HONOLULU — Divers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were doing routine marine cleanup work in Midway Atoll's lagoon in June when they came upon something startling in 10 feet of water.
A big three-bladed propeller was sitting on the sandy bottom next to an engine and some landing gear.
Nearly 70 aircraft are known to have gone down around the famous World War II battle site, where the U.S. turned the tide of the Pacific war against Japan in 1942, but most remain undiscovered, said Kelly Gleason, a NOAA maritime archaeologist with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
Here was a doozy right in Midway's front yard.
Some follow-up dives in July and subsequent research pointed to the plane wreck being a Brewster Buffalo — only one of which is known to still be in existence, Gleason said.
Nicknamed the "Flying Coffin" by Marines who flew it, the Buffalo had an inglorious history at the Battle of Midway, June 4-7, 1942.
According to the Navy, the Brewster fighter's only U.S. combat use, on June 4, "dramatically showed the inferiority of the F2A-3 when confronted by the Japanese Navy's ‘Zero' carrier fighters and well-trained aviators."
In a brief battle against greatly superior numbers, Midway's Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) lost 13 of 20 F2A-3s, the Navy said. Soon after, the Buffalo was removed from combat units and assigned to training duty.
The fact that the Brewster was found inside the Midway lagoon "was pretty amazing," said Gleason, who visited the site in July with other NOAA marine researchers.
"Midway, even though not that many people get there, it's been pretty well surveyed over the years between the military being there (and the) scientists who have been at Midway," she said.
Ten feet of water inside of a lagoon "is not a difficult place to get to — so it's pretty remarkable that they found this" so many years later, Gleason said.
In addition to the prop, nine-cylinder Wright engine and landing gear, divers found .50-caliber ammunition strewn about, two machine guns, a tail cone section, joystick, cockpit glass shards and "parts and pieces everywhere," she said.
No fuselage or wings were located, though.
With some research, it was determined that the plane almost definitely was flown by Marine 1st Lt. Charles Somers Jr., Gleason said.
In February 1942, several months before the Battle of Midway, Somers flew through a squall and ditched in about 10 feet of water in the lagoon while trying to land at Midway's Eastern Island, according to NOAA.
The plane was wrecked, and the military salvaged what it could, Gleason believes.
In March of that year, while with VMF-211, Somers flew after a Japanese seaplane near Midway, and despite heavy cloud cover, downed the four-engine aircraft, an action that earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross. At some point before the Battle of Midway, Somers got sick and was transferred to Oahu.
"He didn't participate in the battle itself, which is … probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to him" because the Brewsters suffered so many losses, Gleason said.
Gleason theorizes that the crash site may have been revealed after the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 rolled through Midway, stirring things up.
The only other crashed military aircraft found in recent decades were F-4U Corsairs, one off Midway and another near Kure Atoll, but neither was connected to the Battle of Midway, Gleason said.
The Brewster is the first aircraft to be found that was stationed at Midway to defend against the Japanese attack, NOAA said.
In June, NOAA divers based in Hawaii with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Coral Reef Ecosystem Division were at Midway clearing marine debris — mainly derelict fishing nets — when the plane parts were spotted, Gleason said.
NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Hawaii are trustees of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which includes Midway, she said.
Gleason said the next step is to connect with interested parties, such as Marine Corps aviation groups.
The Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor also is interested in the wreck.
"This is absolutely a historic airplane," said Executive Director Ken DeHoff.
DeHoff said he'd like to exhibit what he can of the aircraft.
The Brewster Buffalo first flew in 1937 and was used by the United States, Finland, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands. The plane had a 1,200 horsepower Wright R-1820-40 radial engine, four .50-caliber machine guns and maximum speed of 320 mph, the Navy said.
The only known remaining Brewster Buffalo is in a museum in Finland, Gleason said.
Aviation writer Dan Ford said on warbirdforum.com that two books are titled "The World's Worst Aircraft," and that the Buffalo is the only fighter from any era to have a chapter in both.
"The U.S. Navy gave it to the Marines," Ford said. "Pilots thought it was a sweet plane to fly, but noticed that the wheel struts sometimes broke, that the engine leaked oil, and that the guns sometimes didn't fire. And when they flew it against the nimble fighters of Japan, too often they didn't come back."
At Midway, that history still is being told.
"Considering what a huge part of Midway's history the battle and all the planes stationed there were, it just reminds us how much more there is to discover, and how rare these discoveries are," Gleason said.