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The SB2U-1 and SB2U-2 was the first monoplane dive bomber accepted into service by the U.S. Navy. From the beginning, the airplane was not a success as a dive bomber, since Vought was unable to come up with a way of braking the airplane’s speed in a 70-degree dive. The tactic of extending the landing gear did not sufficiently slow the airplane. The Northrop BT-1 - with its perforated dive flaps that allowed speed to be kept to under 270 knots in a dive, which allowed the pilot to accurately aim the airplane at the target - showed much more potential, and was ultimately to appear as the SBD Dauntless, the best dive bomber of the Second World War.
Nevertheless, in 1940 Vought proposed a “long-range” scout/dive bomber development of the design with increased armament and armor, which the Navy accepted as the SB2U-3. Originally developed as a floatplane, the performance of the XSB2U-3 on floats was so poor that the concept was abandoned and the 57 SB2U-3s ordered were produced as land planes and handed over to the Marines since the Navy didn’t want them. The SB2U-3, which had the same powerplant as the earlier airplanes, with additional weight from four 50 caliber guns in the wings and increased fuel supply, had even poorer performance than its forebears. VMSB-1 and VMSB-2 were equipped with the airplane, now known as the “Vindicator” in the summer of 1941.
The Vindicator at Midway:
VMSB-1, the “east coast” Marine Scout-Dive Bomber unit, was renumbered VMSB-231 in October 1941 and sent to the west coast as war clouds gathered in the Pacific. In November, the unit was sent on to MCAS Ewa at Pearl Harbor. During the first week of December, 18 of the unit’s 24 Vindicators were loaded aboard the “Saratoga”, for shipment on to Midway. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, which happened before “Saratoga” could send the Vindicators on to Midway Island, the carrier was recalled to Pearl Harbor, where the Marines found the Vindicators left behind at Ewa had been destroyed in the Japanese attack. On December 23, 1941, 18 SB2U-3s, accompanied by a PBY for navigation, demonstrated their long-range capability when they made the 1,135-mile flight from Oahu to Midway in 9 hours and 45 minutes. At Midway, the squadron joined the F2A-3s of VMF-221 as Marine Air Group 22, the westernmost American unit in the Pacific, following the surrender of Wake Island the week before.
Discovered in 1859 and annexed by the United States in August 1867, Midway Atoll consists of Sand and Eastern islands, surrounded by a coral reef less than six miles in diameter. The atoll was used as a cable station and airport for Pan American Airways’ China Clipper until March 1941, when the U.S. Navy began construction of a naval air station. Completed in August 1941, Midway NAS included a 5,300-foot runway on Eastern Island. Midway entered the war on December 7 when the Japanese destroyers Sazanami and Ushio shelled the airfield. With the outbreak of war, Midway became vitally important, though at the time none of its personnel could have imagined how important.
Marine 2nd Lt. Sumner H. Whitten had been at Pearl Harbor for the Japanese attack. In late December, he and 14 of his fellow brand-new Marine aviators were assigned to MAG-22 at Midway - seven to VMF-221 and seven to VMSB-231. They shipped out for Midway the first week of January 1942 on the only troop-carrying destroyer the Navy had.
Whitten later remembered that “The SB2U-3 was a slow plane, as far as speed went, and a lousy bomber. They didn’t know much about dive brakes when they built the SB2U-1 and 2. Up until then, dive bombers had been biplanes, and they produced enough drag to keep down the speed in a dive, but with a cleaned-up monoplane like the SB2U series, you’d easily see 390-400 knots on your airspeed meter in a dive from 8,000 feet. It was like riding a rock! You could hardly maneuver - the ailerons became stiff as a board. We would drop our landing gear, which slowed us down a bit - 15 to 20 knots - but you still had to be very strong to operate an SB2U in a dive.”
On Midway, Whitten was assigned Aircraft BuNo. 2054, number 11 in the squadron. As he recalled, “My crewman was Sergeant Frank E. Zelnis. Me being from outside Boston, and he from a very recently immigrated Latvian family, we could hardly understand each other, but finally - a couple of weeks later - we could interpret each other over the intercom. Frank was a good ordnance man who taught me about the guns on the plane. He cleaned his own gun, while my job was to clean the fixed .50s. I was also responsible for cleaning inside the cockpit, as well as the brakes and wheels, including the tail wheel. Keeping the brakes clean was important because the coral dust we kicked up during takeoff and landing wore out the brakes in no time.”
At the time of their departure for Midway, the SB2U-3s of VMSB-231 were due for an overhaul that would have included replacing the wing and fuselage fabric. Suffering from heat, sunlight, and salt air on Midway, the fuselage fabric went from bad to worse, and the squadron was reduced to wrapping 4-inch medical tape over the worst areas to keep the fabric in place, which was then doped over, resulting in all the dirt on the airplane at the moment being preserved. under the dope. These were the famous “white stripes” seen in photos. No two airplanes had similar taping.
Through the first five months of 1942, the Vindicators would take off at 0400 for a morning anti-submarine patrol, with an evening patrol taking off at 1730. As Whitten recalled, “In between, we’d practice bombing during the day. There was a barge out in the lagoon, but we got no practice in hitting a moving ship. Meanwhile, Japanese submarines were watching us - they knew what we had. Every Friday night the Japanese shelled us, but the three or four rounds they fired were not too effective considering that the island was no more than 4 feet above sea level. We’d sit on top of our dugout on Friday night, wondering where the shells would come from and where they would go. Most went right over the island and into the lagoon. They sometimes hit, making a hole 15 feet long, and we’d just fill it in.”
In February 1942, several of VMSB-231 personnel were sent back to MCAS Ewa to form new squadrons, and on March 1, 1942, the squadron was redesignated VMSB-241, the “Sons of Satan.”
At the end of May., 1942, the pilots were informed the war was coming to them, with the main Japanese fleet set to hit Midway and invade it within a week. The squadron received 16 SBD-1 and SBD-2 airplanes a day later, to supplement the tired old SB2U-3sw
On June 4, 1942, the squadron was ordered to take off at 0700 and attack the Japanese fleet. As Whitten remembered, “Major Benjamin W. Norris led 12 SB2Us, though one had to drop out with mechanical problems. Japanese carrier planes were attacking Midway - when we were taking off, bombs were falling on the island. All aircraft of the squadron were to rendezvous 40 miles east of the island, but when our SB2Us got there the SBDs were long gone, so we climbed at 200-300 feet per minute until we reached 8,000 feet, just above the clouds.”
“The weather over Midway on June 4 was clear, with scattered clouds. However, as we proceeded northwest toward the Japanese fleet the cloud cover became more complete. By the time we were within 25 miles of the projected attack point, the cloud cover was solid to broken, heavy clouds, extending up to 8,000 feet. We could see - between breaks in the overcast - elements of the Japanese fleet. I can remember seeing a carrier going on a course of say 120 degrees, with flames coming out of it and a destroyer alongside, along with a couple of other wakes. Then, suddenly, we came under attack. Zelnis said three Zero fighters came at him, joined after two or three runs by more.”
The SB2U-3s were in three four-plane sections, in a step-down formation. Whitten recalled that as the Japanese Combat Air Patrol came in, “Zelnis was a damn good gunner, and I was greatly relieved by that. He was firing almost continuously, in two to three-round bursts so as not to waste the 90 rounds in his drum, which he would then have to change. You had to be awfully adept at doing this in a slipstream, with fighters firing at you. During the fight, a Zero went under my right wing with black smoke pouring from the junction of the engine and fuselage and wing. That is probably the one with which he was officially credited. Another Zero came down at a 90-degree angle, burning back down the whole fuselage. I personally believe that Zelnis should have been credited with two kills, but for a gunner, one is more than normal, and we lost several gunners before we got to the fleet.”
Over the Japanese fleet, the Vindicators dove down in column formation through cloud breaks, still under attack by Zeros. the emerged into clear air at about 3,500-4,000 feet, in the vicinity of a battleship, which Norris ordered them to attack since going after the carriers would have meant flying across the entire fleet while under attack.
Whitten remembered, “I made a lousy attack-from 4,000 feet, I could not get a good approach. Making too shallow a dive, diagonally from starboard aft to forward port, I dropped my bomb off the bow of the ship but didn’t hit it. But we scared ’em. Major Norris, 2nd Lt. George T. Lumpkin and 2nd Lt. Kenneth O. Campion dived on the battleship, too. Norris managed to score a near miss that caused it some damage. I think there was a direct hit made amidships... I then made a sharp right turn and started home at 100 feet. We made it back okay - ours was the only plane in the squadron that was not damaged during the battle.”
Two SB2Us, crewed by Lt. Andrew Campion and Private Anthony J. Maday and 2nd Lt. James H. Marmande and Pfc Edby M. Colvin, failed to return. Second Lieutenant Allan H. Ringblom ran out of fuel and had to ditch. He and his gunner, Private E.L. Webb, were rescued by PT-26. Lt. Cummings also had to ditch a few miles short of Midway and was rescued by PT-20.
The survivors of the morning strike were refueled and rearmed. They spent until 1900 waiting to go out, at which time they were ordered to find and attack two burning Japanese carriers.
The SBDs, now led by Captain Marshall A. Tyler, following the death of squadron CO Major Henderson in the morning attack, went out on their own. Major Norris led five SB2U-3s in a V formation. Whitten was at the extreme left of the formation. As he remembered, “The weather was bad, and we never found a target. It became dark - Williamson’s lighted compass and the flames from his exhaust stacks were the only lights I could see. We zigzagged around some clouds, and suddenly nobody was there - the others must have gone on. I made a square search for two minutes, then said to myself, ‘I’m going home.’” After another 15 minutes, he jettisoned his 500-pound bomb. “After another square search, I found Pearl and Hermes, a coral outcropping southeast of Midway, so I knew where I was. I turned around and headed for Midway, but Midway didn’t turn up. I did a two-minute square search, then another for four minutes then turned back. Then Zelnis told me, ‘Make a 180-I see flames.’ I didn’t see anything, but I turned in that direction for a minute or so, and then I saw the fire - an oil tank that the attacking Japanese planes had hit on Sand Island.” Whitten was fired on by the Marine defenders as he entered the landing pattern, but #11 was still lucky and wasn’t hit. “After I landed, they took a half a pail of fuel out of my tanks. Major Norris’ plane never came back, but everyone else did. By the time I’d finished my debriefing, it was about 2 or 2:30 in the morning.”
The next morning, Whitten was allowed to sleep in, since the squadron had more crews than planes. At 0430, VMSB-231 took off to attack two enemy cruisers. 2nd Lt. Robert W. Vaupell flew Whitten’s airplane. “Tyler’s six SBDs failed to finish Mogami, but our six SB2Us, led by Captain Fleming, got a couple of hits on Mikuma - one got a solid hit forward of the ship, and another got a bouncer off the back end. Dick Fleming’s SB2U was hit by anti-aircraft fire early in the attack and burst into flames, but he flew his plane into the ship, killing himself and his gunner, Pfc George A. Toms. The executive officer of Mikuma, who survived the battle, said he thought Fleming was a very brave man because he hit the after turret and put it out of action. He also caused a fire that was sucked into Mikuma’s starboard air intakes, suffocating her engineers.”