US Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) earns an honoured place in history

US Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) comprised six recently acquired Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat and twenty obsolescent Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo fighters. All of these Marine fighters were cast-offs from US Navy carriers that had re-equipped their air groups with the best front-line Navy fighters available. Prophetically, the elderly Buffalo fighters had already acquired the unofficial designation "Flying Coffins" from Marine pilots. When the fighters of VMF-221were scrambled from Midway at 0600 hours on 4 June 1942, they were missing two F4F Wildcats that had been on patrol when the alert sounded. They would have to land and refuel before they could join their comrades in the air defence of Midway. Another fighter returned to Midway soon after take-off with engine trouble. That left the squadron commander, Major Floyd B. Parks, with only twenty-

THE BREWSTER F2A-3 BUFFALO - unofficial designation "Flying Coffin"
The US Navy called this obsolescent fighter a "Buffalo". The US Marines called it a "Brewster". Unofficially, pilots of both services dubbed them "Flying Coffins". They were no match for the deadly Japanese Zero fighter which was much faster and more agile in combat. The main strength of this stubby fighter was its ruggedness. On the morning of 4 June 1942, these elderly fighters fought a gallant but hopeless battle against the Zeros escorting Vice Admiral Nagumo's carrier-launched air strike against Midway Atoll.

three fighters to challenge the incoming Japanese bomber formation protected by thirty-six deadly Zeros. To guard against the Japanese formation separating and striking at Midway from different directions, Major Parks had earlier decided to divide his squadron into two groups of thirteen aircraft. One group, comprising the first, fourth, and fifth divisions, would be led by him. The other group, comprising the second and third divisions, would be led by Captains Daniel J. Hennessy and Kirk Armistead respectively. It had been agreed that Hennessey and Armistead would orbit at a designated location until it could be ascertained whether or not the Japanese strike force was being maintained as a single formation. If the Japanese did nor separate, Hennessey and Armistead would be directed to support Major Parks.

Major Parks led VMF-221 off Midway with his first division comprising six Buffalos. Captain Robert E. Curtin followed with his fourth division comprising only two Buffalos. Captain John F. Carey followed with his fifth division reduced to only three Wildcats. His wingmen were Captain Marion E. Carl and Second Lieutenant Clayton M. Canfield. These three divisions were vectored directly towards the incoming Japanese air strike force which was still approaching Midway from the north-west on a bearing of 320 degrees. Captains Hennessey and Armistead followed with twelve Buffalos and one Wildcat. As agreed earlier, Hennessey and Armistead headed out on a slightly more westward bearing of 310 degrees to allow for radar error and the possibility that the incoming Japanese formation would separate and attack the atoll from different directions. While orbiting about thirty miles out from Midway, Hennessey and Armistead were informed that radar was placing the Japanese bombers at seventy-four miles from Midway, and closing fast as a single formation at an altitude of 11,000 feet. They were ordered to support Major Parks immediately.

With the advantage of radar early warning and guidance, the Marine fighters were able to climb above the incoming Japanese formation. At 0612, Captain Carey was first to sight the Japanese aircraft when they were about forty miles out from Midway. Leading his three Wilcats at about 14,000 feet, Carey saw a large formation of Kate level bombers about two thousand feet below him. The bombers were being screened by several divisions of Zero fighters flying above and just behind them. Japanese carriers had no radar at this time, and the Japanese formation was clearly unaware of the presence of Marine aircraft in its vicinity.

At 0614, Carey transmitted the warning: "Tally ho! Hawks at Angels twelve supported by fighters."

Taking advantage of the Zeros trailing behind the bombers, Captain Carey put his plane into a steep dive to gain speed and caught one of the lead bombers in his gunsight. He fired a burst and saw the Kate bomber explode. He made a sharp turn to evade the Zeros but was caught squarely by a burst of fire from one of the Japanese bombers that raked his Wildcat and shattered both of his legs. Second Lieutenant Canfield had followed Carey's attack on the level bombers, and fired a burst that caused a second Japanese bomber to explode. Then the Zeros were on them like a swarm of angry hornets, and Canfield sought refuge in nearby cloud. When he emerged, there were no Zeros in sight and he was able to escort Carey's crippled Wildcat back to Midway. The landing gear on both Wildcats collapsed when they landed. Canfield was able to dive into a slit trench just before the Japanese bombs began to fall. Carey was too badly wounded to control his crippled plane and it crashed into a revetment. He was dragged to safety even as the bombs were beginning to fall.

Carey's other wingman, Captain Marion E. Carl, spent most of the battle fighting off Zeros that followed him tenaciously. He scored one probable that he last observed trailing smoke, but he could not shake off another Zero that raked his Wildcat. Finding his guns would not fire, Carl was forced to take cover in cloud until the battle was over.

The Marines shot down and damaged several Japanese bombers before the escorting Zero fighters struck viciously. The Marine fighters were not only heavily outnumbered, but completely outclassed by the faster and more agile Zeros. In quick succession, sixteen Buffalos and Wildcats were sent plummeting into the sea.

US Marine pilots stationed on the tiny Midway islands were required to defend this most westerly American outpost in the Pacific Ocean against a massive Japanese air attack on 4 June 1942. This image by artist John Greaves captures the moment when Marine pilot 2nd Lieutenant William V. Brooks, flying an obsolescent Brewster Buffalo F2A-3 hampered by defective landing gear, has engaged two agile Japanese Zeros and damaged one of them with his fire.

Captain Kirk Armistead was one of the survivors and he provided an account of the attack by his division of six elderly F2A-3 Buffalos and one relatively modern F4F-3 Wildcat:

"At about 0620, I heard Captain Carey transmit "Tally-ho" followed by "Hawks at Angels Twelve, supported by fighters." I then started climbing, and sighted the enemy at approximately 14,000 feet at a distance of five to seven miles out (from Midway Atoll), and approximately two miles to my right. I immediately turned to a heading of about 70-degrees and continued to climb. I was endeavoring to get a position above and ahead of the enemy and come down out of the sun. However, I was unable to reach this point in time. I was at 17,000 feet when I started my attack. The target consisted of five divisions of from five to nine planes each, flying in division "Vs".

I figured this group to consist of from thirty to forty dive-bombers of the Aichi Type 99 (Val). I was followed in column by five F2A-3 fighters and one F4F-3 fighter, pilot unknown. I made a head-on approach from above at a steep angle and at very high speed on the fourth enemy division which consisted of five planes. I saw my incendiary bullets travel from a point in front of the leader, up through his plane and back through the planes on the left wing of the "V". I continued in my dive, and looking back, saw two or three of those planes falling in flames. Some of the planes in my division centered their attack on the fifth enemy division.

After my pull-out, I zoomed back to an altitude of 14,000 feet. At this time, I noticed another group of the same type bombers following along in their path. I looked back over my shoulder and, about 2,000 feet below and behind me, I saw three fighters in column climbing up toward me, which I assumed to be planes of my division. However, they climbed at a very high rate, and a very steep path. When the nearest plane was about 500 feet below and behind me, I realized that it was a Japanese Zero fighter. I kicked over in a violent split "S" and received three 20-mm shells, one in the right wing gun, one in the right wing root tank, and one in the top left side of the engine cowling. I also received about twenty 67.7-mm rounds in the left aileron, which mangled the tab on the aileron, and sawed off a portion of the aileron. I continued in a vertical dive at full throttle, corkscrewing to my left due to the effect of the damaged aileron. At about 3,000 feet, I started to pull out, and managed to hold the plane level at an altitude of 500 feet."

From "Marines at Midway" by Lieutenant Colonel R.D. Heinl, Jr., USMC.

At this point, Captain Armistead decided that it was time to nurse his damaged Buffalo back to Midway.

Major Parks and all of the pilots of his division were killed in the air defence of Midway. The manner of Major Parks' death was particularly galling to those watching on Midway. His Buffalo was an early victim of the swarming Zeros. As his fatally damaged Buffalo plummeted towards the sea, Parks bailed out of the burning aircraft and his parachute was seen to open. One ruthless Japanese Zero pilot was unwilling to allow an enemy pilot to escape, and he strafed the unfortunate squadron commander as soon as his parachute opened, and continued firing at his body when it landed on one of the outer Midway reefs. Two Navy torpedo boats that had been manoeuvering in the lagoon tried to reach his body but could not cross the reef.

No one saw how Captain Curtin died. His wingman, 2nd Lieutenant Darrel D. Irwin, had most of his left aileron shot away, and was pursued all the way back to Midway by two Zeros that took turns making firing passes at the already crippled Buffalo. He somehow managed to survive and land his crippled plane at 0650 in the middle of the dive-bombing attack on his airbase.

Captain Phillip R. White went into action with the Buffalos of Captain Hennessy's second division. He shook off a Zero with a violent manoeuvre and found himself following a Japanese bomber that appeared to be returning to its carrier. White shot it down and then pursued another level bomber that also appeared to be returning to its carrier. White was only able to fire one burst before he ran out of ammunition. The bomber appeared to lose speed but escaped when White had to return to Midway to rearm.

Of the second division, only Captains White and Herbert T. Merrill survived. Captain Merrill was more fortunate than Major Parks. After repeated Zero hits, his plane caught fire and he lost partial control. He tried to reach Midway and stayed with his crippled Buffalo so long that he was badly burned. When the flames eventually forced him to bail out, he was at 8,000 feet and very close to Midway. Captain Merrill was aware of the Japanese propensity to strafe enemy fliers descending by parachute, and delayed opening his parachute for as long as he thought it safe to do so. He landed in the Midway lagoon near one of the encircling reefs and inflated his Mae West. Luckily for him, his landing was observed from one of the Navy torpedo boats and it sped close to the reef to rescue him. Seaman Third Class E.J. Steward dived into the turbulent water close to the reef and hauled Captain Merrill to safety.

Sixteen Marine fighters were shot down in this gallant but hopeless defence of Midway, and fourteen pilots died in action. Of those that returned, four crash-landed on Eastern Island and six evaded the Zeros to land after the Japanese air raid ended. Only two of these fighters were fit to fly again. Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) was now effectively non-operational.