Finnish Brewster BW-372 / M239 found in the lake
The story is old, but interesting. I remember how, back in 1998, on television in the local news, I watched a report about a very interesting ww2 relic. It was about a Finnish American-made aircraft from World War II “Brewster Buffalo” with tail number BW-372. It was found and taken out from the bottom of a lake in Medvezhyegorsk region (Finland until 1939, after – the USSR), and a few days later it could be seen at the field airport, where it was taken by a helicopter. I was struck by the excellent condition of the aircraft: the paint on the fuselage, the instruments in the cockpit were in excellent condition, according to the policeman guarding the fighter, the engine was dismantled and was just shining inside.
Over the years, we managed to find a little information about how this WW2 relic – the Brewster Buffalo was shot down, how it was searched, lifted from the bottom of the lake and what happened to it after. We decided to share all this information with you. A lot of information.
About Brewster Buffalo
In December 1939, before the start of World War II, Finland bought 44 Brewster Buffalo fighters from the United States, of which they created an air regiment consisting of four squadrons of eight aircraft each, that is, 32 aircraft. Believe it or not, this barrel-winged aircraft, considered one of the worst fighters of World War II, ended up being the Finnish Air Force’s most productive combat aircraft.
A short, squat and unattractive aircraft, the Brewster entered service in the same year as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and Bf-109, lagging far behind these two aircraft. Its weight increased during the design process, as a result of the installation of heavy weapons and armor. The pilots who served in the British and Dutch air forces in Southeast Asia and flew in the aircraft “Brewster” were extremely unlucky. They were shot down by Japanese Zeros without any significant losses for the latter. In addition, the Buffalo has proven to be quite unreliable in the high temperatures and high humidity that are so typical of the tropics.
US Marine Corps pilots dubbed it the “flying coffin” after the Battle of Midway, where casualties were catastrophic for the Buffalo. It was quickly replaced in the US by the much more efficient Grumman F4F Wildcat. However, in the Finnish Air Force, Brewster has shown itself to be completely different. Although the American fighter did not shine with its technical characteristics, it had a good view from the cockpit and a radio station in each aircraft.
How the Ohukainen’s Brewster BW-372 was shot down
On June 25, 1942, at 13:25 Finnish time, four Brewster aircraft took off from the Tiksha airfield under the command of Lieutenant Ohukainen (Pekuri). They were supposed to intercept the Soviet planes that appeared near the airfield, but, without catching up with them, they went to the area of the city of Segezha, where an air battle was already underway. Approaching the battlefield at an altitude of 5,000 meters, Ohukainen ordered a second pair of Brewsters to attack the Soviet-controlled Hawker Hurricane aircraft below, while he, along with his wingman Sergeant Kalervo Anttila, remained at the height. The battle gradually shifted to the southeast, towards Lake Vygozero. Soon the Ohukainen – Anttila pair was attacked by five Soviet Hawker Hurricane aircrafts.
Ohukainen managed to get away from the Hawker Hurricane, which was pursuing him, but when he flew over Segozero at maximum speed at an altitude of 100 m, another pair of Soviet fighters appeared from above from behind. According to the Finnish lieutenant, at that moment he relaxed and therefore did not notice the “Hawker Hurricane”. His “Brewster” BW-372 received a series of hits, and a flame appeared from the engine, and the fuel tank in the left fender was pierced and caught fire. Nevertheless, Ohukainen was lucky and was able to shoot down the Hawker Hurricane that was attacking him: “The attacker was flying the same course and did not have time to slow down after the fire from such a close distance.
“All of a sudden, his plane was right in front of my plane, and the fuselage completely filled my sight. I pulled the trigger immediately.”
Pilot rescue Lauri Ohukainen
Ohukainen opened the cockpit, but the height was too low to use a parachute. The pilot decided to reach the lake Bolshoye Kaliyarvi, which appeared in front, a couple of kilometers north-west of Orchenguba on Segozero, because at that moment below him there was already a continuous dense forest and a forced tree planting meant instant death.
When Ohukainen was already at a height of ten meters above the surface of the water, he was attacked by the second “Hawker Hurricane”. This time “Brewster” got hit in the right fuel tank, the engine finally stalled, and in a few moments the flames were reaching the cockpit. The pilot immediately sent the plane down and, touching the water at a speed of 250 km / h, the Brewster rolled over the hood.
Ohukainen, freed from the straps, emerged to the surface, then immediately singed his eyelashes and eyelids. Around him, fuel was burning on the water, flowing from the punctured tanks of the aircraft still floating on the water.
“I dived again and saw the border of the continuously expanding burning area. There was water in my lungs. I didn’t want to drown under the burning water.”
When Ohukainen surfaced again, he saw the burning fuel approaching him again.
“The twenty meters I had to parachute was the hardest moment in my life.”
Having finally managed to free himself from the parachute and throwing off his boots, Ohukainen rolled onto his back. “I only got up when my head hit the stones.” The plane, having made a full somersault in the water, sank, as it turned out, in the deepest point of Kaliyarvi at a depth of more than ten meters.
Recovering on the western shore of the lake, Ohukainen noticed bonfires on the opposite side and, as it seemed to him at that moment, Russian soldiers. Apparently, this scared him so much that in his socks he ran about fifteen kilometers to the nearest strongpoint of the Finnish defense line in the village of Baranova Gora in the south of Elmozero, breaking through Finnish minefields on the way. After returning to his military unit, he was asked to take a two-week vacation, but Ohukainen chose to stay. He stated that he would use it according to a pre-arranged schedule:
“I have seen people who, having lost confidence in themselves, experienced great difficulty in further battles after returning from vacation. I wanted to fly in order to fully recover my form as a fighter pilot before vacation.”
Searching for “Brewster”
In 1992, fighter ace Heimo Lampi, who was flying the Brewster, learned that the US National Museum of Naval Aviation would like to have a Brewster aircraft in its collection. Lumpy recalled two planes that had sunk slightly damaged in the Soviet Union: one at sea, the other in a lake. Together with his friend Vic Saragon and daughter Marya Lampi, he decided to form a team to try to find and remove one of these fighters from Russia. They managed to find a sponsor – American Marvin Kottman. He was the head of Turbines Ltd and had good connections with the US Navy and the museum. Kottman, in return, entrusted the management of the prospecting work to his subordinate Gary Williard.
At first it was decided to look for the BW-388 aircraft of the pilot Jouko Lilja in the Gulf of Finland, since the place of the fall into the water was known from the words of the diver Timo Nyuman. However, legally, all the ships and aircraft sunk in the Gulf of Finland belonged to the Pamyat Baltika association, so it was very difficult to take out the Brewster in case of its discovery.
At this time, Williard and Lampy were joined by the St. Petersburg search engine Vladimir Prytkov from the Petro-Avia organization. To avoid any problems, Kottman decided to buy the plane from the rightful owner, and only then ship it to the museum in Pensacola. In 1994, Prytkov and Kottman resolved all financial and organizational issues among themselves, after which it was decided to start looking for an aircraft in Karelia. Over the next couple of years, Prytkov and Lumpy worked in the archives, trying to figure out the exact location of the fall of the Brewster BW-372. After that, searches were carried out at the site of the alleged crash.
In 1996, Williard announced to Kottman that he would continue the project himself – without Kottman. And their relationship was broken. However, Kottman still had the fax he had received, by which Williard informed Kottman that if the plane was found, he would return Kottman’s money spent during the search and reimburse tools and other supplies.
In June 1998, diver Timo Nyman finally discovered a fighter lying on the bottom of Bolshoi Kalijarvi. At the end of July, Williard arrived in St. Petersburg and showed Prytkov a video of Timo Nyman’s underwater footage. Also, Numan himself arrived in St. Petersburg together with the lawyer Thero Erme. Williard said that in Moscow he has acquaintances at the Aviazapchasti association who can help in obtaining permits for the rise and removal of the aircraft.
But they did not receive real help; on the contrary, they provided themselves with huge problems in the future. The upsurge began in August, partly with money Williard received from the American Charles Hine, and partly with Prytkov. The team included divers from Sosnovy Bor – members of the club named “Katran”. One of the divers was an engineer and made the necessary calculations for the reliability of the aircraft’s lifting.
As a result, a mixed American-Finno-Russian group of 17 people arrived at Kaliyarvi. Language barriers and misunderstandings have become real problems in the work. In addition, Numan thought he was still working for Cottman, and Willard was just a middleman. Prytkov asked Nyuman to take him ashore and show the place where the plane sank. At the same time, Prytkov took an ax with him. Nobody knows what was in Nyuman’s head, but he decided to run away, since, according to the ancient Finnish tradition, he did not trust the Russians at all.
He passed information about the plane through Thermo Yerma, and he drove home, on the way stopping by the village of Padany and informing the local district police officer about a suspicious Russian with an ax. The district police officer and the head of the local village council went to the lake, but they did not find anything suspicious. Although, the information about the work being done to raise the plane began to spread quickly.
The plane sank in Big Kaliyarvi at a depth of 15 meters in a depression in the middle of the lake. The underwater environment was ideal for preserving the machine. The fighter, which had been lying at the bottom of the lake for 56 years, completely plunged into the silt, which slowed down the corrosion process, but became an obstacle during the ascent, complicating the separation from the bottom. It was dark in the water and movement in the mud was very difficult for the divers, it took a lot of strength. The working conditions were like hell, the only difference was that it was very cold at the bottom of the lake.
Russian divers toiled in 8-degree water, rose to the surface only when they were blue from the cold. Tina was first dug with shovels for snow, and then the plane was cleaned with a strong jet of water. Divers worked during the day. At night, when they had to rest, the mud settled on the plane and in the morning they had to clean it again with shovels. Finally, the divers managed to fit wide lifting straps under the aircraft. This work took about two weeks.
Gary Williard did not understand the environment in which the work was taking place and asked a friend from Florida to film the plane with an underwater video camera. This friend also did not foresee the circumstances of the case, the divers returned from the lake completely calm, and he did not understand the language they spoke. Williard’s friend, a Florida diver was terribly shocked when he found himself in a frosty, dark jelly of mud. Half-dead, he came to the surface of the lake with the words: “Cold, dark and terrible!”
At the same time, Prytkov tried to resolve legal issues, appealed to the mayor of the city of Segezha, but he refused to take any responsibility on this issue. Then Prytkov turned to Petrozavodsk, where, according to our information, he was not refused.
The plane saw the ground and the first problem
The rise of the aircraft began on August 16, 1998. Tractor tires were brought under the plane and inflated. The plane was moving two meters from the surface, towards the west coast. A winch was already installed there. After 56 years, the fighter found itself on solid ground again, and when the plane reached the shore, events began to develop differently from Williard and Prytkov’s plans. By the way, at the time of the rise, the cost of the aircraft was, according to various estimates, from 70 to 150 thousand dollars, but in the United States, an aircraft of this type restored to flying state would cost 2.5-3 million dollars. This kind of money attracts big problems, and they have appeared.
The plane attracted interest in people from “Aviation Unit” (who had no idea about the peculiarities of the restoration of American aircraft), to whom Williard had previously been imprudent, Marvin Kottman also came to Karelia, who still wanted to buy the plane from the rightful owner. It smelled like a lot of money and the government of Karelia also got into the game. Prytkov and Williard were informed that the plane belonged to the state. They simply removed the search engines – Prytkov was arrested for illegal possession of weapons and ammunition and was kept in prison for several days, Williard hastened to escape himself. Prytkov’s team, realizing that things were going very badly, drowned the engine from the plane, which, however, was raised from the lake a few days later.
Kottman offered the government of Karelia $ 250,000 for the plane, but while the issue was being resolved, the American was seriously threatened by people from the Aviazapchasti firm, who decided to brazenly appropriate the results of someone else’s work. Kottman, frightened by the “Russian mafia”, also hastened to leave the country. As a result, the aircraft went to the Aviazapchast association, but they did not know what to do with it next – there was no documentation for the aircraft, the work required equipment in an inch scale and several years of painstaking work.
Since Russia does not like to invest in the future, Aviazapchast recognized the restoration of the fighter as impossible and it was quickly sold to a private collector in Ireland. By the way, part of the proceeds under an agreement with the government of Karelia was transferred to the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Social Protection for bicycle seats and special vehicles for veterans; to perpetuate the memory of the dead, the completion of the Cross of Sorrow memorial and the improvement of the burial places of soldiers who died during World War II.
Transportation of the Brewster Buffalo BW-372 from the place where it was found
Since the lake in which the plane has been lying for 54 years was located deep in the forests of Karelia in a very inaccessible place, the only way to get the relic from the shore, where it was pulled with great difficulty by divers, was only by air. It was decided to call a cargo helicopter from the “mainland” to transport the aircraft. So the legend of World War II, 55 years later, took to the air again.
While the question of who still owns the aircraft was being decided, conservation work was not carried out, in the end it turned out that it was not possible to restore it to a flying state. In 2004 from Ireland “Brewster BW-372” moved to the museum in Pensacola, and in 2008 it ended up in the aviation museum in Jyväskelä, Finland, where it formally belonged.
Printed publications about this aircraft
Gary Williard wrote the book “Great Buffalo Hunt”, Marya Lampi and Vladimir Prytkov also published the book “In Search of” Kadonneen Brewsterin metsästys “and shot the documentary” Brewster – taivaan helmi”.
The Brewster Buffalo BW-372 is currently the only fighter of this type in the world that survived.
Special from Apolon to relicsww2.com