From the depths of Lake Michigan to Pensacola

sbd-web1A World War II Dauntless dive bomber recently recovered from Lake Michigan arrived at the National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola on June 23. There it will be restored to as-new condition before being shipped to the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor, where it will help to teach a new generation about a war that now is a lifetime ago for those old enough to remember it.

During World War II, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers were high-flying heroes – credited with sinking more Japanese ships than anything else in the sky. “The Dauntless was probably the best airplane we had going into World War II,” retired Navy Capt. Bob Rasmussen, director of the National Naval Aviation Museum, told Pensacola News-Journal reporter Travis Griggs. “The pilots who flew them really thought a lot of them.”

The Dauntless now at the Naval Aviation Museum survived the war and returned to the United States to spend the rest of its days as a trainer but, in 1944, at the hands of a student pilot, it crashed into Lake Michigan and sank. Nose-down in the mud and tangled in fishing nets, the Dauntless was lost but not forgotten until mid-June when a recovery crew hoisted it to the surface.

On Feb. 18, 1944, Navy Lt. John Lendo was flying a training mission in the Dauntless when engine failure forced him to belly land in the water. The landing was controlled and Lendo survived, swimming from the cockpit as the plane sank. The cold, fresh water of Lake Michigan turned out to be a remarkably good preservative, Griggs reported. The original blue paint and markings still are visible through a layer of algae and grime. “If it wasn’t for the zebra mussels, we could probably just wash it off and put it on display,” Rasmussen said.

The museum has helped to pull about a dozen Dauntless dive bombers from Lake Michigan, Rasmussen told Griggs. One now on display in the museum is the last known surviving aircraft from the Battle of Midway. Researchers are trying to piece together the combat history of the newest Dauntless. It was stationed at Pearl Harbor and flew off the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise, but it was built in 1943, too late to have seen the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or taken part in the Battle of Midway. However, a few patches that look like repaired bullet holes may indicate that the airplane has a few stories to tell.

Small, light and relatively slow, Dauntless dive bombers were made for one job – sinking enemy ships – and they did well. While heavy bombers of the time might have needed to drop hundreds of bombs to hit a target the size of a ship, Dauntless pilots could dive straight down at a target and drop one to three small bombs before pulling out just above the water. The planes were hard targets for enemy gunners and Dauntless dive bombers were among the most effective aircraft in the Pacific, credited with destroying 18 enemy warships including six aircraft carriers.

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