The 10 Deadliest Planes of World War II

The overview of the deadliest planes that flew during World War II.

10. Junkers Ju 87 Stuka


Plane Type: Dive Bomber
Fought For: Axis (Germany)
Complex Says: This was the plane that struck terror into the heart of Poland, and it came to symbolize the devastation of the Blitzkrieg at the beginning of the war. Its ability to bomb with deadly accuracy, coupled with the sirens dubbed “Jericho trumpets,” made ice water run through the veins. It was obsolete by the Battle of Britain. And it was withdrawn from combat midway through the war in the face of superior fighters like the Spitfire. But it served its purpose early on, and may still be the most recognizable German WWII plane today.

9. Republic P-47D Thunderbolt


Plane Type: Fighter
Fought For: Allies
Complex Says: Flown by the U.S. and several other Allied forces during the war, the P-47D was mostly used either as a bomber escort or for its remarkable ground-fighter capabilities. Each one was heavily armed with eight .50-cal machine guns and 2,500 pounds of rockets or bombs. Unfortunately, range was a problem for the P-47D, which meant that the P-51 Mustang ended up taking over many of its previous bomber escort duties on long-range missions. At least 12,500 P-47Ds were built–far more than any other model of Thunderbolt before or since. [Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.]

8. P-51 Mustang


Plane Type: Fighter, Ground Attack Fighter-Bomber
Fought For: Allies (U.S.)
Complex Says: Although the Tuskegee Airmen flew a few different planes, the P-51 Mustang is the one for which they’re most remembered. Members of the 332nd Fighter Group painted the tails of their P-51 Mustangs red, thus earning the nickname “Red Tails” or “Red-Tail Angels.” They flew with distinction, mostly as bomber escorts in Europe. They were later regarded as some of the best pilots the U.S. Air Force had produced in its history up to that point. Armament included six .50-cal machine guns and either 10 5-inch rockets or 2,000 pounds of bombs per plane.

7. Lockheed P-38 Lightning


Plane Type: Fighter-Bomber
Fought For: Allies
Complex Says: Two engines made this bad boy twice as awesome as previous fighters in the Allied arsenal. Its reputation earned it the Luftwaffe nickname of “The Fork-Tailed Devil.” Equipped with four .50-cal machine guns and a single 20mm cannon, it was a fearsome force to be reckoned with. The P-38 Lightning was very versatile, too. It performed admirably as a long-range escort fighter, dive bomber, level bomber, ground strafer, and photo reconnaisance plane.

6. Messerschmitt Bf 109


Plane Type: Fighter-Bomber
Fought For: Axis (Germany)
Complex Says: Lucky for Great Britain that it had the Spitfire, because this was the only plane at the time that could match (and eventually surpass) the might of the Bf 109 in combat. The Luftwaffe used this plane in combat throughout the war. It was so successful that the plane continued to be used in Spain and Israel in the post-war years. Several variants existed, each with different deadly armament suites.

5. Supermarine Spitfire66.jpg

Plane Type: Fighter
Fought For: Allies (Great Britain)
Complex Says: The Spitfire was how Great Britain won the Battle of Britain against the German Luftwaffe forces. It’s also how the Royal Air Force fought Germany’s V-1 rockets, thwarting and destroying more than 300 of them before they could hit their targets. Considering that the V-1 rockets that weren’t intercepted killed 30,000 British civilians, that’s quite a record. Four different armament suites existed for Spitfires over the course of the war. Spitfires were equipped with either eight 7.7mm machine guns, four 7.7mm machine guns and four 20mm cannons, or two 20mm cannons and two 12.7mm machine guns.

4. Vought F4U Corsair


Plane Type: Fighter
Fought For: Allies
Complex Says: Claiming an 11-to-one kill ratio, the Corsair is widely considered to be the most successful fighter of WWII. The Japanese nicknamed it “Whistling Death,” due to its distinct engine noise. The Corsair’s inverted gull-wing design ably accommodated both the gigantic propeller and the short, stout landing gear that was an integral part of its design. To improve its aerodynamic efficiency, flush riveting and the new technique of spot-welding were used so that the plane’s body was as smooth as possible, with nothing interrupting air flow. The armament suite included six .50-cal Colt-Browning M2 machine guns and either two 1,000-pound bombs or eight 5-inch rockets.

3. Nakajima B5N88.jpg

Plane Type: Torpedo Bomber
Fought For: Axis (Japan)
Complex Says: One of the trifecta of Japanese planes that took part in the deadly attack on Pearl Harbor, the B5N was also a major part in nearly every Japanese victory during the following year. With an armament consisting of a single, rear-firing 7.7mm machine gun and capacity for either 1,764 pounds of bombs or a single 1,764-pound torpedo, it claimed a 90 percent hit rate against enemy targets.

2. Mitsubishi A6M Zero99.jpg

Plane Type: Fighter, Suicide Attack Bomber
Fought For: Axis (Japan)
Complex Says: This is the plane that answered the question of whether the U.S. would get into World War II. On December 7, 1941, Mitsubishi A6M Zeros, Nakajima B5Ns, and Aichi D3As were launched from Japanese aircraft carriers in the attack against the U.S. Naval installation at Pearl Harbor. Armament included two 7.7mm machine guns, two 20mm cannons, and two 132-pound bombs. In addition to being a long-range fighter with maneuverability, speed, and range that outclassed Allied fighters at the beginning of the war, this was the plane that Japanese Kamikaze pilots flew on suicide missions. [Photo by Tom Zwica.]

1. B-29 Superfortress


Plane Type: Long-Range Heavy Bomber
Fought For: Allies
Complex Says: Three separate companies built B-29 Superfortresses during WWII, based on a design submitted to the U.S. Army by Boeing in 1939–before the U.S. entered the war. Boeing built 2,766, while Bell built 668 and Martin built 536. The Soviets copied the design and called their version the Tupolev Tu-4. Roughly 1,000 Superfortresses flew in the Pacific combat theater at a time. These came armed with 12 .50-cal machine guns, one 20mm cannon, and a 20,000-pound bomb load. The most famous B-29 of all was the Enola Gay, which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A second B-29, named Bockscar, dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days later. [Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.]


Japanese Aircraft from World War II Found off Coast of Kuril Islands

Stock image of a A6M-Zero

The  Russian Geographical Society (RGO) and the Russian Defense Ministry found a Japanese World War II aircraft during a joint expedition to the Kuril Islands. The plane was found off the coast of Dvoynaya Bay on Matua Island.

The expedition consisted of six vessels which left Vladivostok on May 7 and arrived at Matua Island on May 14. Besides the Defense Ministry and the RGO, members of the Eastern Military District and the Pacific Fleet participated.

“A fairly well-preserved fuselage with wings makes it possible to suggest that it was a WWII fighter Mitsubishi Zero that was part of a squadron located on the island. Hieroglyphs are clearly seen on the chassis components. The aircraft was manufactured in 1942 and has a serial number 1733,” said Colonel Alexander Gordeyev, head of the press service for the Eastern Military District.

The data found makes it possible to determine the crew and the plane’s route. The preparations for raising the aircraft and examining it are already underway.

The area is being prepared for the vessel’s arrival at the islands and the possibility of constructing mooring berths. Divers are exploring the gulfs, bays, and underwater objects near the islands.

During the final year of the War in the Pacific, the Zero was also adapted for use in kamikaze operations. During WW2 the Zero was the most-produced plane in Japan.

Here we are again after a self-imposed absence. The in tray is literally bulging with books to tell you about but I needed a break and I hope that my time away has given things a bit of a pick me up.

I’ve told you before that I don’t really do fiction that much, but I use it for a reboot every so often and this is one of those occasions.  This time round I have jumped into the deep end far outside my comfort zone with this tale of the climactic days of the US Civil War. Author Jim Stempel takes us back to when Ulysses S Grant’s army was bloodily repulsed by Robert E Lee at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864.  It will be immediately apparent that my knowledge of the conflict is not the greatest. I am aware of some of the basic stuff and would like to know more. This book goes some way to propelling that idea into action.

Mr Stempel has written a solid and absorbing tale and uses real life characters to advance his story. It cannot be an easy thing to put words in the mouths of icons of military history such as Robert E Lee, Philip Sheridan and the colourful George Armstrong Custer, but he does it with panache. I was a little uncomfortable with the device at first. But it is clear that the author is using deep and passionately gathered knowledge of the war to flesh out and animate his characters.

The story builds slowly and it’s fair to say the bloody battle washed over me in many ways. A million years ago I read Lyn MacDonald’s popular account of the Battle of the Somme that happened to start a hundred years ago precisely. I am writing this on 1st July. My point is MacDonald described the unbelievable horror of that day in such a way it barely registered. It was a horrific shock to realise nearly twenty thousand men had died in a single day. This is no place for maudlin reflection on the Somme, but the style was similar to Mr Stempel’s account of the death of thousands in front of the Confederate defences at Cold Harbour.  It really works here.

The author also has to manage the difficulty of language. He treads a careful path between the myriad dialects of mid 19th century America and we hear many traces of countries across the sea. There is a formality in much of the important conversations it would be tempting to hustle along with modern idiom. Mr Stempel rejects this outright and he creates an authenticity I really liked.

The massive cavalry action close to the finale of this saga brings us into the sphere of an ebullient and attractive George Armstrong Custer.  For me he is the embodiment of flawed military adventurist I find so appealing. I haven’t read a word about him since I discovered one of my favourite books of all time; Son of the Morning Star by the late Evan S Connell but Mr Stempel’s Custer has all the right stuff to make him a standout figure in this book. I expect poor old George would love knowing that!

I could have a go at writing a book like this, but it would be rubbish! Real knowledge of events, people and the times is essential to make a proposition like this work. I can’t say it always had me on the edge of my seat but I read it from cover to cover in good time and have to say the details at the end are cleverly placed. I wish I knew more about the war and had a deeper grasp on the leading protagonists, but it is what it is.

As I said, this could serve as a really useful introduction to the US Civil War. It is not a simple story to tell. I am sure many people using WHO remember Ken Burns’ ground breaking documentary series.  Happily, it aired in Britain some years back and I caught a lot of it. If a work of fiction can make something that actually happened seem a little more real, then the author has done well.

Other authors have written their own tales of the war, including Bernard Cornwell, whose adventures of Nathaniel Starbuck are a bit of a hoot.  This book by Jim Stempel has a wholly different feel to it, being a more sober form of faction than straight fiction.  I don’t have any problems recommending this as a poolside read for your summer.

World War II: Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the United States, bombing warships and military targets in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 350 Japanese aircraft attacked the naval base in two waves, strafing targets, dropping armor-piercing bombs, and launching torpedoes toward U.S. battleships and cruisers. The U.S. forces were unprepared, waking to the sounds of explosions and scrambling to defend themselves. The entire preemptive attack lasted only 90 minutes, and in that time, the Japanese sunk four battleships and two destroyers, pummeled 188 aircraft, and damaged even more buildings, ships and airplanes. (Two of the battleships were later raised and returned to service.) Some 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack; another 1,250 were injured, and a huge shock was dealt to United States. After the attack, Japan officially declared war on the United States. The next day President Roosevelt delivered his famous “infamy” speech, and signed a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. Within days, Nazi Germany and the Kingdom of Italy also declared war on the United States, and the U.S. reciprocated soon after.


  • The USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in this December 7, 1941 photo.

    AP Photo, U.S. Navy
  • Japanese pilots get instructions aboard an aircraft carrier before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in this scene from a Japanese newsreel. It was obtained by the U.S. War Department and released to U.S. newsreels.

    AP Photo
  • The Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku, seen in September of 1941. The Zuikaku would soon sail toward Hawaii, one of six aircraft carriers used in the attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

    U.S. Naval Historical Center
  • Aircraft prepare to launch from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Akagi during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

    National Archives
  • This photograph, from a Japanese film later captured by American forces, was taken aboard the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku, just as a Nakajima “Kate” B-5N bomber launched off the deck to attack Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

    AP Photo
  • Aerial view of the initial blows struck against American ships, as seen from a Japanese plane over Pearl Harbor.

    U.S. Navy
  • Captured Japanese photograph taken during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. In the distance, the smoke rises from Hickam Field.

    U.S. Navy
  • Seen from a distance, the Battleship Arizona burns as it sinks in Pearl Harbor after the December 7, 1941 raid by Japanese bombers.

    U.S. Navy
  • A Japanese bomber, its diving flaps down, was photographed by a U.S. Navy photographer as the plane approached its Pearl Harbor objective on December 7.

    AP Photo
  • Japanese aircraft can be seen in the air above Pearl Harbor (top center and upper right) in this captured Japanese photograph taken during the initial moments of the Japanese attack.

    U.S. Navy
  • American ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

    AP Photo
  • A wide-angle view of the sky above Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, filled with smoke and anti-aircraft fire on December 7, 1941.

    National Archives
  • Officers’ wives, investigating explosions and seeing a smoke pall in distance on December 7, 1941, heard neighbor Mary Naiden, then an Army hostess who took this picture, exclaim “There are red circles on those planes overhead. They are Japanese!” Realizing war had come, the two women, stunned, started toward quarters.

    AP Photo/Mary Naiden
  • Aerial photograph, taken by a Japanese pilot, of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese bomber in lower-right foreground.

    Library of Congress
  • Sailors stand among wrecked airplanes at Ford Island Naval Air Station as they watch the explosion of the USS Shaw in the background, during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941.

    AP Photo
  • A U.S. flag flies from the stern of the sunken battleship USS West Virginia after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

    U.S. Navy
  • An A6M-2 Zero fighter aboard the Imperial Japanese Navy carrier Akagi during the Pearl Harbor attack mission.

    U.S. Navy
  • The USS Shaw burns in Pearl Harbor. Japanese bombers hit the forward portion of the ship with three bombs. The resulting fires proved uncontrollable, and Shaw was ordered abandoned. Soon after, her forward ammunition magazines detonated in a spectacular blast, completely removing her bow.

    U.S. Navy
  • The USS California sinks into the mud of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

    U.S. Navy
  • A small boat rescues a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Two men can be seen on the superstructure, upper center. The mast of the USS Tennessee is beyond the burning West Virginia.

    AP Photo
  • The forward magazines of USS Arizona explode after she was hit by a Japanese bomb on December 7, 1941. Frame clipped from a color motion picture taken from on board USS Solace.

    U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives
  • Japanese planes over Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor are shown in this scene from a Japanese newsreel. The film was obtained by the U.S. War Department and later released to U.S. newsreels.

    AP Photo
  • Sailors at Naval Air Station (NAS) Kaneohe attempt to salvage a burning PBY Catalina in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

    U.S. Navy
  • The battleships West Virginia and Tennessee burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941.

    U.S. Navy
  • Oil burns on the waters of Pearl Harbor, near the naval air station, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

    U.S. Navy
  • The USS Maryland, a battleship moored inboard of the USS Oklahoma, which capsized, was damaged slightly in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

    AP Photo
  • A sailor killed by the Japanese air attack at Naval Air Station, Kanoehe Bay. Photographed on December 7, 1941.

    U.S. Navy
  • The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

    AP Photo
  • White House reporters dash for the telephones on December 7, 1941, after they had been told by presidential press secretary Stephen T. Early that Japanese submarines and planes had just bombed the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

    AP Photo
  • Selling papers on December 7, 1941 at Times Square in New York City, announcing that Japan has attacked U.S. bases in the Pacific.

    AP Photo/Robert Kradin
  • Declaring Japan guilty of a dastardly unprovoked attack, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war, on December 8, 1941. Listening are Vice President Henry Wallace, left, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

    AP Photo
  • President Roosevelt signs the declaration of war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, at the White House in Washington, District of Columbia, on December 8, 1941.

    AP Photo
  • Young Japanese Americans, including several Army selectees, gather around a reporter’s car in the Japanese section of San Francisco, on December 8, 1941.

    AP Photo
  • The minelayer USS Oglala lies capsized after being attacked by Japanese aircraft and submarines in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

    U.S. Navy
  • Heavy damage is seen on the destroyers USS Downes and USS Cassin, stationed at Pearl Harbor, after the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian island on December 7, 1941.

    AP Photo/U.S. Navy
  • An interior shot of a destroyed aircraft hangar at Wheeler Field, in Hawaii, on December 11, 1941.

    U.S. Navy
  • In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, eight miles from Pearl Harbor, shrapnel from a Japanese bomb riddled this car and killed three civilians in the attack of December 7, 1941. Two of the victims can be seen in the front seat. The Navy reported there was no nearby military target.

    AP Photo/U.S. Navy
  • Wreckage of the first Japanese plane shot down during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

    U.S. Air Force photo
  • A Japanese midget submarine, part of the attacking force on Pearl Harbor, beached at Bellows Field.

    U.S. Navy

  • This image may contain graphic or objectionable content.

    An American seaman looks at the charred corpse of a Japanese flier brought up from the bottom of Pearl Harbor, where he crashed with his burning plane during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 in Hawaii.

    AP Photo
  • A small crowd inspects the damage, both inside and outside, after a Japanese bomb hit the residence of Paul Goo during the Japanese air raid on December 7, 1941.

    AP Photo
  • Unidentified attaches of the Japanese consulate began burning papers, ledgers and other records shortly after Japan went to war against the U.S., on December 7, 1941, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Police later stopped the fire after most of the papers had been destroyed.

    AP Photo/Horace Cort
  • This unidentified Japanese man turns to face a visitor at the Japanese Consulate in Chicago, on December 9, 1941. Clad only in underwear, he was startled while in the act of taking papers and files from a cabinet. Confidential papers at the consulate had been burned.

    AP Photo
  • Following Hawaiian tradition, sailors honor men killed during the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Naval Air Station Kaneohe, Oahu. The casualties had been buried on December 8. This ceremony took place sometime during the following months.

    U.S. Navy
  • Aerial view showing oil-streaked waters and the dry docks at U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, following the Japanese attack, seen on December 10, 1941


B-25s Fly a Raid on Tokyo


North American B-25 Mitchell ★ The twin-engine, medium bomber that Jimmy Doolittle flew on the first U.S. raid on Tokyo, the B-25 served in every theater of the war. (NARA)

Serving in every theater of World War II, the North American B-25 Mitchell gave an important boost to the spirit of Americans at home in the dark days of early 1942. In April, after a series of stinging setbacks in the Pacific—the surrender of Wake Island, defeat in the battle of the Java Sea, withdrawal from the Philippines—Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led 16 B-25s off the USS Hornet on a bombing raid to Tokyo and four other cities. The raid was American improvisation at its finest—the B-25 wasn’t designed to fly from an aircraft carrier—and so panicked the enemy that the Japanese military became obsessed with the carrier threat. The obsession could have led strategists to the mistake of the Midway attack.

The B-25’s hallmark was versatility. It provided close air support, strafed Japanese tanks, destroyed bridges in Burma, transported troops, and attacked ships. In Europe, the Mitchell operated as a medium bomber, a class that First Lieutenant Robert L. Cunningham explained in the February 1944 issue of Popular Science: “In a heavy bomber, you fly far above the noise of battle, paste your target, and fight your way home. In the mediums, you are part of the battle itself, often roaring in ‘on the deck,’ pulling up sharply, and letting go with everything you have, within direct range of all antiaircraft weapons on the ground.” The Navy and Marine Corps variant—the PBJ-1 patrol bomber—had a search radar. Many flew strikes during the Iwo Jima invasion.

Not as dazzling a performer as the Vought F4U Corsair or as fast as a Northrop P-61 night fighter, it was still a favorite of Marine aviators. In the 2014 book Untold Valor, aviator Bob Jardes said, “Pilots tend to categorize their birds as women, using such terminology as ‘sweet’ [and] ‘sleek.’ I can only characterize [the PBJ] as a ‘mother-in-law’—dumpy, dependable, and loud.”

Other service of history.

Hellcats, Helldivers, and Avengers


North American T-6 Texan ★ The Texan served in the U.S. Army and Navy (as the SNJ) as an advanced trainer that taught pilots how to fly fighters with powerful engines and shoot while they were doing it. In service with Commonwealth countries as the Harvard, the T-6 is a favorite among warbird fans and has its own racing class at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. (Philip Makanna)

The U.S. Army Air Corps was a force of 21,000 airmen with 1,800 aircraft when General Hap Arnold became its chief in 1938. By the end of World War II, Arnold commanded 2.3 million people and oversaw 79,000 airplanes. In his memoir, Arnold recalled that the expansion began with a meeting at the White House on September 28, 1938. “Airplanes—NOW—and lots of them,” Arnold quoted the commander-in-chief, and he immediately began to obey the order, tapping prominent aviation leaders to create what would become the Civilian Pilot Training Program. By the time the program ended in 1944, it had trained 435,165 pilots. Among them were Senator John Glenn and the nation’s top ace, Richard Bong.


Three-quarters of the civilian pilots were trained in William T. Piper’s J-3 Cub. It could be powered by any number of engine types, ranging from 40 to 90 horsepower and propelling the bright yellow Cub to the blistering speed of almost 90 mph. Its generous wing area and a weight of less than 800 pounds gave it the characteristics of a powered glider, and it landed at less than 40 mph.

For military pilots during the 1930s and ’40s, the primary trainer was the Stearman biplane, and the PT-17 was the most numerous of the more than 10,000 built by the Boeing Stearman company. It sported a serious radial engine making more than 200 horsepower to haul its nearly one-ton empty weight around the sky.

Roscoe Brown was one of the many thousands who made a first flight in a Stearman. A member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black pilots trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute for military service, Brown’s World War II experience was not typical, but his progress through military trainers was. Of the Stearman, he recalls, “It was the first time you really got the feeling of flying. You would fly in the back, the instructor would fly in the front. It had fixed landing gear and the gear was narrow, so you had to be careful not to ground-loop when you landed it, which helped to build up your skill, custom writing essays.”

Stearmans, like all good trainers, were stable and forgiving, even of the wildest mistakes. P-51 pilot Hess Bomberger remembered a classmate who was not properly belted in and, during negative Gs, floated out of his seat. He ended up astride the aft fuselage, where he punched two holes through the fabric for handholds. The instructor eventually landed safely, a minor miracle considering how much weight on the aft end the pilot represented.

Brown went from PT-17s to the “clunky” (his word) Vultee BT-13 for basic training, then on to the North American AT-6 for advanced work. Of the trainers, it’s the T-6 Texan he’s fondest of. “We used it for gunnery, and it was definitely a much better plane,” he says. “It was closer to what you were actually using in combat, a good formation plane. Like a racer, with retractable gear.”

Multi-engine pilots branched off to fly the twin-engine Cessna Bobcat or the Beech Kansan, which were also used to train flight crew such as navigators and bombardiers.

Although production initially lagged behind the demand for trainers, manufacturers quickly caught up. Piper built almost 20,000 J-3 Cubs, and North American cranked out more than 15,000 T-6s and their Navy counterparts, SNJs. Trainers may lack the glamour of combat aircraft, but these high numbers coupled with the affection pilots feel for their first airplanes have ensured that thousands of World War II trainers are still flying today.

Hellcats, Helldivers, and Avengers


★ Grumman TBF Avenger ★ The Grumman TBF, or TBM if one of the 7,546 built by General Motors’ Eastern Division, was a three-seat sub stalker and torpedo bomber that scored a big victory in the Battle of Guadalcanal by sinking the 37,000-ton Japanese battleship Hiei. More Avengers were lost than ships destroyed in the Pacific, however, including one TBM that suffered engine failure after catapulting off the light carrier San Jacinto. The pilot, the 20 year-old George H.W. Bush, bailed out. (Philip Makanna)

Never was there a single-day aerial thumping like the June 19, 1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea. In a flotilla 40 miles wide that included 15 aircraft carriers, U.S. Navy Task Force 58 arrived to establish an island base on Saipan for B-29 Superfortresses bound for Japan. The Japanese Mobile Fleet intervened with nine carriers. Addressing his pilots, task force commander Admiral Marc Mitscher was succinct: “Cut their damned throats.” By nightfall on the 19th, Japan had lost at least two-thirds of the 373 carrier aircraft committed. One of two Japanese carriers sunk that day had launched aircraft against Pearl Harbor. American losses were 29 aircraft plus nominal damage to a single battleship. On the to-do list of 20th Air Force B-29s, Tokyo was penciled in.


On June 19, 450 Hellcats launched from the flattops of Task Force 58. F6F pilots owned the sky, hung curtains, and furnished it. The fighter’s battery of six Browning .50-caliber machine guns shredded approximately 250 Japanese aircraft. How lopsided was the fight? Hellcat ace Alex Vraciu launched from the Lexington’s wooden deck and downed six Japanese “Judy” dive-bombers in less than eight minutes. (The Hellcat’s meaner brother, the Bearcat, arrived too late to bring its blistering climb rate—10,000 feet in 94 seconds—to bear in combat.)

Grumman-designed and GM-built, the TBM Avenger, a single-engine, three-seat torpedo bomber, joined the battle. Though the heaviest single-engine airplane of World War II, the sub-stalking Avengers occasionally became dogfighters on June 19. Outnumbered by a roving pack of nimble Zeros, two Avengers deftly gained positional advantage and dispatched four no-doubt-surprised bandits.

The Curtiss Helldiver’s contribution on June 19: cratering the Japanese fleet’s refueling airstrips on Guam. Every Helldiver packed a 2,000-pound bomb or torpedo punch. On June 20, 52 of the dive bombers struck the Mobile Fleet. Ten were lost, but one delivered a direct hit to the flagship Zuikaku, which survived, only to be sunk four months later in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Flying on fumes, Helldivers and Hellcats returned to the task force in darkness. Only five of the fuel-starved Helldivers found a flattop. The remainder ditched, while rescuers scrambled to haul crews out of the dark Pacific.