Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Piotr Forkasiewicz
Cat. No. 84193
While the Battle of Britain was at its height in Europe in the autumn of 1940, on the other side of the Atlantic the US was in the calm before the storm. But the Americans were rapidly preparing for a possible war in Europe as well as in Asia and the Pacific. The U.S. Navy was no exception, and since the late 1930s it had been undergoing a significant increase in air personnel. In 1940, the year in which the Japanese combat deployed a ground-based version of the A6M Zero fighter to Chinese territory, a new American carrier-based fighter the Grumman F4F (G-36), which a year later was given the combat name Wildcat, also entered the fray. In October 1940, the Royal Navy took delivery of the Martlet Mk I aircraft, which were actually export G-36As with the Wright R-1820 engine, originally intended for the Belgian air force and the French Aéronavalle. As with the Zeros, the British Martlets were initially deployed from land bases. On Christmas Day 1940, two pilots from No. 804 Sqn FAA with Martlets managed to force a Junkers Ju 88 to an emergency landing on the West Mainland of The Orkneys.
The first American unit to take over the new machines was the VF-4 operating from the USS Ranger. It began flying them in October 1940. In December, VF-72 (formerly VF-7) aboard USS Wasp also began familiarizing itself with the Wildcats. Its sister fighter unit, VF-71, switched from F3F biplanes to F4F-3 machines about two months later.
Lt. Cdr. Courtney Shands served as Flight Officer for VF-72. He had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1930 and was therefore one of the pilots who had completed up to 3,000 flight hours in training and had passed examinations not only on fighter, but also on bomber and torpedo aircraft (the US Navy did not introduce specialization in one category of aircraft for pilots until late 1941). Courtney Shands had also served as a flight instructor in the 1930s and his appointment as Flight Officer on the VF-72 was therefore more than logical. In addition to the preparation of VF-72 sorties, he was also responsible for the operational training of new pilots. At the same time, he commanded one of the three Divisions, which at that time had six aircraft divided into two flights. Divisions with four aircraft with two pairs that could work together more effectively were introduced by the US Navy during 1941 based on lessons learned from combat in Europe.
The life of a US Navy aviation unit has always included formal and informal social events involving family members. Lt. Cdr. Courtney Shands was no exception in this regard. In September 1940, his twenty-year-old sister Carey Jacqueline married his VF-72 colleague Lt(jg) Webster Cochran Johnson, five years his senior. However, the marriage ended in tragedy after a few months. Shands' newlywed brother-in-law sadly became the first US Navy aviator to die on a Wildcat during operational duty. It occurred shortly before Christmas when the USS Wasp was docked in Norfolk. Johnson took off from the deck of the USS Wasp on 19 December (or 16 December), but after take-off due to an engine failure, he fatally crashed near the railroad tracks behind the NAS. He was flying the prototype XF4F-3 BuNo 0383, which had already been repaired once after a serious crash.
In early 1941, VF-72s began intensive retraining on Wildcats, first off the coast of Virginia and, beginning in late January, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The formation of aircraft from this period was captured on boxart by Piotr Forkasiewicz. During the transition to the new aircraft type, sixteen crashes occurred in VF-72s in January and February, but none claimed the life of a pilot. Lt. Cdr. Courtney Shands became commander of VF-72 in July 1941 and assumed command of VF-71 in March 1942. Part of his new unit was based at Scapa Flow in The Orkneys, and the other part aboard the USS Wasp supported the Allies in the Mediterranean. It then moved to the Pacific aboard the carrier, where Shands and his men distinguished themselves in the Guadalcanal landings. See INFO 04/2023.
His pilots, like all U.S. Navy fighter pilots, entered combat in the Pacific well prepared. They countered their Japanese adversaries, who had combat experience in China, with excellent US Navy training in air combat tactics and gunnery systematically rehearsed with deflection shooting. The time gained during the period of neutrality paid off for the Wildcat pilots.