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Midway Discovery Raises Profile of Late, Mostly Unlamented Fighter

Few mourned the fate of the Brewster Buffalo in mid-1942, when the Grumman Wildcat replaced the stubby prewar aircraft, least of all pilots who had had to fly the Buffalo in combat. The U.S. Marines derided the squat, much-maligned fighter as a “flying coffin.”

Until last year, only one Brewster Buffalo was known to exist, in a museum in central Finland. That changed in June when divers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were working at Midway Atoll lagoon, which lies within Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, part of the Hawaiian archipelago and one of 14 marine sanctuaries being surveyed for historical artifacts and wildlife. In 10 feet of water, members of the underwater crew discovered the wreckage of a Buffalo. The half-buried remains include a bent propeller encrusted with coral, tires with Goodyear labels still intact, and clumps of ammunition. Archaeologists traced the ruined plane’s numbers and revealed its provenance.

On February 12, 1942, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Somers Jr. was trying to land his Brewster F2A-3 on Midway’s Eastern Island during a squall and crashed. Somers survived and went on to a distinguished career, including a brief stint with a Marine unit that later gained fame as the Black Sheep Squadron for its fliers’ combat exploits and rough-and-ready attitude.

Not all Americans piloting Buffalos had as much luck as Somers. During the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, Marines in Buffalos attacked two squadrons of Nakajima torpedo-bombers. The American planes proved no match for the nimbler Zeros escorting the bombers. Only eight of 21 Buffalos returned.

“The F2A-3 is not a combat aircraft,’’ wrote Captain Phillip R. White, a survivor of the Midway encounter. “Any commander who orders pilots out for combat in a F2A-3 should consider the pilot as lost before leaving the ground.’’

The Buffalo’s woes began at the Brewster Aeronautical factory, a former Pierce-Arrow automobile plant in Queens, New York. To ensure that parts fit, workers assembled and disassembled the planes, then trucked them in pieces to Long Island for reassembly and test flights at Roosevelt Field. Production was dogged by a string of vexatious delays.

Beginning with the first delivery to the U.S. Navy in 1939, Brewster Aeronautical made 503 Buffalos. Of those, 340 were delivered to foreign militaries. Britain’s Royal Air Force, generally unimpressed with American aircraft, foisted its complement of Buffalos off on its No. 71 “Eagle” Squadron, made up of Americans.

Early on, the Yanks in the RAF praised the fighter’s maneuverability, but the aircraft had serious liabilities. The engine leaked oil. At 15,000 feet—combat altitude—the Buffalo lost power. Pilots found that upon landing the plane’s wheel struts tended to buckle and break.

When the final model, the F2A-3, acquired armor, the extra weight negated what few virtues the Buffalo had— “the sports car transformed to a slug,” writes Daniel Ford in his e-book The Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo. Then came the Midway debacle.

Before incurring ignominy in the South Pacific, though, the Buffalo found glory in the Arctic. In December 1939, the Finns, fighting the Soviet Union and anxious to update their aged air force, paid $3.4 million for 44 Buffalos. Since the planes would be land based, workers at Brewster removed carrier-related gear like tail hooks and life-raft containers, lightening the aircraft, which the Finns came to value so much they gave it the nickname Taivaan Helmi: Sky Pearl.

Battle hardened and facing inferior Soviet pilots and planes, Finnish airmen found the American-made fighter easy to operate, to repair, and to modify. Mechanics in Finland were able to eliminate the chronic oil leaks that bedeviled the Buffalo everywhere else, and the cool northern weather seemed to suit the chunky and sometimes finicky plane.

The Finns claim to have downed 500 Soviet planes at the cost of only 28 Buffalos —one of which was retrieved from the bottom of a lake, given a cleaning, and now is on display at the Aviation Museum of Central Finland. “This seems entirely appropriate,” Ford writes. “After all, it was only the Finns who ever loved the plane.”

The Buffalo wreckage found at Midway will remain undisturbed until park officials decide whether to retrieve and display it or to leave it in place.

Sugihara’s List

For weeks, he worked through the night, signing visa after visa. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat serving in Lithuania, knew that he was providing more than travel documents. To thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews, he was delivering life itself.

Sugihara’s effort to confound the Third Reich’s death machine has been overshadowed by better-known humanitarians like Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and German industrialist Oskar Schindler. But as part of events for January 27, 2013, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, survivors and their descendants honored the Japanese official who defied his bosses and approved visas that helped thousands of imperiled Jews survive.

Israel’s representative to the United Nations remembered Sugihara and others who helped Jews escape the Nazis in a January 25 speech at the United Nations General Assembly. “These inspiring stories must become guideposts for the international community,” Ron Prosor said. “They remind us that the responsibility to act is universal.” A UN facility in Accra, the capital of Ghana, screened The Rescuers, a documentary about Sugihara and those like him, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum saluted the diplomat’s commitment to the idea that “the actions of one individual can make a difference….This is the Power of One.”

For years, Sugihara’s good works went unrecognized; indeed, they ended his career with Japan’s Foreign Ministry. He spent most of his postwar life in obscurity. In 1985, a year before his death, Israel added Sugihara’s name to its honor roll of the Righteous Among Nations, an appellation reserved for non-Jews who risk their lives for Jews.

During the 1930s, Sugihara, a descendant of samurai who was fluent in Russian, became one of the rising stars of Japan’s foreign service. But after he protested his country’s brutal occupation of Manchuria, Sugihara found himself shunted to the diplomatic backwater of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, in March 1939.

After Germany invaded Poland that fall, Polish and Lithuanian Jews were desperate to reach safety. Seeing Japan as a way station to points beyond, Jews came to the consulate where vice consul Sugihara worked, seeking Japanese exit visas, which could apply to a single individual or, if granted to a head of household, an entire family.

Recognizing what it would mean for his visitors if they were not able to use his country to reach a safe haven, the anguished Sugihara sought permission from the home office to issue documents. His superiors rebuffed his pleas three times. Finally Sugihara took matters into his own hands, working round the clock signing all the visas he could between July 31 and August 28, 1940.

Eventually, Japan’s diplomatic corps ordered Sugihara out of Kaunas. As his train was pulling away from the station he was still signing visas and handing the documents through the rail car window. Sugihara issued at least 2,139 visas that about 6,000 Jews used to escape their intended fate.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles estimates that 40,000 people who are descended from those and other refugees are alive today thanks to Sugihara. Visas for Life, a foundation authorized by the Sugihara family to promote the diplomat’s legacy, puts the figure at more than 100,000.

One descendant is Richard Salomon, whose father, Bernard, got the 299th humanitarian visa Sugihara issued. A Polish Jew, Bernard Salomon used the paperwork from Sugihara to cross the Soviet Union and reach Kobe, Japan. He later settled in Chicago.

Richard Salomon, a Chicago-area businessman, serves on the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center board. He says his son Mark summarized Sugihara’s contribution when he was 7: if not for Sugihara signing a visa on a frantic day in 1940, Mark Salomon said, “I wouldn’t be here, either.’’

Kiwis’ Killer Wave Theory Resurfaces

New Zealand, a vocal foe of nuclear arms, tried during World War II to develop a weapon of mass destruction.

The obscure scheme behind the “tsunami bomb” went nowhere, despite having Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s encouragement. A new book, based on documents New Zealand declassified in 1999, has garnered the project headlines.

The weapon, developed in a classified program called Project Seal, was tested off New Caledonia and the Whangaparaoa Peninsula in 1944 and 1945. The idea was to use explosives to trigger a wave capable of devastating a small coastal city. The presumed target was Japan.

Halsey, at that time commander of the U.S. Navy Western Pacific Task Forces, was intrigued. “Inundation in amphibious warfare has definite and far-reaching possibilities as an offensive weapon,” the admiral wrote in spring 1944.

The unconventional idea came from a U.S. Navy officer who noticed that blasting intended to clear coral reefs generated towering waves. Project Seal began in June 1944 as a joint U.S.-New Zealand effort. Scientists concluded that a single charge could not trigger the killer wave; it would take 2,000 tons of explosives, set off serially, to cause a tsunami.

Project leader Thomas Leech, engineering dean at the University of Auckland, was enthusiastic about the results. But team member Toby Laing has said the explosions caused barely a ripple.

“They didn’t produce a wave that was big enough to surf on,” says journalist Ray Waru, who unearthed previously hidden details about Project Seal for his new book, Secrets and Treasures.

Waru sees rich irony in New Zealand devising a weapon to inflict mass civilian casualties. After all, in 1987 the nation, which had come to deem weapons of mass destruction an anathema, declared itself nuclear free, irking the United States, which wanted to dock nuclear-armed ships at New Zealand ports.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.