In 10 feet of water, they found the propeller and other broken, rusted pieces of a Brewster Buffalo, one of the fighter planes flown by the U.S. Marine Corps from the naval base at Midway up until the battle.
Those sad pieces, along with everything else erased by hard impact and decades of corrosion, came from Queens — Long Island City, in fact.
The Brewster Buffalo was the U.S. Navy’s first single-seat monoplane fighter. While it wasn’t exactly sleek, it was fast for its time — and a coup for Brewster, a former carriage and automobile manufacturer, which scored the contract against big-name competitors like Grumman. Brewster converted its factory at 27-01 Queens Plaza North and started cranking out the squat planes.
The Buffalo was a big deal when it entered service around 1938, but it was pitifully obsolete by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. In fact, the plane’s landing gear proved too weak to land on aircraft carriers, so the planes were shunted off to the Marines for use on land bases.
The Marines hated the Buffalo, which was outmatched by the Japanese Zero. When Japanese planes attacked the Midway airbase during the battle, aviators flying the Buffalo were decimated. In the book Semper Fi in the Sky, author Gerald Astor quotes the report of one pilot, Marine Capt. Phil White: “Any commander who orders pilots out in [a Buffalo] should consider the pilot lost before leaving the ground. It is inferior to the planes we are fighting in every respect.”
The Buffalo was quickly phased out by the Navy and Marines, but it was embraced by Finland, which used them with great success against the air force of the invading Soviet Union in 1941. In fact, the world’s only remaining Brewster Buffalo was fished out of a Finnish lake in 1998.
And the company? According to information in our Archives, it started in the early 19th century, but did not last much beyond the Buffalo’s disastrous combat debut. Fraught with mismanagement but fueled by massive military contracts, Brewster built a huge new factory in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to build a new dive bomber for the Navy. Its production was so wracked with embezzlement and union disputes that the company spent much of the war under government management or congressional investigations. The company dissolved in April 1946, its place in history assured by the stubby, finicky little plane from Queens that flopped in the Pacific but soared in Nordic latitudes.
The old factory in Long Island City has a new and more successful claim on aviation these days: JetBlue’s headquarters is now located there.
Want to learn about successful New York airplane makers? You’ve got to look at Long Island. Grumman and Republic, two of the biggest names in military aerospace, both operated factories there.