The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat From Pearl Harbor To Midway

  • Manufacturer: Naval Institute Press
Hailed as one of the finest examples of aviation research, this comprehensive 1984 study presents a detailed and scrupulously accurate operational history of carrier-based air warfare. From the earliest operations in the Pacific through the decisive Battle of Midway, it offers a narrative account of how ace fighter pilots like Jimmy Thach and Butch O'Hare and their skilled VF squadron mates - called the "first team" - amassed a remarkable combat record in the face of desperate odds. Tapping both American and Japanese sources, historian John B. Lundstrom reconstructs every significant action and places these extraordinary fighters within the context of overall carrier operations. He writes from the viewpoint of the pilots themselves, after interviewing some fifty airmen from each side, to give readers intimate details of some of the most exciting aerial engagements of the war. At the same time he assesses the role the fighter squadrons played in key actions and shows how innovations in fighter tactics and gunnery techniques were a primary reason for the reversal of American fortunes. After more than twenty years in print, the book remains the definitive account and is being published in paperback for the first time to reach an even larger audience.

Customer Reviews

In a Word: Superb, December 20, 2003
By Barrett Tillman

Both this book and the subsequent Guadalcanal volume deserve at least six stars on a five-star scale. John Lundstrom broke new ground with publication of The First Team in 1984 and continued with the sequel in '94. (By that schedule, it's about time for his Next Book, a long-awaited biography of Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher.)
Previously, few American authors had access to so much detailed Japanese material, and none made such excellent use of it. Lundstrom raised the bar for WW II aviation history, and reminds us that the majority of leading authors in the field are nonprofessionals, or at least lack a string of letters behind their names. Rich Frank and the late Jeff Ethell are two more who immediately come to mind. More power to 'em.
Though a nonflier, Lundstrom possesses a thorough understanding of carrier aviation and the Pacific War circa 1942. The same cannot be said of some others with longer lists of publications or best sellers to their credit. Nearly 20 years after its release, "The First Team" remains the standard against which similar volumes are measured.

First Team Scores!, January 2, 2007
By Ned Barnett

The First Team - Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway
The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign
John B. Lundstrom
Naval Institute Press

I have been studying naval aviation combat since the early 1960s, and I have never come across a book half so comprehensive, from a historical basis - nor half so useful, from a modeling perspective - as this two-volume set recently reprinted by the Naval Institute Press. The title - "The First Team" - refers to US Naval Aviator fighter pilots who were in service at the start of World War II; a convenient way of focusing on naval fighter combat from December 7, 1941 to the end of the Guadalcanal campaign in early February, 1943. This was a time when the F4F Wildcat bore the brunt of the aerial warfare - a few F2A Buffalo fighters served in the Navy during this time-frame, but the only Buffalos that saw combat were serving with the Marines (who are outside the scope of this two-volume study).

This book covers literally every incident of aerial combat that included US Navy fighter aircraft from December 7 through the end of Guadalcanal. I mean EVERY incident, every American shoot-down (and every American shot down) and every American carrier attack on a Japanese island target fought during the first 14 months of the war in the Pacific: the Wake relief force, the Gilbert, Marshall and Marcus Island raids, the assault on Rabaul, and the attacks on Tulagi, Lae and Salamaua - and of course, Guadalcanal. The books also cover every carrier vs. carrier battle that was fought in the Pacific before 1944: Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz. In short, The First Team two-volume book is incredibly comprehensive. Maps and charts illustrate each battle, each significant combat incident, each movement of carriers and air groups - the detail is remarkable. Author John Lundstrom makes these battles come alive in ways that no other history I've read have been able to accomplish. But for all their value as pure history, these books go way beyond that.

For instance, The First Team covers combat tactics - the prime reason why the vastly-inferior F4F-4 Wildcat was able to best the incredible Japanese Zero in almost every encounter (including decisive victories at Midway and Guadalcanal). Pre-war, the US Naval air service - alone among the world's air forces - trained its pilots to successfully use deflection shooting, permitting pilots to attack from beam positions, instead of just from directly astern. To perform a deflection-shooting attack successfully, the pilot couldn't aim at the target; instead, he had to aim for where the plane would be when the bullets arrived.

Deflection shooting is a kind of lead-the-target targeting performed by duck hunters and skeet shooters; a process vastly complicated in aerial combat because both the attacker and the target are moving at several hundred miles per hour, generally in different planes. However, when successfully executed, deflection attacks are almost unbeatable. This kind of deflection shooting permitted American Naval fighter pilots to attack the enemy with limited risk of counter-battery fighter from defending aircraft. Deflection attacks were decisive in attacks on bomber aircraft, but this approach also gave U.S. Naval aviators a significant advantage over the more maneuverable and - at most altitudes - faster Japanese fighters.

Other tactical elements explored in great detail were the comparative tactical formations - American transition from four-aircraft divisions to two-aircraft divisions while the Japanese held onto the far more awkward and inflexible three-plane formations - as well as the evolution of the "Thatch Weave," a mutually-supportive defensive formation the Japanese were never able to effectively counter.

The First Team also looks - in depth - at the training of Japanese and US Naval aviators. In 1941, Japanese naval aviators were, man-for-may, the best-trained pilots in the world, yet thanks to different tactical approaches, they were consistently outfought, first by well-trained US Naval Aviators and later even by grass-green Ensigns not long out of advanced training programs. Training and organization were critical - Japanese were taught to move in units of three aircraft, and to take advantage of their aircraft's incredible maneuverability.

American Naval Aviators were trained in deflection gunnery, in pilot-wingman cooperation and in emphasizing mutually-supporting defensive tactics culminating in the unbeatable Thatch Weave - which remarkably was under development before the outbreak of the war, though "conventional wisdom" has held that Commander John "Jimmy" Thatch developed the mutual-support tactics in response to initial combat with the Japanese.

Another factor that The First Team explored which worked against the Japanese was the very different organizational structure of the two countries' carrier air groups. In the US Navy, carrier air groups were fungible organizations - new squadrons and new pilots could be shuffled through the air groups, and these groups could be shuffled from carrier to carrier as needed. By contrast, Japanese carrier air groups trained as a unit, and were permanently assigned to a specific aircraft carrier.

When a Japanese group suffered significant combat casualties, not only were the individual squadrons no longer combat-capable, but the carrier itself was out of the battle. As a result, after the bloody draw at Coral Sea, surviving Naval aviators from the sunken Lexington were able to go back into combat onboard the Yorktown at Midway - less than a month later - effectively replacing losses the Yorktowners suffered at Coral Sea with combat-tested pilots. Even though the Yorktown had been badly damaged, it was patched together and able to field a combat-ready air group that proved decisive at Midway less than a month later.

However, as explained in The First Team's assessment of Japan's carrier air group organization, the Zuikaku - which, unlike the surviving Yorktown, was undamaged but which also suffered heavy pilot losses - was unable to serve at Midway because the Zuikaku's carrier air group had been decimated, and a carrier without an air group is little more than a target. Although sufficient combat-experienced pilots from the heavily-damaged Shokaku had survived and were at least technically available, because of a long-standing organizational policy, the Japanese were unable to restore the Zuikaku's group.

Instead, both air groups had to be restored to full combat capability only after receiving infusions of trainees, which required a long work-up period. The Yorktown's presence at Midway was decisive; the absence of Zuikaku was at least potentially just as decisive. Had two Japanese carriers - Zuikaku and Hiryu - survived the first devastating US Naval attack, their return strike may have done more than just knock out the Yorktown.

The books even get into fascinating controversies, such as the odd decision to put six .50 caliber machine guns into the Navy's new folding-wing F4Fs, even though they'd add a further weight penalty that would - along with the weight of the wing-fold mechanism -cripple the Wildcat's climb, range and overall combat capabilities. The early-war fixed-wing F4F-3 carried four .50 caliber machine guns - which US Navy fighter leaders felt was sufficient to knock down unarmored Japanese bombers and fighters. However, the fixed wing took up deck and hanger space and sharply limited the number of fighters a carrier could handle. With fighter squadrons growing from 18 to 27 to 36 aircraft, the need for folding wings was essential, even though the weight penalty imposed by the folding mechanism would inevitably degrade performance.

The initial decision to go with six .50 caliber guns in a folding-wing Wildcat was made by the British Fleet Air Arm, which did not routinely face fighter-to-fighter combat - minimizing the need for high-end performance - yet rightly felt it needed the heavier firepower inherent in six .50 calibers to swiftly knock down armored and well-armed German and Italian bombers. Oddly, instead of listening to their own fighter leaders, the US Navy's "Brass Hats" listened to the Brits, and decided - in the name of production efficiency - to standardize on the British design.

The result was the F4F-4 - a sluggish, slow-climbing short-range fighter which had six .50 caliber machine guns but fewer total rounds of ammo (and, therefore, a much shorter firing time) than the older F4F-3. This plane had a harder time climbing to a decisive altitude. It had difficulty conducting CAPs of more than a couple of hours or escorting bombers farther than 175 miles; and when it did find targets, this new Wildcat all-too-quickly ran out of ammunition. When front-line Naval Aviators complained about being asked to fight what was arguably the best carrier planes in the world with an increasingly second-string fighter plane, the Navy Brass in Washington told these front-line troops to fly their Wildcats with a 2/3rds fuel load and two unloaded guns - absurd advice to pilots who knew they needed every bullet and every gallon of gas every time they went head-to-head in combat with the best-trained naval aviators in the world, the Japanese.

These limiting factors for the new F4F clearly had an impact in the loss of the Yorktown at Midway, as well as the loss of so many torpedo planes at that same battle - and these F4F deficiencies may have also contributed to the loss of the Hornet at the Battle of Santa Cruz four months later. Nobody from the greenest Naval Aviation Ensign all the way up to Admiral Chester Nimitz had a good thing to say about the F4F-4 - but it was only after the end of the Guadalcanal campaign that the General Motors-built FM-1 reverted to a four-gun armament - too late to face down the Japanese.

Yet remarkably, the US Navy seldom fought the Japanese head-to-head without coming out on the winning end. Ultimately, the Wildcat scored a three-to-one winning margin over the Japanese - not because the Wildcat was a better fighter aircraft, though it did have some advantages, but because American Naval Aviators had better tactics, from the two-plane division to the Thatch Weave.

As noted, while it had dramatically shorter range, at least a marginally lower speed at most altitudes - and it was far less maneuverable than the Zero - the Wildcat that fought the Japanese from December 7, 1941 to February, 1943 did have some significant advantages over its adversary. The Grumman was solidly built - earning for its manufacturer the affectionate nickname "Grumman Iron Works." The Grumman fighter was also well-armored (at least where it counted), and - early in the war - it began to receive functional self-sealing fuel tanks that would absorb a 7.7 millimeter (.30 caliber) Japanese machine-gun bullet.

While it was slow to climb, the Wildcat could dive like a bat out of hell - given enough altitude, American Naval Aviators could always break off combat with Japanese Zeros - and given an initial altitude advantage (hard to come by, but not impossible to achieve), the Wildcat could initiate combat - attack Zeros and other Japanese aircraft - with no recourse by the Japanese. They couldn't escape a diving Wildcat; they could turn and fight, but couldn't run away.

Further, in a head-to-head attack, the Wildcat's rugged structure and .50 caliber armament (either four-gun or six-gun) easily outmatched their Japanese adversaries. The Japanese Zero's 20 mm cannons were low-velocity weapons useful only at short range; the longer-ranged Japanese 7.7 mm (.30 caliber) machine guns had too little hitting power to ensure a quick victory over the Wildcat. On the other hand, the standard American .50 caliber Browning heavy machine guns were fast-firing, long-ranged and hard-hitting enough to knock down any Japanese fighter - or bomber - they could hit.

All of these factors were covered in fascinating detail in The First Team, making them a feast of information, insight and factual data for the historian - and the history buff.

Beyond that, the two "First Team" volumes also offer a great deal to modelers. Each book is heavily illustrated with contemporary photos which show evolving markings on US Navy fighters. Not a few of these photos will also offer modelers display and deck-handling diorama ideas.

In addition, Appendix 3 of The First Team and Appendix 4 of The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign each features side-view profiles of F4F fighters in use during the time periods covered by the books. Together, these let modelers authoritatively paint-and-mark virtually any F4F that fought off one of the USN fleet carriers during the first year of the war - including carrier-based planes that temporarily served on Guadalcanal. With the recent spate of new F4F Wildcat releases in 1/32nd scale (including the soon-to-be-here Trumpeter Wildcat), this kind of reference will prove invaluable to modelers.

Bottom line: These two books are remarkable. For those interested in carrier-based fighter combat during the dark early days of World War II in the Pacific, these are "must-reads." The books have been released in Trade Paperback format by the US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland - it's also available from

Without Peer, August 9, 2004
By Jonathan Parshall

For the hardcore Pacific War enthusiast, particularly for one with a hankering to understand the Japanese side of the story, it's hard to find better work than that produced by John Lundstrom. This volume, as well as his subsequent work on the Guadalcanal campaign, set new standards for how one treated the topic of air-to-air combat. Lundstrom is not only intimately familiar with the American side of the battles he covers, but is able to produce an equal wealth of detail regarding the Japanese side. In the course of preparing my own forthcoming Midway volume, this book has been one of my bibles--it's absolutely indispensable for understanding both the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.

-jon parshall-
Imperial Japanese Navy Homepage

Excellent overall, but a superb reference on the Battle of Midway, October 27, 2006
By R. W. Russell ""

This is an amazing book for a number of reasons, including the fact that all of the reviews previously posted (as I write this) are four or five star (mostly five). The text of some of the four-star reviews even sound like they should have rated a five. Few books on Amazon get near-perfect appraisals--the fact that this one does is a telling mark of its quality.

Today (in 2006) John Lundstrom enjoys a much-deserved reputation as a preeminent author and historian in the field of U.S. naval aviation, particularly when the subject is his core specialty, the early years of World War II. That said, it is interesting to go back and read this 1984-vintage volume and compare it to his later award-winning works. Does it exhibit the growing pains of a budding expert still learning his craft, or does it rate as world class not only today but among its peers when it was first published? The short answer is: five stars, then and now.

This reviewer's specialty is the Battle of Midway, which only comprises the final third of the book. But even though his primary focus is on the fighter squadrons, Lundstrom's short history of that battle is among the very best references available anywhere. It is meticulously accurate, thanks to the author's deep research into archives and veteran testimony not available or not explored by other Midway chroniclers, including Lord and Prange. That it came out many years before other modern references on the battle that similarly improve upon earlier works is a tribute to the author's diligence. As a Battle of Midway resource, I rate it in the top three or four along with Cressman's "A Glorious Page in Our History" and "Shattered Sword" by Parshall & Tully.

An essential part of any WWII fighter library, January 5, 2003
By David Parsons "Hey Joe"

John Lundstrom has written an authoritative and definitive account of US Naval fighter combat in the South Pacific in the earliest days of WWII. It can truly be called a masterpiece of research and writing. While many of the early skirmishes and battles leading up to Midway have been covered in many books, Mr Lundstrom brings a detailed perspective virtually on a daily basis and from both sides of the conflict. In key battles such as Coral Sea and Midway, he lays out tactics and formations down to names of opposing aircrew and where they flew. He also does a superb job of describing the earlier carrier raids that counted as the First Teams initial scrimmages before the big game. This has set an entirely new standard rivaled only by his sequel that picks up where this volume leaves off. As a modern day naval flight officer with carrier combat experience in the F-14 Tomcat, I found myself able to draw direct correlations with the experiences of the First Team thanks to his illuminating writing style. Of particular note is his depiction of day by day and sometimes moment by moment experiences of the First Team in battle (and between battles). This made the book very real and topical and I give it the highest recommendation to anyone in the business or with the slightest interest in the subject. Both books have a very special place in my collection. I found myself hoping that he will continue to address the entire war at this same superlative level of detail.

Lundstrom's scholarship is first rate, June 17, 2005
By Steve Conslaw

I can't believe that I'm the first one to review this book because it's been out for awhile. If you look at the various lists of WWII books that have been posted, it's frequently mentioned. The First Team is the name that author Lundstrom gives to the naval pilots that were in service at the start of the Pacific war. For the most part, these pilots fought all the battles through the Guadalcanal campain Aug-Nov 1942. The pre-war pilots were skilled and experienced and usually knew each other.

This book talks about the hard lessons that were won through experience through the Battle of Midway. It goes into detail about the Thatch-Flatley Weave. You'll learn that the Japanese Navy had its own First Team. Lundstrom uncovered a lot of details about the Japanese pilots as well.

Incidently, when I looked up this book, I saw Amazon's list of recommended reading reprinted below:

The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942 by John B. Lundstrom
Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific by Eric M. Bergerud
The Big E: The Story of the USS Enterprise by Edward Peary Stafford
Touched With Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific by Eric Bergerud
Hunter-Killer: U.S. Escort Carriers in the Battle of the Atlantic (Bluejacket Books) by William T. Y'Blood

I've read each of these books exceptDan Van der Vat's book, and each of those recommended would probably make my top 10 list along with the Lundstrom books. The Bergerund books in particular are good companion reading to the Lundstrom books. Fire in the Sky makes clear the triangular nature of the 1942 Pacific War, with Rabaul at the top of a triangle with its other points at Guadalcanal and New Guinea.

Touched with Fire, about the land war, shows how land fighting in the jungle of New Guinea was limited by the terrain and lack of roads. It is easy to see how lessons from New Guinea shaped the American approach to jungle fighting in Vietnam. The Americans knew that isolated firebases could be set up to dominate a large area without expending an occupying force over the whole perimeter.

The Peary book about the U.S.S. Enterprise is a classic, and it's good to see it back in print. I read it for the first time in grade school, and I've re-read my dogeared copy several times since.

Accurate, Well Written, A Pleasure to Read, November 2, 2005
By John Matlock "Gunny"

'The First Team' was the group of Navy fighter pilots serving with the Pacific carriers at the beginning of the war. In addition, this book might be called something like 'The First Team.' It is the definitive work on the subject.

This was the time when the US had few carriers in the Pacific. It was the time of the Wildcat fighter up against Zeros. It was the time when fliers like Thatch and Butch O'Hare were first learnign their trade. It was the time when the Japanese were expanding at an unbelievable rate. The Japanese also had a 'First Team' of experienced pilots with a lot of hours. And it was the time when Midway broke the back of the Japanese advance.

This book is as close to the complete story as it is possible to get. It covers what happened, the strategy that was being followed, the tactics that were changing as they learned more. This is the book that the others use as a reference when they are writing about this area. It is accurate, it is well written, it is a pleasure to read.

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