Seventy-two years ago today MSgt. Gasper Buffa, a resident of Lexington Manor Assisted Living facility in Port Charlotte, Fla. served with the 1st Marine Division on Midway Island in the Pacific. He survived an attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s planes commanded by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto.
Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor destroyed much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Yamamoto attempted to lure our aircraft carriers into a trap at Midway and destroy them. If successful, it would have given the Japanese fleet an opportunity to attack the U.S. West Coast.
What the Harvard-educated enemy commander, who had also planned and flawlessly executed the Pearl Harbor attack, didn’t know was U.S. code breakers had successfully cracked the Japanese naval code. Adm. Raymond Spruance, commander of the American fleet at Midway, knew Yamamoto’s every move.
“On June 4, 1942 after months of nothing happening the Japs decided to take Midway. They hit us with 108 bombers and fighters,” Buffa said. “All we had were a bunch of outdated Brewster Buffaloes (fighters). The Jap Zeros were so superior a plane, we lost almost all our Buffaloes on their first flight.
“Eastern Island, where I was, was a mile wide and 1 1/2 miles long. It was just big enough for an airstrip. Sand Island, the other island that comprised Midway Atoll, had a hanger and little else.
“I arrived at Midway a week before the Japs attacked. I was in charge of the propeller shop for the (Douglas Dauntless) SBD torpedo bombers Adm. Nimitz sent us,” the 95-year-old Marine said. “I became plane captain on an SBD flown by Lt. Daniel Iverson of Miami and Sgt. Wallace Reid of Washington State, his back seat gunner.”
“Iverson went on to fly SBDs at Guadalcanal. Late in the war he became an flight instructor at an air base in Vero Beach where he was killed in 1944 teaching a young aviator to fly,” according to Hill Goodspeed, a historian at the National Aviation Museum in Pensacola.
Reid survived the Second World War, but died during the Korean War when he was called back into service. He died in 1950 fighting to hold back the North Koreans along the Pusan Perimeter, Goodspeed said.
Iverson’s plane was serial number 2106. Today his dive bomber is on exhibit at the National Air Museum.
This particular series of SBDs was out dated and after the battle of Midway his aircraft was sent back to the States and used as a training plane on a carrier in Lake Michigan. During a practice flight it was lost when a young pilot crashed the torpedo bomber into the lake, according to Goodspeed.
Almost half a century later the dive bomber was recovered from the lake in the early 1990s and restored by the museum.
At Midway the Japanese made one pass over the island and blew everything up. Buffa was in a foxhole with his 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle firing at the enemy planes flying overhead.
At the same time Hollywood director John Ford and his film crew were on Sand Island filming the attack. His film would produce spectacular news reel footage for Movie Tone News shortly after the Japanese bombardment of Midway.
“While the Brewster Buffaloes were being shot down, Buffa’s SBD and the rest of the dive bombers in squadron VMSB-241 flying from Midway found the Jap fleet. The American planes were flown by pilots with little or no air combat experience and were badly out gunned by the seasoned Japanese pilots.
“Iverson, my lieutenant, got his plane terribly shot up in the initial attack. When he landed back on Midway his hydraulic system was shot out. He came in on one wheel. His squadron commander, Maj. Anderson, was killed in the attack on the enemy fleet.
“By this time PBY (flying boats) from the U.S. fleet spotted the enemy and radioed its position to the three American carrier groups. The carrier pilots who were sent to attack the Jap fleet somehow got lost, but eventually found the enemy fleet. Just by luck they followed a Jap cruiser that was speeding toward the fleet. In six minutes our Navy sunk four Jap carriers, a cruiser and a destroyer.”
This changed the balance of Naval power in the Pacific. The Japanese went from being the aggressor to being hunted down by Allied forces never again to take the offensive during World War II.
Shortly after the historic naval engagement, Buffa was sent to Guadalcanal to keep the SBD dive-bombers in the air during that campaign. He arrived in December, right in the middle of the six month battle.
“The Japs surrounded Henderson Field, where I was on Guadalcanal. In addition, we were attacked day and night by Jap fighters and bombers,” he explained. “A single plane would fly over the field at night and drop two red flares–one at each end of the runway. Then it would drop a green flare in the middle of the runway. Their bombers would fly in and drop their bombs between the two red flares.”
The Americans spent much time filling in craters caused by Japanese bombs that also destroyed the steel mat runway. The planes landed on a series of steel mats that were all twisted up in the bombing and had to be replaced.
To keep his SBDs in the air Buffa had to cannibalize the most badly damaged of the torpedo bombers. He’d scrounge the parts to keep the least damaged planes flying.
Near war’s end Buffa returned to the States and became an instructor for a short time at El Toro Naval Air Station in California. Then he went overseas with the 2nd Marine Division to Peking, China at the close of the war. He help protect local businesses from marauding Communist forces that were beginning to gain strength in China.
“They put no value on human life in China. If we killed a farmer’s animal we paid the government $10. If we killed a Chinese peasant we paid the government $5.”
When Buffa was discharged from the Marine Corps in February 1946 he was a master sergeant and plane captain in charge of keeping dive bombers flying.
During the war years his wife, Rose, was “Rosie the Riveter” in the flesh. She worked for Boeing in California riveting B-17 “Flying Fortresses” and later B-29 “Super Fortresses,” four-engine bombers, together. These planes turned German and Japanese cities into rubble or burned them to the ground.
Buffa and his father went to work after the war building chimneys for homes in Levittown, Pa.
“We would build 100 chimneys a week and get paid $25 per chimney.” Eventually they developed a contracting business that Buffa ran until he retired in 1997.
He and Rose moved to Port Charlotte that same year. She passed away in 2008 after 65 years of marriage. The couple had five children–three girls and two boys—Carol, Linda, Angela, Gasper Jr. and Dominic.
Name: Gasper Buffa
D.O.B: 19 May 1919
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: July 1940
Discharged: Feb. 1945
Rank: Master Sergeant
Unit: 1st Marine Division
Commendations: Presidential Unit Citation w/2 Stars, Navy Unit Commendation medal, Good Conduct Medal w/2 Stars, American Defense Medal, Navy Campaign Medal w/1 Star, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal w/3 Bronze Stars, World War II Victory Medal, China Service Medal, Occupation Service Medal, Sharpshooter Rifle, Sharpshooter Pistol
Battles/Campaigns: Battle of Midway
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, June 4, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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Gasper Buffa, on January 19, 2016, passed away at the age of 96, in Port Charlotte, FL.
Beloved husband to Rose (nee Suozzi). Proud parent to Carol Williams (Silas), Linda Emmi (Thomas), Angela Buffa Tortorici, Gasper Buffa Jr. (Theresa), and Dominick Buffa (Liz). Grandfather to Cynthia Genova, Brian Robert Pascucci (Jennifer),Gasper Buffa III (Jennifer), Matthew Ernest Pas-cucci (Dawn), David Gasper Buffa (Nicole), Lauren Benedict (Chris-topher), and Paul Bradley Buffa.
Great-grandfather to Liam Pascucci, Luke Pascucci, Daniel Buffa, Jay Gasper Buffa and Silas Benedict.
He is also survived by his sister Sarah Pachiarotti and many nieces and nephews.
Memorial Visiting Friday, 2-4 & 7-9 pm at Whitting Funeral Home, 300 Glen Cove Avenue, Glen Head, NY 11545. http://www.whitting.com. Funeral Mass 9:30am Saturday at Church of St. Rocco, Glen Cove, NY. Interment of ashes to follow at Holy Rood Cemetery, Westbury, NY. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in his memory to the Disabled American Veterans website: https://www.dav.org.
Published in Newsday on Apr. 27, 2016