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Lt Brooks at Midway
'Head on at Midway' -- This painting is the work of artist John Greaves and is published on the Annals of the Brewster Buffalo with his permission. Shown is Lt. Brooks's Buffalo with its wheels only partly retracted, after his head-on encounter with a Zero. Click here for Brooks's combat report.

The U.S. Marines at the Battle of Midway

by Jarmo Mikkonen

The 25 aircraft of VMF-221 took off at 0600, 4 June 1942, to intercept a Japanese air raid. The squadron consisted of regular USMC pilots and new USMCR pilots. The green 2nd Lt.s were usually wingmen to regular pilots. Tactically the squadron was divided into five divisions that operated independently.

The Japanese raid was intercepted about 30-40 miles out. It appears that the escorting 36 A6Ms were not positioned above the bombers which allowed the first VMF-221 pilots one or two passes without fighter interference. After that the escorts attacked: the first division of five F2As, led by Major Floyd Parks, was completely destroyed. The second division of 6 F2As had two survivors. The third division, 6 F2As and 1 F4F, lost three of their number. Fourth division, only two F2As, lost one. The fifth division of four F4Fs operated in two separate two-plane formations. They lost only one pilot. After the combat only three F2A-3s and one F4F-3 remained in commission. The Japanese admitted losses of 9 aircraft.

The VMF-221 pilots were shocked by the abilities of A6M, as their estimates of its performance indicate. Capt. Kirk Armistead believed that the rate of climb of A6M was at least 5000 ft per minute. The very steep climb angle of the Zero apparently fooled him. Capt. P. R. White estimated the top speed of the Zero Fighter to be in excess of 450 mph!

Those pilots who managed to shake off Zeros used high speed split-S or very steep dives (F2A-3 and F4F-3 alike). These were later found to be the best manoeuvres to shake off a Zero. One F2A-3 pilot, Capt. Humberd, was able to outrun (by a small margin) a Zero at sea level and then commenced a head-on pass and shot his opponent down. Some F2A-3sand F4F-3s suffered from gun jams. Some F2A-3s did not carry head armour behind the pilot which made the pilots vulnerable to even a single bullet. The great pilot losses were also due to Japanese habit of strafing baled-out pilots.

The pilots knew that F2A was being phased out from active service and used as a trainer, which made their criticism fierce. However, the F4F was also criticised: one of the recommendations was that both F2A and F4F should be withdrawn from combat units and "retained for use at training centers only". Lt. Col. Ira L.. Kimes claimed that F4F "is hardly better in combat than is the F2A-3 type".

Very little has been said of the skill levels of opposed pilots. The Japanese carrier fighter pilots, according to Saburo Sakai, were in those days a carefully selected band (during peacetime only about 2% of the applicants actually became fighter pilots) with good training and harshest disciple anywhere. Many had combat experience from China and during the first months after Pearl Harbor they were simply wiping out the opposition. Typical is the fate of 258 Sqn RAF, based at Colombo race course in Ceylon. On April 1942 9 Hurricane Mk 2s and 5 Mk 1s intercepted a Japanese carrier air raid and 9 were destroyed. According to Terence Kelly from 258, the survivors had combat experience against the Japanese from their Singapore days.

'Not a combat airplane'