Jimmy Thach

Text by Divan Muller
Air superiority depends heavily on the application of superior training and tactics. Jimmy Thach was a true pioneer of the development and application of effective aerial combat tactics.
John Smith Thach, known to his peers as 'Jimmy', was born on 19 April 1905 in Arkansas, in the USA. After completing school, he joined the U.S. Naval Academy. Following his graduation in 1927, he served on the USS Mississippi and USS California battleships for two years, before he began flight training as a naval aviator. Thach immediately excelled at flying and gained quite a reputation as an excellent pilot during those interwar years. In 1931, Thach and other pilots of his unit flew Curtis dive bombers for the movie 'Hell Divers', which starred well-known actor Clark Gable. The movie was filmed onboard the USS Saratoga. Thach was a remarkable flight instructor, particularly in the field of aerial gunnery training. As a test pilot, he set a number of records. For example, in 1935, Thach flew a Hall XP2H flying boat non-stop from Virginia to Panama, a distance of 3 200 km, in 25 hours and 15 minutes. By the late 1930s, shortly before World War II, Thach had become known as one of the U.S. Navy's best instructors of aerial gunnery and for his development of combat tactics. During that time, Thach began mentoring Butch O'Hare, who later became one of the navy's best known aces.

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Thach was commanding officer of VF-3. The squadron, which operated from aircraft carriers in the Pacific, was in the process of replacing its obsolescent Brewster Buffalos with Grumman Wildcats. Although the Wildcats were more modern, they were considerably less capable fighters than the Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros. To help level the playing field somewhat, Thach developed a combat tactic which he named the 'Beam Defence Position', although the tactic was better known as the 'Thach Weave.’ It involved two aircraft, or two pairs of aircraft, crossing each other's paths in a weaving pattern. When under attack, one aircraft would serve as bait, whilst the other would be the 'hook', or attacking element. Thach and O'Hare tested the concept in mock dogfights and soon used it in combat. From the time it was first used in combat, in May 1942, the 'Thach Weave' was so successful that it saw widespread use throughout the Second World War and even in subsequent wars and conflicts.

Due to his value as a military tactician, Thach was not allowed to spend much time in combat. After only about six months in the Pacific Theatre, Thach was withdrawn from the frontlines. However, in that short space of time, he was able to shoot down six enemy aircraft, earning the title of 'ace.’ Three of those aircraft were shot down during a single mission, when Thach led a formation of six Wildcats to successfully apply his famous weave tactic against a superior numbers of Japanese fighters.

After proving his worth in combat, Thach was transferred to Florida, where he taught combat tactics and helped make training videos. He later returned to the Pacific as air operations’ officer of a fast carrier task force, serving under Vice Admiral John McCain, Sr., grandfather of Senator John McCain III, who ran for president of the United States against Barak Obama in 2008. As air operations’ officer, Thach observed the growing problem of kamikaze attacks against navy aircraft carriers and troop ships. Therefore, he developed the 'Big Blue Blanket' tactic. It involved moving picket warships, usually destroyers, farther away from the main carrier group. Moving these ships into a more vulnerable position provided an earlier warning of approaching enemy aircraft. In addition, the tactic called for an increase in combat air patrols and fighter sweeps over enemy airfields. The 'Big Blue Blanket' was employed with great success and no doubt saved hundreds of lives. In September 1945, Thach was present onboard the USS Missouri battleship to witness the Japanese surrender, which officially signalled the end of World War II.
However, that was not the end of combat for Thach, who was promoted to captain shortly after the war. Thach commanded the USS Sicily escort carrier during the Korean War, which began in 1950. Marine Corps aircraft flew from the USS Sicily and conducted ground attacks and close air support missions. He later commanded the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Midway-class aircraft carrier. By the 1950s, Thach had been promoted to admiral and was regarded as one of the foremost anti-submarine warfare experts in the navy. In fact, for his contributions to anti-submarine warfare, Thach's face appeared on a 1958 cover of Time magazine. He was then transferred to the Pentagon in Washington DC, where he served as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air. In that position, he played a major role in ensuring the introduction of the Vought A-7 Corsair II into the US Navy, despite the resistance of then Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. By the time Thach retired, he was commander in chief of US naval forces in Europe. Thach died on 15 April 1981, at the age of 75. In December the next year, the USS Thach frigate was named in his honour.