VMSB-241 was a US Marine dive bombing unit operating from Midway island, commanded by Major Lofton R. Henderson. Due to the urgency in building up Midway’s defenses men and aircraft were rapidly transferred in with little time form cohesive combat teams. VMSB-241s inventory consisted of sixteen newly assigned SBD-2 Dauntless and twelve older Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bombers, but only three of the Marine pilots had any time logged in the Dauntless. Ten of the other pilots had only joined the squadron a week prior to the battle and a shortage of aviation fuel on Midway severely limited opportunities for training.
The Marines made due with what they had and flew a total of three missions during the battle. The first strike launched early in the morning of 4 June was a maximum effort against the Japanese carriers consisting of sixteen Dauntlesses and eleven Vindicators. The Dauntlesses attacked the carriers Hiryu and Kaga while the Vindicators concentrated their attack against the battleship Haruna but achieved no results. Eight of the Dauntlesses were lost , including Major Henderson’s, along with four of the Vindicators. Almost all of the surviving aircraft returned damaged, but by evening enough had been repaired to launch a second mission to attack a carrier reported to be burning to the Northeast of the island. Six SBD-2s and five SB2U-3s were launched but did not locate the target. One of the Vindicators failed to return. The final sortie was launched against the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma on the morning of 5 June. Twelve aircraft went out, evenly divided between the two types. No hits were achieved. The leader of the SB2U-3 element, Capt. Richard E. Fleming, was lost to anti-aircraft fire.
Vindicators in John Ford’s Documentary “The Battle of Midway”
The editing of Ford’s film implies that it depicts the launching of VMSB-241s first strike against the Japanese carriers which is known to have occurred between 0610 and 0620 on 4 June 1942. Because of the position of the sun in these shots I believe the film was actually shot prior to the strike against the carriers during one of the few opportunities available for training the new pilots. In addition the pilot of one of the aircraft, 2LT Sumner Whitten, recalls that the Japanese were bombing Midway during the first launch on 4 June.
Seven Vindicators are visible in the film, five of which are identifiable. There are two distinct types of finishes visible, a very worn field-applied scheme with small national markings, and a depot scheme with larger markings and fresher paint. VMSB-241 was not unique in mixing these styles, “SB2U Vindicator in Action” by Tom Doll has several photos of VS-9 Vindicators displaying both types of markings while aboard the USS Charger (AVG-30).
In an interview for World War II magazine, Whitten explains the condition of VMSB-241s Vindicators and their unique fuselage stripes:
“The vertical and horizontal stripes were actually 4-inch medical tape used to hold the fabric to the fuselage! These SB2U-3s were due for overhaul prior to being flown to Midway from MCAS Ewa. This overhaul would have included, of course, new fabric for the aft fuselage. Thus, to counteract the effects of heat, sunlight, salt air, etc., to hold the decaying fabric to the fuselage structure, medical tape, 4 inches wide, was wrapped around the fuselage and also along the fuselage longerons to keep it in place, and was then doped over. This was necessary because we had no facilities or fabric to properly replace the old fabric. Thus, you see, each SB2U-3 could have had slightly different stripes, depending on the condition of the aft fuselage fabric.”
The first seen taking off are a group of two, White 6 and White 9. White 6 was flown by 2LT James H. Marmande and PFC Edby M. Colvin and was lost during the first mission from Midway. Here are screen captures from Ford’s film and a well-known still photograph which I believe was taken by the sailor visible in the film.
Notes for White 6:
- General finish is a worn Blue Gray / Light Gray scheme with small national markings, modified in several respects. The Blue Gray has completely worn off the cowl allowing the Light Gray to show through. Notice the small insignia located well aft on the fuselage. The size of the national insignia for aircraft operating in the Hawaiian area was increased starting on 23DEC41, the small insignia still being carried on VMSB-241 aircraft are yet another indication of the lack of overhaul.
- The red and white rudder stripes have been painted out with a dark blue in compliance with ALNAV 97 of 06MAY42, this is common to all the VMSB-241 Vindicators pictured. This blue is lighter than Insignia Blue, but much darker than the Blue Gray upper surface camouflage color. Elliot includes chips for two darker shades of Blue Gray, possibly this color is one of those.
- The vertical stabilizer was also painted in the darker blue, but this over-zealous effort to eradicate the rudder stripes has been “corrected” by an overspray of white. This is clearly visible on all the Vindicators in the Ford film but to the best of my knowledge has never been depicted in profiles of the type.
- Note the high demarcation line between the Light Gray and the Blue Gray on the aft fuselage. This line varies on each aircraft.
- Three bands of the 4″ white medical tape described in Whitten’s interview are visible encircling the aft fuselage. This was a field expedient fabric repair, not a marking. The fuselage is darker around these bands, indicating cleaning, doping, and /or painting as part of the repair. The forward band is incomplete, and the darkened area extends forward to the aircraft number.
- Similar horizontal fabric repairs are visible next to the gunner’s position. These do not display the darkened surroundings of the fuselage bands. The white horizontal tape here is narrower than the tape used on the aft fuselage, perhaps half as wide or less.
- The fuselage shows various tones, lighter in some areas and darker in others. This is the Light Gray showing through where the Blue Gray has faded or been rubbed off on the areas where the crew would enter and leave the aircraft. Likely there is a healthy layer of dust present as well.
- The underside of the outer wing panels are Light Gray, not Blue Gray as is sometimes depicted.
- The 500 pound bomb is yellow.
Notes for White 9:
- This aircraft also carries the worn Blue Gray over Light Gray scheme with small national markings, modified similarly to White 6.
- The vertical stabilizer also shows the white sprayed over the dark blue, the rudder is overpainted in a dark blue.
- The line between the Blue Gray / Light Gray on the aft fuselage is lower than seen on White 6.
- There are three dark bands visible on the underside of the aft fuselage, in locations consistent with the taped fabric repairs on the other aircraft. The area between the national insignia and the individual aircraft number is darker and more uniform. It appears that the fabric repairs were also performed on White 9 with the 4″ medical tape, then the tape and the entire aft fuselage was given a fresh coat of dark blue paint to strengthen and seal it.
- The Blue Gray on the cowl and forward fuselage have worn away showing the Light Gray underneath.
- The bomb is a dark color, black or Olive Drab.
- This is another good shot of the underwing color and insignia. Again, no Blue Gray on the undersurfaces.
The second group taking off in the film shows three aircraft. One is seen indistinctly in the distance, one is seen as a brief flash flying directly over the photographers (!), and one is clearly pictured. This aircraft is White 2. She returned from the 4 June mission, but was lost with her crew CAPT Richard E. Fleming and PFC George A. Toms during the 5 June strike against the Japanese cruiser Mikuma. CAPT Fleming flew during all three of VMSB-241’s missions during the battle and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. White 2 is therefore of much interest to modelers but is often portrayed incorrectly in a scheme similar to White 6.
Notes for White 2:
- White 2 is camouflaged in a Blue Gray / Light Gray scheme with a low demarcation on the aft fuselage. This aircraft displays a cleaner, fresher, and less weathered appearance than the others. The fuselage displays a large national insignia, located forward. Compare the size of the underwing insignia shown here to that on White 6 & 9. I believe both White 1 and White 2 had received depot overhauls.
- Rudder stripes are again painted out with a dark blue. The white overspray on the vertical tail is more even than the other aircraft, it is possible that the vertical tail was left in the original Blue Gray.
- No tape anywhere on the fuselage, and the paint color appears much more uniform throughout.
- Cowling color consistent with the rest of the aircraft.
- Light Gray wing outer panels on the underside again, not Blue Gray.
- Yellow bomb again.
- Wheel hubs are Blue Gray, not Light Gray as expected.
The last Vindicators shown launching in the film are a tight group of two, White 3 and White 1. Aircraft numbered “1” would traditionally be flown by the squadron commander, in this instance that would be the leader of the SB2U-3 unit, MAJ Benjamin W. Norris and his gunner, PFC Arthur B. Whittington. If that is the case then both the crews in the screenshots below did not survive, as Norris and Whittington were lost on the evening mission which failed to locate the Japanese fleet. White 3, crewed by 2LT Kenneth O. Campion and PVT Anthony J. Maday, did not return from the first strike.
Notes for White 3:
- Finish is the worn Blue Gray / Light Gray scheme with small national markings, similar to White 6. The Blue Gray appears much fresher than White 6 or 9, and the Light Gray is not showing through on the cowl. However the finish still appears more faded than White 1 behind it.
- Dark blue rudder. Vertical stabilizer also has a white overspray, but more evenly applied than either 6 or 9.
- Fabric repairs to the aft fuselage display yet another variation. This is particularly important as modelers and artists have generally portrayed these repairs as slight modifications of that seen on White 6, but these screenshots show three repaired aircraft with three different applications. In this case we see three very dark bands, each bordered on both sides by a strip of white. My interpretation of this is three bands of the 4″ medical tape which was then overpainted with black, followed by additional bands of medical tape on either side.
- Small area of tape repairs adjacent to the gunner’s position.
- Yellow 500 pound bomb.
It was difficult to get a clear screenshot showing all of White 1, the aircraft is only seen in partial views behind White 3 or indistinctly in the distance. Still, it makes for an interesting comparison of the two schemes in the same shot. It is painted in the depot Blue Gray / Light Gray scheme with a low demarcation and large national insignia located forward on the fuselage. From what can be seen, it is consistent with the details of White 2 noted above.
The battle of Midway is regarded as the turning point of the Pacific War. It was the only combat use of the SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bomber by US forces. The Marines of VMSB-241 fought against an experienced enemy with determination and bravery. Major Henderson received the Navy Cross and Henderson Field on Guadalcanal was named in his honor. Major Fleming was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
John Ford’s “The Battle of Midway” film.
VMSB-241 Action report.
World War II magazine interview with VMSB-241 pilot Sumner H. Whitten
SB2U Vindicator in Action by Tom Doll, Squadron / Signal Aircraft Number 122.
The Official Monogram US Navy & Marine Corps Aircraft Color Guide Vol. 2 1940-1949 by John M. Elliott.
Wikipedia entry for CAPT Richard E. Fleming, including his Medal of Honor Citation.