Tamiya's 1/48 F4F-4 Wildcat
Editor's note: This post is part of a series discussing 1/48 Wildcats by Tamiya (1994), HobbyBoss (2007), and Eduard (2022) from unboxing to final weathering. Along the way, I'll present an honest opinion of each kit and share a variety of tips, tricks, and techniques.
Finally, time for paint, and in this post, I'll be tackling Tamiya's 1/48 F4F-4 Wildcat flying with the Bulldogs of VMF-223!
But before we get to the painting, it's important to acknowledge why the Bulldogs are the subject of a model kit to begin with. And for that, we need to go to the remote Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific. We are going to Guadalcanal, code-named "Cactus".
Loyal readers will notice that I've spent a bit more time on this subject's historical context. During my research, it became apparent that the Guadalcanal campaign, as an area of study, is largely overshadowed by other events in the Pacific War. That's unfortunate. The campaign was a prolonged affair over air, land, and sea, and featured combat as intense as any. By writing this longer exposition, I hope to spark the same level of interest that I found in Guadalcanal, with my fellow modelers.
Editor's note: Choose your own content! Click here to be taken to the kit and build, or continue reading to learn about the Guadalcanal campaign and VMF-223's role as part of the Cactus Air Force.
Watchtower and Cactus
In the first several months of the Pacific theater, the Allies faced one defeat after another at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Fortress Singapore, and the Java Sea. It wasn't until the US Navy victory at Midway in June 1942 that the crushing onslaught of the Japanese Imperial Navy was stopped. But stopped does not mean reversed. For that, the Allies would have to to go on the offensive.
As early as May 1942, Commander in Chief US Fleet (COMINCH) and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Adm. Ernest J. King, proposed seizing the southern Solomon Islands to secure the lines of communication between the United States and Australia. Additionally, the islands would be used as a starting point for what would later become various island-hopping campaigns.
Initial plans for the operation, known as Watchtower, did not include the capture of Guadalcanal. However, the discovery of a large airbase under construction at Lunga Point, on the north shore of Guadalcanal (Cactus), shifted the operation's overall focus.
From the beginning, Watchtower was a hastily planned operation. Adm. King once wrote, "Because of the urgency of seizing and occupying Guadalcanal, planning was not up to its usual thorough standard" and that the invasion would take place "even on a shoestring". At the risk of oversimplification, after only 8 months of war, Pacific forces weren't up to strength to conduct an amphibious operation involving tens of thousands of men and their material thousands of miles from home.
On August 7th, Marines of 1st Division landed at Lunga Point and met little resistance. By August 8th, the airfield was captured and quickly renamed Henderson in honor of Maj. Lofton Henderson, commander of VMSB-241, who was the first Marine aviator killed at Midway. Despite this early success, the long slog for Guadalcanal was only beginning.
While the amphibious assault group was storming the beaches and unloading supplies, the US Navy's screening force, Task Force 61 and its carriers, were busy repelling Japanese air attacks launched from bases in Rabaul and Buka. Of Adm. Fletcher's 99 carrier-based fighter aircraft available for combat air patrol at the start of the invasion, only 78 were airworthy by the evening of August 8th. At this time, and subject to much controversy, Fletcher withdrew his carriers to safer waters due to threat of further air and submarine attack, a low fuel state, and a need to preserve these assets to blunt inevitable Japanese carrier-based counterattacks. Thus, on the night of August 8th, the only thing protecting Adm. Turner's amphibious landing force was RAdm. Crutchley's screening force.
In addition to the Japanese air counter attacks, the Japanese also assembled a task force under the command of Adm. Gunichi Mikawa. During the night of August 8, his fleet consisting of seven cruisers and one destroyer, engaged Crutchley off of Guadalcanal, near Savo Island. From shore, the Marines could witness the carnage, but couldn't differentiate the sides. As documented in Richard Tregaskis' Guadalcanal Diary:
The salvos of firing came with increased intensity, so that the sky was lightened by quick flashes for minutes on end, and the rumbling of the firing had almost continuous sound. Then, for a few moments, the flashes and the booming stopped; the sky was quiet, and then the cannonading began again, seemingly louder, brighter and closer than before.
But the real impression from the battle on the Marines can be summed up as follows:
...We knew the fate of all of us hung on that sea battle. In that moment I realized how much we depend on ships even in our land operation. And in that moment I think most of us who were there watching the gunfire suddenly knew the feeling of being pitifully small, knew for a moment that we were only tiny particles caught up in the gigantic whirlpool of war. The terror and power and magnificence of man-made thunder and lightning made that point real. One had the feeling of being at the mercy of great accumulated forces far more powerful than anything human. We were only pawns in a battle of the gods, then, and we knew it.
This battle in the waters off Savo Island was a stunning Japanese victory. By its conclusion, four of Crutchley's eight cruisers were sunk, three were damaged, and over 1000 men were lost. In exchange, Mikawa suffered three ships damaged with the loss of approximately 50 men. Sadly, this was only the start of a series of engagements that collectively would rename the waters off Guadalcanal, Iron Bottom Sound.
This battle was strategic because it helped eliminate US Navy seaborne control of Guadalcanal and set the rhythm for the long campaign to come. At night the Japanese would land troop reinforcements and shell the Marines at Henderson. And at midday, Japanese aircraft, flying from their base at Rabaul, would bomb and strafe Henderson from above. It was a grinding test that pushed the Marines to their limits. Force protection was needed, and needed fast.
An air force arrives
On August 20th, two squadrons from Marine Aircraft Group 23, VMF-223 consisting of Wildcat fighters (the subject of this post) and VMSB-232 consisting of Dauntless dive bombers, launched from the USS Long Island (CVE-1).
Their destination was Henderson Field. Over several more days, additional aircraft would fly onto Guadalcanal, and collectively they were referred to as the Cactus Air Force. Their primary goal was to shield Guadalcanal from Japanese air and maritime assault.
As a unit, it was as diverse as they came and featured the Marines, Navy, and Army.
20 August: 19 F4F-4 Wildcats of VMF-223 and 12 SBD Dauntless VMSB-232
22 August: 5 P-400 Airacobras of 67th Pursuit Squadron USAF
24 August: 11 SBD from USS Enterprise (CV-6) Flight 300 (VB-6 and VS-5)
30 August: 19 F4F-4 Wildcats of VMF-224 and 12 SBD Dauntless from VMSB-231
The diversity was not intentional. Rather it was a product of cobbling together any available aircraft in the Southwest Pacific. For example, combat would quickly reveal that Army Airacobras were unsuitable for high altitude air to air interceptions and were instead relegated to ground support. And the Navy, represented by aircraft from VB-6 and VS-5, only found themselves on Cactus because their carrier, Enterprise, was severely damaged during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Collectively, as aircraft operating from land, they formally reported to RAdm. John S. McCain (grandfather to Senator John S. McCain III) but effectively reported to MajGen. Vandegrift of the landing force.
Furthering the notion of a cobbled together force, fuel, spare-parts, specialized equipment, and ground crews were absent at Cactus in the beginning. Even mundane consumables like oxygen bottles were in extremely short supply and were flown in at various times. When bombs were available, they were loaded by hand.
Editor's note: Throughout this section I have prepared several charts. These are informed by my reading of VMF-223's and MAG-23's War Diaries as found on Fold3, and other sources. I do not claim they are 100% accurate, but I believe they are indicative. My desire is for these graphics to contextualize the scale of operations that one squadron faced during a deployment that lasted less than 2-months. I also encourage readers to read the names on the first graphic depicting aviators' service periods in VMF-223 and their fate. As a military modeler, the models I build are often manned by people at the intersection of heroism and tragedy. Sometimes the ultimate sacrifice is made. It is important not to forget that.
VMF-223 was constituted in May 1942 and was commanded by Maj. John L. Smith. The squadron was initially staffed by many fresh-faced pilots straight from flight school and equipped with Brewster Buffaloes, not the Wildcats that they would fly to fame during their Guadalcanal operations. As a result, VMF-223's pilots were severely lacking in training. In what would become a recurring theme, less experienced pilots, or those needing a rest, were swapped for pilots in other squadrons.
Tools like this short term assignment duty and aircraft replenishment enabled the original wave of Cactus Air Force to remain combat effective for far longer than its size on paper, and tragically, losses, would suggest possible.
The daily operations of VMF-223 were largely synced to the rhythm established by geography, the Battle of Savo Island, and the existence of the Cactus Air Force itself. In the early morning, Japanese aircraft would take off from Rabaul and fly several hundred miles to Guadalcanal. Around noon, these aircraft would be picked up by Coast Watchers, who in turn radioed Cactus to scramble interception flights.
The combat was fierce, and at times more personal than one would imagine for men and machines zooming past one another at hundreds of knots. After one engagement, Maj. Smith recalled:
"I dove on one, shot him down, and saw another on my wingman's tail," he said, calmly. "I slewed over and picked off that one. Then I saw one coming at me from below and ahead. I nosed over and dove right at him and let all my guns go. I had a tough time avoiding crashing him head on. I could see the prop shatter, and I came so close I could see his damned head-his helmet and goggles. He was trying to climb out of the ship then, and I guess he used his chute."
If VMF-223 was not flying to intercept Japanese aircraft by day, they were helping to scout or defend the island from any Japanese naval approach. This is a primary reason why the famed Tokyo Express took place at night and had to rely on lower-capacity fast-moving destroyers to reinforce the Japanese infantry on Guadalcanal. Simply put, Japanese transport ships were too slow and would be caught exposed and vulnerable in open ocean to the Cactus Air Force during daylight. In a sense, Cactus was an unsinkable aircraft carrier, and her Cactus Air Force, acting as air-wing, provided crucial daytime cover to the Marines and naval forces at sea.
Despite the unrelenting stress of combat, there were moments of humor. One can be found in the rivalry between Maj. Smith and his subordinate Capt. Marion E. Carl for top ace in the Pacific. Famously, Carl was shot down on September 9th and spent 5 days with natives before returning to Henderson Field. Upon his return, and learning that Smith had reached the 16 kill mark, Carl pleaded with General Geiger (now Commander Cactus Air Force): "God-dammit, General, ground him for five days!"
Here's what the tally would have looked like as it happened. Editor's note: some sources have Carl with 15.5 kills at Guadalcanal, whereas I have only read of 14.
But the combat was unrelenting and after six weeks of continuous operations, VMF-223 was fully evacuated from Guadalcanal on October 12, 1942. In the words of one aviator:
"When the medicos used to tell us about pilot fatigue," said Turner, "I used to think they were old fuds. But now I know what they meant. There's a point where you just get to be no good, you're shot to the devil-and there's nothing you can do about it."
During their brief but intense tour, VMF-223 claimed over 100 enemy planes shot down and created several aces. They also enabled the Marines to maintain their foothold in the Southern Pacific and added to the lore of Marine aviation. Upon their departure, VMF-223 left an indelible mark on the outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign, and with that, the war in the Pacific. For the Guadalcanal campaign was, by many historical accounts, the attritional battle that enabled the the United States to transition from defensive to offensive operations.
This Wildcat trilogy has always meant showcasing different methods of building, painting, and finishing. Because this is the oldest kit, I am going to focus on the most traditional of paint methods. Brush painting. And do so with commonly available Tamiya acrylics.
Tamiya acrylics are, and are not, acrylic paint. The medium is definitely acrylic, but instead of using water as a solvent like most acrylic paints, they use things like glycol ethers and isopropanol. They are optimized for airbrushing. As a result, 1) they dry quickly, 2) are prone to leaving brush stroke marks, and 3) the solvent in new paint layers will reactivate previously dried layers. So how does one brush paint these?
Using an amended mantra of course:
Multiple thin layers...with X-20A and Drying Retarder for help
The X-20A (that's "A" for acrylic) will thin the paint to the correct consistency and the Drying Retarder will extend drying time. Combined they will reduce brush stroke marks.
In terms of paint scheme, Pacific-based Wildcats are an interesting evolutionary subject as follows:
Pre-war Wildcats were painted with high visibility yellow wings and metallic fuselages.
December, 1940 orders were given to paint carrier-based planes Non Specular Light Gray (M-495, FS 36357).
August 1941, a subsequent order was given to paint the upper surfaces Non Specular Blue Gray (M-485, FS 35189).
January, 1943 introduced the famous tri-color scheme. This consisted of Non Specular Sea Blue (ANA 607, FS 35042) on the upper surfaces, Semi-Gloss Sea Blue (ANA 608) on wings and tails, Non Specular Intermediate Blue (ANA 608, FS 35164) on the sides and lower part of foldable wings, and Insignia White (ANA 601, FS 37875) on the lower fuselage.
There were even anti-submarine warfare (ASW) paint schemes for Atlantic-based Wildcats, but I'll save those descriptions for my final HobbyBoss post.
Editor's note: If you were keeping track the tri-color scheme is really four colors. Full disclosure, I've tried to find pictures to show the distinction between the Non Specular Sea Blue and Semi-Gloss Sea Blue, and I see no difference! Maybe a loyal reader can provide a link in the comments for our benefit!
The first layer of paint was laid down in a general north/south direction using the following ratio: 12 drops of XF-18 Medium Blue, 4 drops of XF-2 Flat White, 4 drops of X-20A and 4 drops of DR. I used pipettes to measure. In the first image you can see that the layer is not particularly even. That's OK. There are more layers to go and the opacity will build. The main thing at this stage is to ensure the paint is thin enough that it doesn't clog surface details.
The second layer of paint was applied in an east/west direction and with a slightly more diluted ratio: 12 drops XF-18 Medium Blue, 4 drops XF-2 Flat White, 5 drops X-20A and 5 drops DR. Crucially, you can only apply the paint in 1, or maybe 2 passes if done quickly. Remember, the paint solvent in this new layer will reactivate the paint from the previous layer. Trying to fix imperfections will lead to the dreaded "paint peel".
I applied a third layer in a diagonal direction, again with a slightly more diluted paint ratio: 12 drops XF-18 Medium Blue, 4 drops XF-2 Flat White, 6 drops X-20A and 6 drops DR. The paint consistency was nice to work with, but don't try the diagonal motion! Any brush strokes here will really stand out. Ask me how I know!
I was hoping that the third layer would be the last, but the diagonal strokes were too obvious on the surface for my liking. So I added a fourth layer in the original north/south direction and and decided to keep the paint ratio the same as the 3rd layer. With that, coverage was good, and I was happy with the finish's smoothness.
The above process was repeated for the ventral surfaces, but this time the color ratio was: 10 drops XF-19 Sky Gray, 5 drops XF-2 Flat White, 4 drops X-20A, and 4 drops DR. A total of 4 coats were used and each coat added an additional drop of X-20A and DR.
If you've been to this site before, you'll know that my decaling always starts with a gloss varnish. On this build, I went with an old modeler's trick and used Pledge Floor Care Finish. I applied it straight from the bottle using a wide brush. As a bonus, I found that the pledge helped to smooth out any residual brush strokes.
Now for a bit of nastiness. The decals were not good! You can see in the third picture that one of the easy-peasy decals disintegrated on me.
But worse than that, the rivets that I initially thought were cool, acted like punji sticks and poked holes in the already disintegration-prone decals. Here you can see some struggles with one of the larger star insignias.
The decals also had trouble bedding down on their own. I used Tamiya's Mark Fit Strong in several generous coats over several days to remedy this. As expected, a white haze formed around the decals, but no need to worry, previous builds informed me that an additional coat of pledge will make it all disappear for some magical reason.
Guadalcanal was a harsh operating environment. Mud in the morning, blistering sun by day, and constant enemy action. I reasoned that the planes would be dirty, faded, and scuffed up. But attrition by accident or enemy action would also prevent the planes from growing too old. In other words, I couldn't get carried away with the weathering.
For this weathering cocktail, I used XF-16 Flat Aluminum and XF-19 Sky Gray for chipping effects, Panel Line Accent Color Dark Gray for pin washing, and Tamiya Weathering Master pigments for fading and other types of dust or grime.
To start, I laid down XF-16 Flat Aluminum chips at various panel lines. This represents the deepest level of chipping. I mainly used a paint brush, but used a sponge in select areas. Then I used XF-19 Sky Gray to represent scratches (first picture).
As a third step I used the Dark Gray panel line accent to add definition to the various panel lines. This step also represents dirt and grime and tones down the chips and scratches (second picture).
Finally, I used an old stubby paintbrush to stipple on various colors from the weathering master pigments. I found the paint brush gave me greater control than the included applicator (third picture).
I worked in small sections at a time and made sure to take frequent breaks. I'll confess that it took a lot longer than I thought it would, but it was a joy watching it slowly come together.
Wow. Cactus Air Force. VMF-223. It's as compelling of a subject as any. I definitely went down the rabbit hole learning about them and their contributions to the Guadalcanal campaign. My eyes were opened to the incredible primary sources in the form of War Diaries found on Fold3. This level of study may not be for everyone, especially those that just want to model, but I get my kicks from subject-immersion. I would love to hear if any readers have, or will consider, a Guadalcanal related subject for future builds. Feel free to share what you've already built, too!
I enjoyed this kit and build overall. Relative to the HobbyBoss and Eduard Wildcats in this series, I believe the Tamiya rendition offers a good compromise between cost, buildability, and detail. Yes, there are a few fit issues, but nothing that a little putty won't solve. The only major downside to this kit are the decals. They were dreadful. Replacing the decals with aftermarket might be a good idea so long as those pesky raised rivets can be tamed.
On the painting side, I enjoyed the challenge of brush painting Tamiya acrylics. The results far surpassed my expectations. Weathering was also a fun process. I'm happy I experimented with the Tamiya Weathering Master products and I found their application much easier, controllable, and more enjoyable than standard pigments. I'll definitely be trying my new-found technique on future builds.
Now it's time to enjoy the finished product!
Thanks for reading,
Sources, information, and other useful links
Guadalcanal Diary - by Richard Tregaskis
War Diary: MAR AIR GR 23, Forward Echelon, 8/20/1942 - 11/16/1942 Fold3.com
War Diary: VMF-223, 8/1/1942 - 9/30/1942 via Fold3.com
The Cactus Air Force - Thomas G. Miller, Jr
The Cactus Air Force - Air War Over Guadalcanal - Eric Hammel & Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
Vallejo's US Navy & USMC Colors 1940 - 1945 paint set card insert