qualities we must encourage in every community of our Naval forces, as we move forward into the unknown challenges of the remaining twenty-first century.

Bibliography

David B. Larter, “CNO to sailors: We need to get tough”. Navy Times, February 15, 2017, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2017/02/15/cno-to-sailors-we-need-to-get-tough/ (accessed June 29, 2018).

Ewing, Steve. Thach Weave: The Life of Jimmie Thach. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2004.

Lundstrom, John B. The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2005.

Mason, John T. The Pacific War Remembered: An Oral History Collection. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

“Reminiscences of Admiral John Smith Thach, U.S. Navy (Retired)”. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1977. U.S. Naval Academy Special Collections and Archives.

William Carter, “Chinese Advances in Emerging Technologies and their Implications for U.S. National Security,” Statement Before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Technology Policy Program, January 9, 2018. (accessed March, 2018).

Endnotes

[1] “Reminiscences of Admiral John Smith Thach, U.S. Navy (Retired)” (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1977), 10 – 13, U.S. Naval Academy Special Collections and Archives.

[2] Ibid., 4, 14.

[3] Ibid., viii.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] “Reminiscences of Admiral John Smith Thach, U.S. Navy (Retired),” 14, 26.

[6] Jack received the nickname “Jimmie” because he strongly resembled his older brother, James, who had graduated from the Academy the same year he arrived. While Jack disliked the nickname, the confusion surrounding the brothers’ names and their resemblance was sometimes comical. The two brothers resembled each other so much that one time the Admiral recalls helping his brother with the problem of having two dates for one evening. Jack (or Jimmie) took one of the girls out for his brother. The woman, who James Thach (the brother) had met only twice, was unable to tell the difference. Ewing, Thach Weave, 5. “Reminiscences of Admiral John Smith Thach, U.S. Navy (Retired),” 32.

[7] Ibid., 6 – 7.

[8] “Reminiscences of Admiral John Smith Thach, U.S. Navy (Retired),” 36.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ewing, Thach Weave, 10.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Reminiscences of Admiral John Smith Thach, U.S. Navy (Retired),” 46 – 47.

[13] Ibid., 15 – 28.

[14] Admiral Thach joked that “In order to fight in three-plane sections in that formation, I decided that each plane had to have three eyeballs: one to look at the leader, one to look through the gunsights, and one to keep an eye on the other wingman so that you didn’t run into him.” John T Mason, The Pacific War Remembered : An Oral History Collection (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003), 94 – 95.

[15] John B Lundstrom, The First Team : Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 95 – 96.

[16] Ibid., 96.

[17] Ibid., 97.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 418.

[20] Ibid., 477.

[21] David B. Larter, “CNO to sailors: We need to get tough,” Navy Times, February 15, 2017, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2017/02/15/cno-to-sailors-we-need-to-get-tough/ (accessed June 29, 2018).