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John Thach: An Extraordinary Navy Aviator

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

John Thach proved to be one of the most brilliant Navy aviators, conducting test flights, teaching pilots, and even developing his own aerial combat technique, the “Thach Weave.”

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John Thach was born April 19, 1905, in Pine Bluff to school teachers, James H. Thach and Jo Bocage Thach. In 1927, Thach followed his older brother James Sr.’s example by graduating from the United States Naval Academy. For the next two years, he was assigned to two battleships, the Mississippi and California. In 1929, he was transferred to aviation.

Thach earned his naval aviator’s wings in 1930, becoming one of the Navy's most skilled aviators before the start of World War II. In 1931, Thach and his squadron performed stunt work for Clark Gable’s movie Hell Divers. He spent the next decade sharing and expanding his aviation expertise as a flight instructor, a test pilot, and a gunnery expert. Thach famously flew an experimental XP2H-1 seaplane from Norfolk, Virginia to Panama in less than twenty-six hours. During this time, he also tested several other experimental aircraft which allowed him to keep his tactical skills sharp.

In 1939, the Japanese developed a new, more agile fighter craft called the Mitsubishi A6M Reisen (most commonly referred to as the Zero). Thach was determined to overcome the performance of the Zero by developing superior combat tactics. Using the intelligence that detailed the Zeros' range and maneuverability, Thach and fellow pilot, Edward J. “Butch” O’Hare, created an entirely new naval aviation tactic. Thach called the new tactic his “beam defense position” system while O’Hare wisely renamed it the “Thach Weave.” This maneuver was very different from the traditional American three-aircraft system. The “Thach Weave” utilized two pairs of fighter aircraft flying side-by-side. When the enemy plane attacked, the pilots would weave back and forth, providing a smaller target while drawing the attacker into their wingman’s line of fire. The pilots would repeat the exercise allowing for a greater chance of shooting down the enemy plane.

The Battle of Midway, from June 3rd to 7th, 1942, proved to be a defining moment in the use of Thach’s maneuver. While escorting twelve Douglas TBD Devastators (large, slow torpedo bombers), Thach and his squadron of Wildcats were attacked by fifteen to twenty Japanese Zero fighter planes. Thach and his wingman Ensign R. A. M. Dibb expertly carried out the Thach maneuver allowing Thach to shoot down three Zeros while Dibb shot down one. Thach only lost Wildcat from his squadron.

Thach was deemed too valuable as a pilot so after the battle at Midway, he was pulled from combat. After watching the Japanese lose most of their best pilots during combat, the US was determined not to do the same. Thach and other expert pilots were tasked with passing on their aviation expertise to the next generation of pilots. For the remainder of the war, he flight tested new aircraft, trained new pilots, and developed new combat strategies for the Navy.

Thach went on to command both the USS Sicily and USS Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Korean War from 1953 to 1954. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1955 where he became one of the Navy’s foremost antisubmarine experts and nuclear power advocates. He retired in 1967 after forty years in the Navy as an admiral.

During his service, he was awarded two Navy Crosses, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, a Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, and a Bronze Star. The Arkansas Aviation Historical Society inducted Thach into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1981. Thach died April 15, 1981, in Coronado, California, four days before his 76th birthday, and was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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