The Brewster Buffalo F2A-3 was an “improved” version of the F2A-2 and 108 were built. The F2A-3s were conceived as a long range reconnaissance fighter with a new wet wing with self-sealing features and a larger 80 gal fuselage fuel tank. The increased fuel capacity and protection also increased the aircraft’s weight by more than 500 lbs.
The -3 could carry more ammunition than the -2 and had provisions to carry two underwing 100 lbs. bombs. The addition of armor plating for the pilot further increased the aircraft’s weight. The modifications resulted in a reduced top speed and rate of climb, while substantially degrading the Brewster Buffalo’s turning and maneuvering capability.
VMF-221 was formed in July 1941 in San Diego, California. In December of that year, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, they moved to Marine Corps Air Station Ewa in Hawaii and were equipped with Brewster Buffalo F2A-3s. F2A-3 BuNo 01542 was assigned to VMF-221 in September 1941.
On December 25th, 1941, 14 F2A-3’s of VMF-221 took off from the USS Saratoga, CV-3 to land on Midway Island. On March 28th,1942 8 more F2A-3 were offloaded from the Seaplane Tender USS Curtiss, AV-3 for the unit at Midway, and finally 7 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats were delivered from the Aircraft Ferry Kitty Hawk, APV-1 on May 26th, 1942 to Midway. F2A-3 BuNo 01542 was one of the aircraft that was delivered to Midway. Marine Fighting Squadron 221 had a total of 21 F2A-3’s and 7 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats, all of which were essentially worn out “hand-me-downs” from the Navy. On March 1, 1942, VMF-221, VMF-222, VMSB-241 and their headquarters units formed Marine Aircraft Group 22 at Midway Atoll. Of the 21 new pilots to MAG-22, 17 were fresh out of flight school.
Marine Fighting Squadron 221’s first taste of combat came on March 10, 1942, when a four plane section from VMF-221 recorded the first aerial victory flying Brewster Buffalo F2A-3’s downing an enemy Kawanishi Mavis flying boat 45 miles from Midway Atoll. Captain James L. Neefus was credited with the Buffalo’s first kill in U.S. service. F2A-3, BuNo 01542, MF-12 is recorded as one of the aircraft that participated in the combat air patrol interception. It was flow by 2nd Lt. Francis Paul McCarthy, USMC during the interception.
One of the more overlooked aspects of the Battle of Midway is the sacrifice of Marine Fighter Squadron 221 (VMF-221). The Marine aviators engaged a vastly superior force of Japanese Navy aircraft as they vectored toward Midway Atoll to begin softening it up for the planned invasion. When the Japanese First Carrier Striking Group was spotted in the morning of June 4th, the Marines scrambled to engage them. Altogether, VMF-221 put 26 aircraft into the air to intercept the Japanese aircraft heading toward Midway, one turned back due to engine trouble. VMSB-241 Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless and Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bombers also joined the defense. They were up against 72 Japanese Nakajima B5N2 Kate torpedo planes and Aichi D3A1 Val dive bombers arrayed in five “V” formations as they roared toward Midway. An escort of 36 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters flew just above and behind them. The Japanese Zeros thoroughly outclassed the Marine opponents in speed, maneuverability and in the combat experience of their pilots. However, the Zeros were out of position as they neared Midway, allowing the Marines one pass on the attackers before the Zeros could intercept them. The Marine fighters audaciously attacked the far superior Japanese force, throwing themselves against the Japanese mass with unmatched courage. The Buffalos were completely outmatched by the faster, more agile Zeros. One pilot described the uneven dogfight: “(It) looked like they (F2A-3 Buffalos) were tied to a string while the Zeros made passes at them.” In an after-action report by VMF-221, it was stated, “The F2A-3 is not a combat aircraft. It is inferior to the planes we were fighting in every respect.” Despite their courage the Marine fighters were decimated by the Japanese Zeros and the squadron was all but wiped out as a fighting unit. Of the 25 aircraft from VMF-221 that rose to challenge the Japanese, 15 were shot down and only two of the remainder were flyable after the deadly encounter. The Air Group listed 15 pilots Missing in Action, later changed to killed in Action and four wounded in action. The surviving pilots could take some solace in downing six confirmed Japanese planes and damaging 34 others, thus saving Midway Island from an even heavier bombing.
F2A-3, BuNo 01542, MF-12 was assigned to the Second Division of VMF-221 and was flown by 2Lt. John D. Lucas USMCR during the battle of Midway. It was shot down by a Japanese A6M2, 30 miles Northwest of Midway Island during the Battle of Midway on Jun 4, 1942. The pilot 2Lt. John D. Lucas was listed as one of the Missing in Action later changed to killed in Action. His citation:
“The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to John D. Lucas (0-9399), Second Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession while serving as a Pilot in Marine Fighting Squadron TWO HUNDRED TWENTY-ONE (VMF-221), Marine Air Group TWENTY-TWO (MAG-22), Naval Air Station, Midway, during operations of the U.S. Naval and Marine Forces against the invading Japanese Fleet during the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942. Delivering a dauntless and aggressive attack against a vastly superior number of Japanese bomber and fighter planes, Second Lieutenant Lucas aided in disrupting the plans of the enemy and lessening the effectiveness of their attack, thereby contributing materially to the success of our forces. As a result of his courageous and daring tactics and because of the circumstances attendant upon this engagement, there can be little doubt that Second Lieutenant Lucas gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country. He displayed the characteristics of an excellent airman in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Of the surviving pilots of VMF-221, two became “Aces” during the war. Lieutenant Charles M. Kunz would later fly in VMF-224, adding six victories to end the war with 8 victories. Capt. Marion E. Carl would later fly in VMF-223 raising his score to 18.5 Japanese aircraft shot down. Other pilots like 2nd Lieutenant Clayton M. Canfield shot down two additional aircraft while flying with VMF-223. 2nd Lieutenant Walter W. Swansberger won the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal.
For their actions during the Battle, the squadron, as a component of MAG-22, also received a Presidential Unit Citation.
“For conspicuous courage and heroism in combat at Midway Island during June 1942. Outnumbered five to one, Marine Aircraft Group 22 boldly intercepted a heavily escorted enemy bombing force, disrupting their attack and preventing serious damage to island installations. Operating with half of their dive-bomber’s obsolete and in poor mechanical conditions, which necessitated vulnerable glide bombing tactics, they succeeded in inflicting heavy damage on Japanese surface units of a large enemy task force. The skill and gallant perseverance of flight and ground personnel of Marine Aircraft Group 22, fighting under tremendously adverse and dangerous conditions were essential factors in the unyielding defense of Midway.”
After the Battle of Midway, the survivors of VMF-221 were transferred back to MCAS Ewa. VMF-221 was one of three Marine fighting squadrons that made up Marine Air Group 21. They were re-equipped with the F4F-4 and later with the F4U Corsair during the course of two more deployments overseas. VMF-221 finished the war with a score of 155 victories, 21 damaged and 16 probable kills, the second highest total of any Marine Corps Squadron during the war. The last remaining Marine fighter pilot of VMF-221 from the battle of Midway, Williams Brooks died in January 2010.