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The Douglas Dauntless Dive-Bomber Bureau Number SBD-2P 2173, an historic World War II Navy aircraft built by Douglas Aircraft Company1 and once thought lost forever in Lake Michigan, will soon begin a very important phase of her long history. This aircraft will soon be transferred to the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum2 to undergo a full expert restoration over the next several years. This rescue effort that was begun by Mr. Fred Turner3, the former Chief Executive Office and Chairman of the Board of McDonald's, will soon end with a triumphant return of the SBD-2P, U.S. Navy Bureau Number 2173, to its former glory.
An early version of the Dauntless4, Bureau Number 2173 was delivered to the Navy as an SBD-2P photo-reconnaissance version, of which only 14 were built. It boasts a most interesting history with a few twists and turns. The aircraft’s history card notes its acceptance by the Navy in 1941, and assignment to Scouting Squadron (VS) 6 in the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV 6). During its tour with this squadron, the aircraft experienced its first mishap when its main gear collapsed during a landing, damaging the wings. Assigned to Commander, Battle Force aircraft pool at San Diego in August 1941, Bureau Number 2173 was in California on the “Day of Infamy” on 7 December 1941, but the following month found itself assigned to another aircraft pool at Pearl Harbor. It is here that the record-keeping for the aircraft goes astray. While one page of the aircraft history card indicates assignment to Scouting Squadron (VS) 5 in March 1942, the section of the card that details “Trouble Reports” related to the plane’s service bears the entry “Strike. Crashed at sea. Plane sank immediately.” The station noted for this mishap is the aircraft carrier Hornet (CV 8), and a look at the ship’s war diary and aircraft accident reports from the era reveal that on 21 April 1942, an SBD Dauntless made a hard-water landing in the Pacific, the force of the crash causing the plane to sink quickly with the loss of its crew, Lieutenant Gardner D. Randall and Radioman Second Class Thomas A. Gallagher. Though the war diary indicated that the aircraft was an SBD-3, the aircraft accident report identifies the aircraft lost as SBD-2 (Bureau Number 2173).
Despite the fact that the aircraft was recorded lost at sea, the history card of Bureau Number 2173 continues as normal, listing assignment to Bombing Squadron (VB) 5 after the Battle of the Coral Sea followed by time in Carrier Aircraft Service Unit (CASU) 1 and Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 21. On 1 July 1942, the custody changes to Marine Scout Bombing Squadron (VMSB) 233, which coincided with another entry made in the Trouble Report section of the aircraft’s history card—“Request plane be reinstated.” In the frantic pace of wartime operations, the SBD lost while operating from Hornet had evidently been erroneously identified as Bureau Number 2173 when further research reveals that in fact it was likely Bureau Number 2179 that was lost. Now “resurrected” from the depths of the Pacific, Bureau Number 2173 remained with VMSB-233 until November 1942, a month before the squadron departed for service on Guadalcanal.
Additional documentation confuses the issue even more, specifically relating to the airplane’s service at the Battle of the Coral Sea. The history card states that the airplane was shipped from Commander, Battle Force at San Diego on 3 January 1942, and was not received by Commander, Battle Force at Pearl Harbor until 6 March 1942. It was recorded as being shipped to VS-5 that same day. If these dates are accurate, the airplane could not have been on board Yorktown (CV 5) at Coral Sea because the carrier with VS-5 embarked had departed Pearl Harbor on 14 February 1942. However, according to email correspondence from a number of respected aviation historians and researchers provided by the Pacific Aviation Museum, other official Navy records contradict the history card. Specifically, Commander, Battle Force records point to the fact that Bureau Number 2173 was loaded aboard Yorktown when she stopped at San Diego en route to the Pacific (she arrived on 30 December 1941 and departed on 6 January 1942). It was kept aboard as cargo during the ship’s participation in her first combat raids and then assigned to VS-5 through the Battle of the Coral Sea. The above seems plausible, especially with the confusion surrounding Bureau Number 2173’s service. Once the actual pages from the Commander, Battle Force records are received, this part of Bureau Number 2173’s history can be confirmed.
See Appendix A for SBD 2173 historical documents.
It is unlikely that Bureau Number 2173 served during the Battle of Midway. All carrier-based bombing and scouting squadrons were equipped with SBD-3s during that battle.
2 www.airzoo.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Zoo
With the more advanced SBD-5 version of the Dauntless ready to join the fleet in early 1943, Bureau Number 2173’s days of front-line squadron service were over, the remainder of its time in service spent rotating between Naval Air Stations (NAS) Jacksonville, San Diego, and Glenview, its service at the latter station beginning in April 1943 as part of the Carrier Qualification Training Unit (CQTU) operating on board the training carriers Wolverine (IX 64) and Sable (IX 81) in Lake Michigan. As Lake Michigan aircraft go, Bureau Number 2173 led a charmed life given the fact that in its cockpit were recently winged naval aviators learning how to perform one of the most difficult tasks in all of aviation—landing an aircraft on a moving ship. The airplane operated accident free for nine months in the CQTU until 18 February 1944. On this day, Lieutenant (junior grade) John Lendo was on approach for a carrier landing when the engine of Bureau Number 2173 began to lose RPMs before completely stopping, the presumed result of carburetor icing. Lt. J.G. Lendo was not injured in the crash.
See Appendix B for the Lake Michigan accident documents.
John Lendo, a Massachusetts native and graduate of Dartmouth College, had over 1,600 hours of accident free flying in his log book, the result of having served as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola, following his graduation from flight school in 1942. However, that changed on this winter day as he ditched the Dauntless in the water. While the plane went to the bottom, Lendo was rescued, destined for assignment to fly F6F Hellcats as a member of the newly established Fighting Squadron (VF) 45. On 14 December 1944, while flying a mission from the deck of the light carrier San Jacinto (CVL 30), Lendo was declared “missing in action” during a combat mission over the Philippines. His status was changed to “killed in action” the following year, the aircraft he flew just months before his death is a link to one of the lost members of the “Greatest Generation.”
See Appendix C for a biography of Lieutenant John Lendo.
During the 1990s, A and T Recovery5 located SBD 2173 resting on the bottom of Lake Michigan in about 250 feet of water.
On 06/19/09 A and T Recovery lifted her from Lake Michigan on behalf of the Pacific Aviation Museum, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii6.
See Appendix D for the press release for the recovery of SBD-2P 2173.
The museum had receive a generous donation to support the locating, recovery, restoration, and presentation of the aircraft from Fred Turner. Mr. Turner made the donation in honor of his longtime friend Admiral James “Jig Dog” Ramage7.
A Hawaiian ceremony was performed during the lift-out to honor the aircraft’s history, which included time stationed at Pearl Harbor, and its likely future home back in Hawaii.
Under an agreement between the Pacific Aviation Museum and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation8, SBD 2173 was to undergo an extensive restoration soon after she was recovered. However, the restoration did not occur as a result of soon unforeseen circumstances.
When SBD 2173 was recovered from Lake Michigan in 2009, the plan was to immediately bring it to the Restoration Department of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida for restoration. The estimated time required for restoration was 3-5 years. Upon completion of restoration the aircraft was to be shipped to the Pacific Aviation Museum for display. Another restored SBD was shipped for display until 2173 was finished.
However, after the aircraft arrived in Pensacola, the Navy History and Heritage Command (NHHC) determined that there were contamination issues in the Restoration Facility as a result of Navy activities in the facility before the Museum occupied the restoration facilities. NHHC required that the restoration area occupied by the Museum be cleaned to medical standards. NHHC would not fund the clean-up so the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation provided funding in an attempt to maintain the capability to repair, conserve, or restore Museum aircraft. The process caused the shutdown of the restoration facility for over a year. At the time of shutdown, the restoration facility was staffed by approximately 65 volunteers and a few paid personnel. As a result of the shutdown, the Restoration Department permanently lost most of its volunteer labor force. The 2173 restoration cost estimate, which was based primarily upon the use of volunteer labor went from $300,000 to $1,200,000 and the Foundation could no longer accomplish the restoration.
The Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum, located in Kalamazoo, MI, has stepped forward to complete the restoration. The museum, more commonly known as the Air Zoo, has a long, successful history of restoring aircraft and spacecraft from the Smithsonian, NASA, and the US Navy. More specifically, the Air Zoo completed the full restoration of an SBD-3 Dauntless that was recovered after being on the bottom of Lake Michigan for nearly fifty years.
Many members of the current Restoration Team, including the Air Zoo’s Senior Conservator who served as the lead on the project, had direct experience working on the SBD-3 that will directly benefit the restoration of the 2173. Additionally, the Air Zoo is currently restoring an FM-2 Wildcat submerged in Lake Michigan for nearly seventy years. Therefore, the 2173 restoration will benefit from the direct experience of all team members having worked on a Lake-Michigan-recovered aircraft.
In addition to a successful restoration of the 2173, the Air Zoo will expand public involvement in this project to unprecedented levels. Over the past year, the team designed and implemented a hands-on education component to involve Air Zoo visitors directly in the restoration process. Students from educational institutions that include the West Michigan Aviation Academy and Kalamazoo County’s Aviation Technology program; special interest groups that include the Council of Michigan Foundations and the Kalamazoo Rotary; and public visitors of all ages have had the opportunity to clean, sand, pop rivets, and perform many other hands-on, educational activities directly on the aircraft. To date, nearly 200 unique individuals have been inspired by working directly on restoring the FM-2 Wildcat to its former glory. The Air Zoo will implement similar programs for the SBD 2173, knowing that the legacy of this historic aircraft will inspire thousands of people from students to senior citizens.
As the Air Zoo continues to do with the Wildcat, the leadership will use the Air Zoo’s extensive social media network and television broadcast partners to show millions of people the progress that we are making with the 2173 and how they can get involved. It is the Air Zoo’s goal to make each large-scale restoration a community project that “restores the past and ignites the future”, and the SBD 2173 project will do just that.
All are welcome to join the effort to complete this next phase in the fantasist journey of Douglas Dauntless Dive-Bomber SBD-2P Bureau Number 2173. A true story of America that needs to be told to America.
Troy Thrash - President & CEO, Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum (Air Zoo)