10 Feet Below Waters Off Midway Atoll, a Famous Flying Dud
By ERIK ECKHOLM
In the generally upbeat annals of American military aviation, the plump, snub-nosed little fighter called the Brewster Buffalo stands out as a turkey.
The plane had its day of ignominy in the epic Battle of Midway in June 1942, when 19 Marine pilots valiantly engaged Japanese Zeroes in dogfights above Midway Atoll, a strategic speck some 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu. Only five of the pilots and planes returned.
In his action report, one of the survivors complained that "the Japanese Zero fighter can run circles around the F2A-3," the Brewster Buffalo model that had been handed down to the Marines by the Navy because its wheel struts broke during the hard landings on carriers.
"It is my belief that any commander that orders pilots out for combat in a F2A-3 should consider the pilot as lost before leaving the ground," wrote Capt. P. R. White of the Marines.
Intercepting the Japanese fleet farther out to sea, the American carriers with more advanced aircraft fared better. In a victory that historians call the turning point in the Pacific War, American forces sank four Japanese aircraft carriers while losing only one.
But among the Marines, the Buffalo won a reputation as a flying coffin. It was soon replaced by more agile fighters and the aircraft, along with the heroism of its hapless pilots, became a largely forgotten footnote.
Now, the discovery of the rare wreckage of a Brewster Buffalo in the Midway lagoon, in only 10 feet of water, has rekindled interest in the aircraft and a record that, with the passage of time, seems as colorful as tragic.
"This is a very rare aircraft and to find even the wreckage of one is an exciting discovery," said Hill Goodspeed, the historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla. "Midway is the site of one of the most famous battles in naval history."
The exploration of the wreck is part of a broad federal effort to document and preserve the historical artifacts and biological wonders in 14 marine sanctuaries the United States has established since the 1970s, from the site of the Civil War ironclad Monitor in the Atlantic to the corals of the Florida Keys to the rich sea life and war relics of distant Pacific atolls.
"What we see underwater is really a huge museum of sorts," said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the sanctuary program. "This wreckage is part of a larger story, the story of that tiny atoll and its place in world history."
Of hundreds of Brewster Buffalos produced, all at a former car factory in Queens, N.Y., only one largely intact plane survives, a modified model that was sold to the Finns, who used them in the 1940s with more success against Soviet invaders. That craft was fished out of a Russian lake in 1998 and acquired by the Pensacola museum, but is now on loan in Finland.
The newly discovered wreckage was spotted in June by federal divers who were cleaning up garbage around Midway Atoll, which is part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a vast protected area covering the northwest string of the Hawaiian archipelago.
The divers reported the intriguing sighting to Kelly Gleason, the monument's Honolulu-based chief of marine archaeology. This summer, she led a team that mapped and photographed the half-buried parts, including a bent propeller with a large coral head growing from its middle, tires with a Goodyear label intact and clusters of unspent ammunition.
From the distinctive, notorious wheel struts, the nine-cylinder engine and other evidence, Ms. Gleason said, she identified the wreck as a Brewster Buffalo. From Marine records she discovered that in February 1942, a few months before the climactic battle, a Lt. Charles W. Somers Jr. landed short of the runway when returning in a dark squall. The plane sank as Lieutenant Somers swam to safety.
Lieutenant Somers, it turned out, had better luck the next month, when he was part of a Buffalo squad that shot down a patrolling Japanese bomber. The four pilots were rewarded by their commander with a bottle of bourbon, according to an official history, and were later given medals for the kill.
In a fortunate stroke, Lieutenant Somers was transferred to Hawaii a few weeks before the disastrous June aerial battle. He went on to have a distinguished military career, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, and died in 1992.
Test pilots had called the Brewster Buffalo, which was commissioned by the Navy, a promising acrobat. But before deploying them on carriers, the Navy demanded extra armor plating to protect the pilot and more space for ammunition and fuel.
"The sports car was transformed to a slug," wrote Daniel Ford, an amateur military historian and self-described "Buffalo buff" who last year published an e-book called "The Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo."
Not only was the Buffalo slower than the Zero and less adept at the twists, loops and dives of aerial combat, it also tended to overheat and spill oil at full throttle, and sometimes the guns did not fire.
Squadrons of Buffalos were also provided to the British and the Dutch, who sent them to Southeast Asia where they also performed poorly against the widely underestimated Japanese warplanes. The story is told of a New Zealand Buffalo pilot, based in Burma, whose vision was obscured in the heat of battle by oil spurting onto the windshield. He removed his shoe and took off a sock, slid back the canopy and reached around to wipe the window clean.
"This is the sort of thing that seemed to happen all the time," Mr. Ford said.
But the Finns loved the plane and used it to shoot down hundreds of Soviet fighters with minimal losses - perhaps, experts say, because the engine performed better in cool temperatures and the Soviet planes and training were inferior.
Whatever the causes, the Brewster Buffalo's dismal performance at Midway sealed its reputation and also garnered new respect for Japanese engineering and pilots.
After watching two colleagues get shot up, another of the surviving Midway pilots said that the Buffalos "looked like they were tied to a string while the Zeroes made passes at them."
Park officials have not yet decided whether any of the Buffalo parts at the Midway lagoon will be removed and displayed. Ms. Gleason, the marine archaeologist, said she hoped that discovering and publicizing sites like this one would "make the long ago past real, and bring this history to life in a way that books and photographs don't."