16 September 2017 | Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. With memories of the film Dunkirk, 2017 Battle of Britain and United States Air Force 70th anniversary remembrances still fresh in their minds, visitors to the National Museum of the United States Air Force (NMUSAF) are drawn to the displays of a Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. A few Americans wearing Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) or Royal Air Force (RCAF) uniforms flew early models or marks of the iconic fighters cited in the first paragraph during the pivotal 1940 clashes referenced above. Freedom was eventually preserved and restored in Europe through the sacrifices of the young men from Britain, Canada, America, and other countries that flew to the defense of “mother” England.
As preparations enter the final stages for the Colorado Aviation Historical Society‘s 2017 Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame inductions, which will include the induction of ten Coloradans (Luke Elbert Allen, Frank Raymond Boyles, James Campbell Davie, Billy Orin Gates, LeRoy Gover, Robert Henry Hendrix, Clyde Homer Jay, Jr., Frederick Holbrook Mahn, James Christian Nelson, and Richard Earl Todd) who voluntarily joined the RCAF or RAF during the Second World War, those very familiar with military aviation history are quick to note that an example of one British aircraft of great significance is missing. The absent flying machine is a Handley Page Halifax. Although the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) did not operate Halifaxes, many U.S. citizens served aboard the behemoths as RCAF aircrew and numbers of them died.
Karl Karsgaard, a Director of Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta, Canada pointed out that “the Halifax was the fourth [behind the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and Boeing B-29 Superfortress] most significant heavy bomber in terms of American casualties.”
He added, “Approximately 9,000 American citizens joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, having made their own personal decision to enter the war and of that number about 800 were killed in RCAF service and 379 of their names are currently inscribed on Canada’s Bomber Command Memorial at Bomber Command Museum of Canada.”
Yet, despite the figures cited by Mr. Karsgaard, only RCAF Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., the author of the immortal sonnet High Flight, is prominently referenced within the magnificent NMUSAF facility.
Recognition of the thousands of other Americans who served in the RCAF and RAF is long overdue. Bomber Command Museum of Canada is striving to rectify the oversight and Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) is scouring the planet for Halifax parts to enable the rebuilding of one of the bombers. (Could enough pieces be located to enable the reconstruction of two Halifaxes?)
The other bird missing from NMUSAF’s inventory is an American-built fighter commonly referred to as the Brewster Buffalo. This winged beast is very nearly extinct, although one former Finnish Air Force B-239 belonging to the National Naval Aviation Museum is on loan to Finland and another Buffalo has been discovered in shallow water off Midway Atoll.
Often overlooked is the fact that in the aftermath of the surrender of the Netherlands East Indies in March 1942, seventeen of the then obsolescent B-339s allocated to the Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force (ML-KNIL) were transferred to the USAAF’s Fifth Air Force in Australia.
Sources indicate that these orphaned aircraft were eventually, with the exception of at least one which was retained by the Fifth Air Force and utilized as a “hack,” loaned to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). In 1944 the survivors of RAAF service were repatriated to the USAAF. Notably, Jim Maas’ 1987 book F2A Buffalo in action includes a photograph (page 44) of a Fifth Air Force Buffalo sporting U.S. national markings.
One USAAF mishap involving a Brewster is documented: On 1 July 1942 Second Lieutenant Henry Orous Null, Jr., of the 4th Air Depot Group, took a Brewster aloft and crashed at Mount Stanley in Victoria, Australia.
Buffalo detractors point out that the Brewster product could not dogfight with the light and nimble fighter planes employed by Imperial Japan and the inexperienced Allied pilots too often lost the contests.
However, neither the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk or Bell P-39 Airacobra, examples of which sit prominently inside NMUSAF, could likewise not tangle on anywhere even terms with the lightweight Mitsubishi A6M Zero and older fixed-undercarriage Nakajima Ki-27.
Yet, in service with the Finnish Air Force, the rotund Buffaloes excelled and ruled regional skies by defeating Hurricanes, Spitfires, and Soviet-designed fighters flown by Soviet Air Force aviators in aerial combat. As Wikipedia states: “Only 509 Buffaloes were produced, yet the type produced forty aces. This may well be the highest ratio of aces per number of aircraft produced, of any production fighter plane.”
By adding a Halifax and Buffalo, or at least dedicating displays to them, NMUSF would be honoring the American personnel who flew, serviced, and maintained these historic aeroplanes. Furthermore, the entity would be justifiably and appropriately perpetuating the sagas of RCAF-Americans, Handley Page Halifax, and Brewster Buffalo.
The author (John Stemple) thanks Karl Karsgaard, Bomber Command Museum of Canada, and Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada).
Sources and Suggested Readings
Americans in the RCAF
Battle of Britain
Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress
Bomber Command Museum of Canada
Brewster Buffaloes for the Militaire Luchtvaart KNIL
Crash of a Brewster Buffalo on Mount Stanley in Victoria on 1 July 1942
Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada)
Handley Page Halifax
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Mass, Jim , F2A Buffalo in action. Carrollton, Texas: Squadron Signal Publications, Inc., 1987.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Bell P-39Q Airacobra
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Curtiss P-40E Warhawk
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Boeing B-29 Superfortress
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Consolidated B-24 Liberator
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Hawker Hurricane Mk. IIa
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – High Flight
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Supermarine Spitfire Mk. Vc
Rare Brewster Buffalo Found Near Midway Atoll
Royal Air Force
Royal Canadian Air Force
Royal Netherlands East Indies Army Air Force
Wikipedia – Brewster F2A Buffalo
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base