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Nikki Statler, Director of Marketing  |  269.350.2811

The man behind the Air Zoo's SBD-2P “Dauntless” dive bomber

John Henry Lendo

One of four children of Polish immigrant Gabryel and Anna Lendo, John Henry Lendo was born July 26, 1918, in Gardner, Massachusetts. An exceptional athlete in high school, John was accepted at Dartmouth College and played on the Ivy League school’s baseball and basketball teams. A member of Dartmouth’s Naval Aviation Cadet Training Program, he enlisted as a pilot in the United States Navy immediately following his graduation in June, 1941.  The next month he reported to elimination flight training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Squantum, located on the former Harvard Aviation field in Quincy, Massachusetts.  A stand-out in-flight school, he completed training in May, 1942, and was retained as a Navy flight instructor.  Logging a staggering 1,600+ hours of flight time in the months that followed, he eventually received orders to report to the Carrier Qualification Training Unit on Lake Michigan in 1943.  As with all pilots assigned to CQTU, he knew his eventual destination would be air combat over the Pacific.

On the afternoon of February 18th, 1943, 24-year-old Lieutenant Junior Grade John Lendo, climbed aboard SBD-2P “Dauntless” Dive Bomber #2173 at NAS Glenview, located just north of Chicago in Glenview, Illinois.  As he ran through his pre-flight checklist, the USS Sable, a former side-wheel passenger ship converted to an aircraft carrier in 1942, pitched and rolled on the icy, gray waters of Lake Michigan twenty miles away.  Both the Sable and its sister ship, the USS Wolverine, had been hastily converted and assigned to the new Carrier Qualification Training Unit (CQTU) responsible for training the carrier pilots demanded by the United States’ entry into World War II.  The inland Great Lakes had been selected for the program because the large bodies of water offered similar weather and wave conditions to the ocean, without exposing ships to the threat of German and Japanese submarines aggressively patrolling both U.S. coastlines.  Lt. Lendo was one of more than 17,000 aviators who would train on Lake Michigan between 1942 and 1945.  A former flight instructor with over 1,600 hours of flying time, he took off that afternoon to complete five carrier landings, one of the final steps of his training before combat assignment to the Pacific.  What transpired after takeoff would ensure, unexpectedly, that this young pilot’s name would become an important part of history over six decades later. 

Landing an aircraft on a pitching, rolling carrier, considered one of the most dangerous tasks in aviation as the slightest miscalculation can mean injury or death, one cannot imagine what Lt. Lendo experienced as he took off that afternoon seventy-four years ago. Crashes were common in the training program, and the young lieutenant certainly knew the risks as he flew towards his rendezvous with the Sable.  What he didn’t know on that cold, February afternoon was that ice had begun to form in the aircraft’s carburetor and was slowly choking off the flow of fuel to the engine.  As he lined up for his first landing of the day, disaster struck.  Starved for fuel, the dive bomber’s engine sputtered and died, and Lendo found himself at low altitude with no power.  A situation easily fatal for most young pilots, his experience and skill allowed him to maintain control as he piloted the crippled craft in for a “belly landing” on the surface of Lake Michigan, two miles from the USS Sable.  Uninjured, he leapt into the icy water and awaited the Coast Guard “crash boat” already en route to pick him up.  As Lt. Lendo fought to stay afloat, SBD-2P “Dauntless” #2173 slipped quietly below the surface and spiraled slowly down through the dark water.  It touched down softly on the sandy lakebed some 200 feet below, where it would remain, largely intact, for the next 66 years.  

John Lendo’s story didn’t end with his mishap in Lake Michigan.  After successfully completing carrier qualification training, he was assigned to Fighting Squadron (VF) 45, which flew F6F Hellcat fighters against the Japanese from the deck of the newly commissioned USS San Jacinto.  The San Jacinto was also the duty station of future President George H. W. Bush who, at the time, was the youngest pilot in the Navy.  On December 14th, 1944, Lt. Lendo took off on a fighter sweep against the heavily defended Japanese airfields near Luzon in the Philippine Islands.  Flying in bad weather that day, the Navy Pilots would face potential anti-aircraft (AA) fire and enemy planes both traveling to and from the target.  What happened next is still shrouded in mystery.  Mission reports state that the flight was separated as it entered a large cloud bank on approach to the first target. When the Hellcats re-emerged, John Lendo and another pilot in his group, Lt. Thomas McCann, were gone.   Sometime later, the San Jacinto heard an unexpected radio transmission from Lendo, one simply stating “Over Base”, but he failed to respond to their attempts to re-establish contact.  Neither he nor his aircraft were ever seen again.  Classified as “Missing in Action”, his status was changed to “Killed in Action” the following year.  He left behind his wife and college sweetheart Betty, and a son, John Jr., whom he’d never met.  It’s still unclear what happened to Lt. Lendo that day.  That last short radio message following his extended silence indicates he may have been wounded, perhaps when attacked by enemy fighters in the clouds or hit by AA fire, and had been struggling to return to the ship.  The details of his final resting place remain unknown.  His name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.


Posted by Nikki Statler at 10:30 AM
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