Some people travel to frigid Greenland to retrieve P-38 Lightning’s from beneath 250 ft. of glacial ice. Others go to the sweltering jungles of New Guinea to bring back P-39 Airacobras. The National Museum of Naval Aviation has gone to the bottom of Lake Michigan to recover Douglas SBD Dauntless BuNo. 06624 and the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum and the national Guadalcanal Memorial Museum are the beneficiaries. After years of fund raising and negotiation, this rare aircraft was brought to the “Air Zoo” in early November 1993. It is a divebomber the type of which is probably most noted for its work in the South Pacific especially during the Battle of Midway where its type sank three major Japanese aircraft carriers and damaged a fourth badly enough that the Japanese scuttled the ship themselves and later in the battle for Guadalcanal–the first amphibious offensive initiated by the United States during the war.
Scuba divers retrieved this particular SBD from the bottom of Lake Michigan, a cold, freshwater lake where it crashed off shore from Glenview Naval Air Station near Chicago over 50 years ago. According to the official accident report, on September 19, 1943, Ensign E.F. Anderson USNR was “flying on standpipe reserve and after exhausting the fuel in the left tank, he shifted to left main instead of shifting to right main. The engine caught and functioned normally until finally quitting after exhausting the fuel in the left main line.
“The engine quit as he received a ‘wave-off.’ Instead of making a water landing, he tried to land short aboard, as there was another plane in fly three. He managed to get aboard but failed to hook a wire. The plane went over the starboard side midway between the island and the ramp.” The report determined the cause of the accident to be 100% pilot error–50% judgment and 50% carelessness. And even the report is in error since the plane still had 40 gallons of aviation fuel in the left main tank when it was disassembled!
As one can imagine, after having been underwater–even fresh water–for 50 years, the plane was in very poor condition. This is in addition to the damage caused by its going over the side and hitting the water rather forcefully. The immediate need was to prevent any further corrosion so power sprayers were used to remove any muck and silt from the aircraft, which was then disassembled, the parts being cleaned and well oiled to preserve them.
While the restoration team, lead by Air Zoo staff members Greg Ward and Rick Johnson, began planning the rebuilding of the aircraft, Museum volunteer Richard Bauer, began researching the history of 06624. It had been assumed that this aircraft was an obsolete variant of the SBD that perhaps had seen some action in the South Pacific where the majority of Dauntlesses were in combat–hence its selection as a “gate guard” for the Guadalcanal Museum. But even before the fact-finding turned up some interesting details, Museum officials knew they had a rare bird in their hands. On the side of the aircraft’s fuselage there were two national insignias. The one it was wearing when it went into Lake Michigan was the typical bar and star with a fringe of red. But beneath that was a larger white star on a blue field. Nothing unusual there, however, one could see just the faint discoloration of a ring around the blue field and that ring was yellowish. On closer examination, small flecks of yellow paint could be found. The only American aircraft that had a yellow stripe around the insignia were those involved in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa! This whetted Rich’s research appetite.
He discovered that the aircraft was assigned to VS-41, the Tophatters, on 12 September ’42, and was designated 41-S-13. Faint traces of this designation were found on the weathered paint along the fuselage. Flying from the USS Ranger (CV4), the aircraft was officially one of 18 divebombers to depart from the carrier’s deck and played an important part in supporting the American task force off Africa’s west coast, as well as the US Army troops in the Casablanca vicinity. The entire operation including landings at three sites on the Atlantic coast of French Morocco (a completely American operation) and at sites on the Mediterranean coast of Algeria–an Allied effort.
VS-41 and the Ranger were assigned the central task force, which had Casablanca as its objective. Ironically, the opposing forces in this operation were French, now fighting against the English and Americans because Nazi Germany occupied the homeland. To add to the irony, some of the opposing French aircraft were DB-7 bombers, an early version of what would become the Douglas A-20 Havoc. And they were built in the same El Segundo, California plant where SBD 06624 was built!
Also opposing the American task force was the uncompleted Vichy French battleship Jean Bart. Only the bow turret was operational on this partially completed battle ship, but since that turret contained four 15 in. guns, it was a definite threat to the American fleet. Several Dauntlesses from the Ranger were sent to attack the ship which was trapped in Casablanca Harbor and for awhile Mr. Bauer thought SBD 06624 was responsible for a direct hit on the bow or the battleship, severing the electrical lines to the turret and ultimately putting it out of action. Further investigation, however, showed that 41-S-13 put a bomb either on the port bow or close along side the port bow hammering in the side of the ship. This may have contributed to knocking out the turret, but most historians feel it was a 16 in. shell from the USS Massachusetts that did the job. What ever the case may be, the Dauntless at the Air Zoo is the only one of which we know that participated in the operation and survives today. Mr. Bauer is continuing with his research, as this aircraft has quite a history after Casablanca, scouting blockade runners in the Caribbean while flying off the deck of the USS Santee. While the research continued, so did the restoration work.
After the dismantling of the aircraft in 1994, a decision had to be made as to what extent the restoration process would continue. The Air Zoo is known for having several historic flying aircraft, planes like the Grumman Cats: Wildcat, Hellcat, Tigercat and Bearcat–the first two are well known to veterans of the Pacific War. With these and other flying aircraft, should the SBD be put back into airworthy condition? Three factors influenced the decision: 1) The aircraft still belongs to the U.S. Navy as it was not stricken from its records and is only on long term loan. The Navy would not allow the aircraft to be flown if it were restored to flying condition. 2) To restore it to airworthy condition, so much of the aircraft would have to be replaced, we would end up with a replica aircraft. Considering the historic nature of this plane, we wanted to use as much of the original parts as possible. 3) The cost of restoring 06624 to flying condition would be prohibitive. So the aircraft would be restored to displayable condition only. Yet the men who did the restoration are perfectionists and they replaced all the wiring, cables, etc.–things no one would ever see. Even all the internal parts of the engine are movable; there is just no compression.
Different teams have performed the restoration process. Volunteer Gene Phipps almost single handedly restored the propeller, spinner, cowling, and the entire engine–almost eight years of devoted labor. By no means was he the only one to work in this area. For instance Fred Zwar was primarily responsible for making molds of cowl fittings, which had almost corroded into dust. These fittings activate the cowl flaps and were recast so that they look brand new and could actually be operated.
The wings were another challenge. Both had been damaged, but the starboard wing was especially beaten in from the somersault entry into the water on the aircraft’s last flight. Volunteer and now staff member Ron Buckout took it upon himself to head up the restoration of these parts of the aircraft. With the help of many other volunteers including Fred Zwar, Dell Foster and Sid Roth both wings have now been restored to a pristine condition. One of the biggest challenges here were the flaps and dive brakes. These run almost the length of the wings and are deployed during the dive to slow the aircraft down. In order to maintain control of the divebomber, there are holes perforating the dive brakes, which allow air to pass through the dive brakes and subsequently pass over the control surfaces of the empennage. Without the holes the air would be directed around the empennage and very little would pass over the rudder and elevator. Cutting and embossing 60 of these holes without getting them off center, creasing the skin, or splitting the metal was a real technical feat–the men actually had to make a special pressing mold to accomplish the task.
The body of the plane was not in too bad of shape. It was completely stripped and all corrosion removed. Some new skin has been added. The tail wheel was completely gone, but supervisor Greg Ward was able to find one at auction–on E-bay! The landing gear has been completely restored, but the magnesium wheels had to be replaced as they had dissolved. In fact, that was true of the blower case–the housing for the supercharger. One that could be used was found in Florida after a great deal of searching. Another big challenge was the restoration of the interior. Rick Johnson, with the assistance of many volunteers, has completely renovated the entire cockpit area. Paul Kleis has diligently restored much of the instrumentation inside. The canopy was completely gone so Low Pass Inc. of Griffin, Georgia was hired to build the birdcage like greenhouse since it already had the jigs and the correct metal extrusions to do the job. Likewise the two .50 cal. forward firing machine guns were made-up off site and others did the rear firing .30 cal. guns. All have been placed in the aircraft after much additional work was done to them to make them look authentic.
All priming and exterior painting has been completed and all insignia and other markings have been placed on the aircraft, less a few stencils. After an eight-year restoration process, public rollout of the finished aircraft is scheduled for 11 May 2002.
The “Slow But Deadly” SBD restoration has been a long process, but a labor of love. Ironically, though the aircraft was acquired by the Guadalcanal Veterans since it was such an important aircraft during that Pacific campaign, the historic nature of this particular aircraft, 06624, commanded that it be restored look as though it just came off the carrier Ranger when operating in the Atlantic. Close by there will surely be the ghosts of many men who flew her, maintained her, and moved her around the deck–still keeping vigil over their avian charge. And standing right beside them will be two dozen or more Kalamazoo Air Zoo volunteers and staff who have put their hearts into the restoration of this historic aircraft, ready with wrenches in hand to put her back in shape if she needs attention again.
Visitors to the Kalamazoo Air Zoo will see not only the SBD, but also more than 70 historic aircraft including the Museum’s newest acquisition, the only remaining Curtiss XP-55 Ascender on long-term loan from the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. The Air Zoo also contains a great hands-on “Simulation Station” where kids of all ages can climb into procedural trainers and imagine the thrill of flight or ride in the “Corsair Challenge,” a 12-person flight simulator of the FG-1D Corsair. New to the Air Zoo this year is the MaxFlight FS2000, a full-motion F-18 simulator with 360 degrees of pitch and roll.
The Kalamazoo Air Zoo is located in Southwest Michigan in Kalamazoo on the property of the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport about halfway between Detroit and Chicago on I-94.