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 Marines at Midway Part Two: VMSB-241 &
SB2U-3 BuNo 2054

by Joe Lyons



Accurate Miniatures' 1/48 scale SB2U-3 is available online from Squadron




Part One in this series looked at the other aircraft in Marine Scout Bomber Squadron 241 (VMSB-241), the SBD-2 BuNo 2106. Photos of this aircraft at the time of the battle have survived, as has the airplane itself. Not so the SB2U-3. Only one photo (reproduced above) of a Midway Vindicator exists, Plane “6,” BuNo 2045. The only surviving SB2U, a –2 (BuNo 1383) and like BuNo 2106 also a veteran of Lake Michigan long-term fresh water storage, is on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum.

I have chosen to replicate BuNo 2054 (Plane “11”) because of an interview article of its Midway pilot, Sumner H. Whitten, in World War II magazine.

The Airplane 

The –3 was produced solely for USMC usage and incorporated more fuel tanks and more fixed guns, as well as armor. It did operate in squadron strength from one carrier, VMS-1 being embarked on Yorktown from June 29, 1941 for that carrier’s second Neutrality Patrol. 

Certainly a beautiful looking aircraft, the SB2U traditionally gets mixed reviews from all who had any experience with it. Particularly the overloaded –3 and it’s near brother, the Chesapeake. Reference e. presents the best available detailed assessment, by Boone Guyton who flew it operationally pre-war: 


He says of the –3:


The British version also flew and handled in all respects similar to the SB2U-1. The SB2U-3 – virutally a flying fuel tank built for the Marine Corps and the last of the breed –did also, with the exception of its added weight, and markedly reduced performance. When all fuel tanks of this longer range SB2U were full, a pilot accustomed to the SB2U-1, immediately felt the difference. He either took the airplane, lived with its additional sluggishness in take off and climb performance, and understood the long range mission  - or he was disappointed and unhappy…At Midway it concluded its mission – earnestly and defiantly – and to some of the pilots whom the airplane had never let down – perhaps a bit heroically. Ironically, 9 out of 11 SB2Us launched at Midway, made it back to the island. [This is not strictly true; he may be counting losses directly attributable to combat, only] 

As a matter of differing points of view, compare these to comments on the Vindicator’s deck landing abilities: 

The normal approach speed was 75 knots and the Chesapeake was beautifully stable, but it was necessary to open the engine cowling gills fully and these immediately obscured the view of the deck…

[Brown, in reference a.]

Landing the airplane was no great event. …The Landing Signal Officer was readily visible on a normal turning approach to the groove. His “cut” came as he was in easy clear vision at the angle of the wing root and the cowl flaps. Vision was obscured somewhat when cowl flaps were open for landings. In fact we usually kept them nearly closed during approaches and landing for that reason. But the engine usually did not overheat due to the close cowl approach, as power required was not high.                                                             

[Guyton, in reference e.]    

Guyton, with 400 hours in type accumulated during 889 flights, is ahead on points in this argument.



The Airplane and the Battle


Before the Battle 

Midway would be the only exposure to any of the SB2U series to combat in US service.. The reason Lexington was at sea and not moored at Ford Island on December 7 was its mission of delivering VMSB SB2Us to Midway, a mission that was aborted. Only the “flying fuel tank” characteristics of the –3 allowed it to get to the island from Oahu during the fabled 1000 mile+ ferry flight on 17 December; Lexington was by then otherwise occupied. The flight was the longest overwater flight by single-engined land planes in aviation history up to that point. More SB2U-3s would be delivered by USS Curtiss (AV-4) on March 28. 

[My good friend Ralph “Jeff” Jeffers, AMC USN retired and a Pearl Harbor survivor, was a crewman aboard Curtiss when it visited Midway in March. Jeff, 87, is a fellow member of New Jersey VFW Post 10129 and in addition to marching in Oceanport, New Jersey’s Memorial Day parade, continues to stand tall fielding an M1 Garand in the firing squad for the gun salute during the ceremonies in front of Borough Hall] 

Vindicator pilots began bombing practice with 100 lb water-filled bombs in January. 

His new pilots needed much training: two ground-loops on the 27th had cost VMSB-241 two SB2U-3s, but the half-dozen Voughts retained as spares took care of such contingencies. On 29 May, 2dLT Sumner H. Whitten inadvertently raised the landing gear of one of the SBDs (while waiting to take off) and put it out of commission. On the 30th, VMSB-251 conducted practice formation flights for groups of four SBDs and the SB2&-3 unit, while the pilots in the SB2Us (for the most part fresh from flight school) practiced glide-bombing.               [Reference c]


Curiously, 2d Lt Whitten’s incident with the Dauntless is not revealed in his magazine interview, reference d.


The Battle

The two groups of Marine dive-bombers rendezvoused 20 miles from the atoll and divided into two attack units. the SBD-2s under Henderson, and the SB2U-3s under Norris.                                [Reference c]


We got a signal at 6 a.m. or so to get up and get going. Then we got another order - - no go- - so we stopped. An hour later, we went, with VMSB-241’s commander, Major Lofton R. Henderson, leading 16 SBDs and Major Benjamin W. Norris leading 12 SB2Us, though one had to drop out with mechanical difficulties. By then, 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…                                                  [Reference d]


As Henderson’s and Norris’s planes joined up at Point “Affirm” and Park’s [VMF-221] were climbing to intercept, the inbound Japanese spotted the atoll about 0615.                                   [Reference c]


[Reading over the anomalies in two different accounts (one eyewitness) of the events of that morning brings new meaning to the term “historical research.”]


Then, suddenly, we came under attack. Zelnis [Whitten’s gunner] said three Zero fighters came at him, joined after two or three runs by more…We dove down, in column formation, through cloud breaks, still under attack by Zeros, coming out at about 3,500—4,000 feet, in the vicinity of a battleship. So that is what we attacked, since to find the carrier would have meant flying around while still under attack…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…

                                                                                    [Reference d]



The Model


The Accurate Miniatures release of its 1:48 scale SB2U series has made this article possible. It is beautifully engineered – the cockpits make marvelous models in their own right. Incorporating them into the fuselage halves is another issue. When I get around to finishing my Saratoga 1939 air group with its VB-3 and CAG SB2Us, I hope the learning curve will have flattened out a bit. 

There has been of course much wringing of hands about the fuselage sink marks in the fabric area. And, it appears this is not a consistent problem from one kit to another. My kit has them. I thought about leaving them alone, but have instead attempted to eliminate the problem with Mr. Surfacer judiciously applied and sanded smooth in two applications. Not counting drying time, this was about a 15-minute exercise. How does it look?  

AM has done a real service in the engine and its cowling. Like AM canopies, the thin cross section of the cowl needs some care, but it’s worth it. The kit gives the standard AM dive bomber underwing ordnance fit of one 1000 lb GP bomb and two underwing 100 pounders. Neither of these bombs were used on SB2Us at Midway, so a spare 500 lb bomb is in the centerline crutch. It appears from a close examination of Figure 1 that the underwing bomb racks were not present on at least one and by inference all eleven Midway aircraft, so they are omitted from the model. 

The radio fit and arrangement in the AM rendition of this scout bomber differs from kits of other SBs in 1:48 from the same era, to wit the CA SBC series, the AM SBDs and the P/M SB2C. AM has placed what I take to be the big MF R/T radio at the rear of the aft cockpit, and what looks to be Command Receivers and transmitters up front. Presumably this was based on inspection of the Pensacola survivor, however all the others are done in a different fashion identical to them all. Part #66 is invisible once the fuselage is closed up and may be ignored, just like part # F27 in the AM SBDs. This aircraft, like all its “SB” brethren should be equipped with a trailing wire antenna, visible as a hollow tube with the weighted end of the wire at the bottom. Photos in Reference b show some SB2Us with it and others without. It is represented in the kit by the little nubbin under the port wing root, probably because BuNo 1383 shows it that way If installed, the tube would show much as it does in some photos. Since “Plane 6” doesn’t show one, the model doesn’t either. 

And speaking of cockpits…Part #48 is the heart of the gunner’s pit and has locating pins to fix it in position with the fuselage side. Use them to do so in Step 3, but be warned that this part is a bit too wide, something not discovered until the fuselage halves are joined prior to gluing up Part #63, the fuselage bottom. This part fit very nearly perfectly on a dry run with the fuselage halves without cockpits. With the pits installed, there is a gap. Solve this problem by cutting through the after most mounting pins; the kerf so formed will bring the fuselage sides close together and allow Part #63 to fit correctly. OR, this whole problem could be builder error. 

In Step 8 of the instruction sheet, AM stays to locate the gun in the pinhole in the upper frame (part 52) if in the stowed position. I disagreed: the pinhole is not on the centerline and photos don’t confirm that location. Rather, use the two arms on part 53 to stow the gun. Also re the gun, might it have had a folding armor plate? Look at in reference B, the photos on p 37, 38, 40, 41 (particularly this one), 42 and 43. Perhaps an Atlantic fleet option, only? 

There are two identical drop tanks. Why, do you suppose? 

Both the AM kits of this aircraft have molded link and empty case chutes for one gun in the port wing. This is not accurate for the single gun earlier models, much less the four-gun –3. A few minutes work with a drill and file fixes the problem for the –3, if you care to do so. It does appear that gun access panels for four guns are present on the upper wings, but available evidence does not confirm with confidence. 

The kit as molded was built straight from the box with the following exceptions: 

1.      The afore-mentioned 500 lb bomb

2.      The pilot’s seat from the Eduard 48-225 SBD P/E set.

3.      Nine thou steel wire was used for the radio antenna and its lead-in.

4.      LSO light added on inner port wing leading edge. 

William Reece has done us all a service with his meticulous look at this kit as presented on Hyperscale. His “small bomb rack” hypothesis is photographically confirmed one more time in Reference e. Every available –3 photo with a clear view of the underside of the outer wings show these. I was not sure how to model these, so I didn’t.



Painting and Markings


SB2Us were delivered beginning in March 1941. AM specifies “aluminum for the cockpits, but I believe that although this is accurate for the two earlier SB2U models, it is in error given the 1938 directive on Bronze Green. Accordingly, I did the ‘pits in a home brew mixture of Humbrol 75 and Humbrol Fitting Copper.  

The directive color for March 1941 exterior color would be overall NS Light Gray, so the completed model was so painted with Polyscale USN Light Gray. Over this on top I did a couple of variations on the Blue-Gray that shows up later in 1941, trying to obtain that sort of mottle look the Plane “6” displays and the AM kit directions talk about. The paints are Polyscale. The lower surfaces of the folding wing panels are done in unfaded Blue-Gray. It’s unlikely that Marine –3s spent much time with in a wings folded state that would enable the fading process. Upper fabric areas are done in Extracolor Blue-Gray to show a different fading effect compared to the metal surfaces, over sprayed with a bit of the aforementioned Light Gray. 

The now-well defined white markings on the rear fuselage done with medical tape are impossible to duplicate with confidence for any but Plane “6.” So, artistic license supplied the inspiration for Plane “11.” Testor’s Model Master Acrylic white is the paint. And, since VMSB-241 aircraft spent many weeks operating off coral runways, there is some paint chipping here and there 

The AM instructions give BuNos for all the VMSB-241 Vindicators, including Plane “11” (2071). However its pilot says it was BuNo 2054 -- He wins. 

AM provides canopy masks for that vast expanse of “green house” SB2U canopies. Be warned, almost all of the mask sections are too small for the glass sections they are intended to protect during painting: use of some liquid masking agent is required to fill the gaps.





It appears to be conventional wisdom that Marine Vindicators suffered many losses at Midway. Given the ferocity of that battle however, the survival of seven out of eleven (two of these ran out fuel apparently due to navigational error) aircraft committed by VMSB-241 compares most favorably to every other US type engaged, either ashore or afloat. Only PBYs, SOCs and B-17s escaped with proportionately lighter losses. To repeat, at least nine out of eleven SB2Us got to within weapons release range in the face of probably the finest combat aviators in the world at the time. The harbinger of the Kido Butai’s fate had already been observed in the Indian Ocean when RAF Blenheims also got to the point of bomb release. On June 4, this vulnerability resulted in its destruction. 

It is unlikely that any VMSB-241 aircraft or indeed any Midway aircraft sent against the IJN carrier force scored hits on June 4. However, the uncoordinated but constant attacks of Marine, Navy and Army aircraft throughout the morning set the stage for carrier SBDs to do in the Kido Butai’s carriers. Without the island’s airplanes forcing evasive action and hindering recovery and rearming operations of those ships, the battle may well have taken a different direction. 

…I have always admired the guts of those rear-seat gunners. Especially those in Vindicators who had to change ammo cans in the face of enemy attacks. Those kids –and most them were kids – were a trusting lot. They rode along backwards, most of the time, not having a say about where or why or how or when. They died when their pilots died, far too many times. And their recognition has never equaled their devotion to duty.                                                                             [Whitten, in reference d]






a.                   Brown, E. (1987). Wings of the Navy Flying Allied Carrier Aircraft of World War Two. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute in Press.

b.                  Doll, T. (1992). SB2U Vindicator in Action. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications.

c.                   Ewing, S., Cohen, S., Cressman, R., Horan, M., Reynolds, C., & Reynolds, C. (1990). A Glorious Page in Our History the Battle of Midway 4-6 June 1942. Missoula MN: Pictorial Histories Publishing.

d.                  Guttman, J. (2002, July). Sumner H. Whitten: A Marine at Midway. World War II

e.                   Mizrahi, J. (1967). U.S. Navy Dive & Torpedo Bombers. Sentry Books.

Modelling the P-47 Thunderbolt
Osprey Modelling 11

Author: Brett Green
US Price:
UK Price: £12.99
Publisher: Osprey Publishing
Publish Date:
 July 25, 2004
Details: 80 pages; ISBN: 1841767956
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Text Copyright © 2005 by Joe Lyons
Images by USN or Joe Lyons
Page Created 14 November, 2005
Last Updated 14 November, 2005

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