JAMES L. NEEFUS

Colonel | Marine Corps

 

The Brewster Buffalo was a notoriously dangerous fighter handed down by the Navy after breaking wheel struts too often during hard carrier landings.  The Marines persevered with what equipment they had, continuing missions in what they dubbed as a flying coffin that leaked oil, misfired guns, and had too many terminal flights.  These issues were not apparent during the 1938 tests when the Brewster fighter excelled, performing like sleek machine on the cutting edge of technology.

In only a couple of years, the Navy abandoned the plump little craft, dumping it and its problems in the hands of the Marine Corps' pilots.  It performed adequately enough during training and flights with mechanical issues that paled in comparison to how feebly they would perform in combat against the Japanese.

Equipped with twenty of these F2A-3 Buffaloes and seven F4F-3 Wildcats, the Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-221 on the U.S.S. Saratoga had been diverted to Midway Island on 22 December 1941.  The change in direction had been controversial, but well played since Wake fell the next day and Midway was seen as second to Pearl Harbor in defense of the United States' west coast.  The Japanese were still trying to bomb critical points on United States soil, including more damage to Pearl Harbor.  On 4 March 1942 they carried out Operation K, in which two H8K Flying Boats made the journey to the Hawaiian Islands to disrupt salvage and repair efforts.

The mission commander in the first aircraft, Pilot Lieutenant Hisao Hashizume, and Ensign Shosuke Sasao flying the second, both of the elite 801 Kokutai Fighter Squadron missed their targets, but made it back to their bases in the Marshall Islands.  Due to the route Hashizume took flying non stop on the return trip, he set a record for the longest bombing run in history at that point.  Almost one week later a second armed reconnaissance flight took off - one that Hashizume would not return from.

Seven minutes after the air raid alarm sounded, Jim Neefus had cleared the field to pursue a few planes reported by rader.  At 1110, after half an hour in the air, he saw his target and led the attack against the flying boat.  With three fighters under his command he chased the H8K at 7000 feet, firing on his target and setting the outboard engines smoking.

The flying boat plunged into a 30 degree dive to take cover in a broken cloud bank at 3000 feet, trying to escape the abrasive attacked by the four Buffalo fighters.  In ten minutes, the Marines attacked five times before losing contact.  They emerged below the clouds over a glassy sea and immediately saw a trail of black smoke rising from a fire below the area of their engagement.  Hashizume's last flight credited Captain Neefus with a Navy Cross and the first kill for a Brewster Buffalo in combat.

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