One of the most important evolutions in aircraft design that occurred during the interwar years was the advent of low-wing monoplane aircraft. That period also marked the introduction of the tactic of dive-bombing to U.S. naval aviation, which prompted the Navy to make development of a monoplane scout-bomber a priority. The result was the XSB2U-1, which was ordered on October 11, 1934. However, to hedge its bets, the sea service also ordered the prototype for a biplane scout-bomber from Vought, which was designated the XSB3U-1.
Not until April 1936, three months after the XSB2U-1 had made its first flight, were both designs delivered to the Navy’s flight test facility at Naval Air Station (NAS) Anacostia in Washington DC. It was a busy spring for test pilots there, with the station involved in evaluating five scout-bomber and two fighter designs in the skies over the nation’s capital. As was customary in a process designed to put aircraft through all aspects of their operations, problems revealed themselves. During one flight, the flotation gear on the XSB2U-1, designed to keep the airplane afloat in the event of a ditching at sea, inflated in flight, the flapping bags damaging the wing of the airplane before the wind carried them away. The XSB3U-1 suffered arresting gear damage while operating at NAS Norfolk. By the time evaluations were completed, the superiority of the monoplane had been well established, a document of the time noting a “marked advance in performance over previous service types of scout bombers… [with] the use of the latest aerodynamic refinements, including internally braced wing and tail structures, an especially efficient airfoil, wing flaps, retractable landing gear, [a] constant speed controllable propeller, and a highly developed engine cowling.” Yet, for all its advances, the airplane was a transitional design, which despite its monoplane configuration and incorporation of aluminum alloy and welded steel tubing, was still covered primarily in fabric.
The Navy ordered 54 examples of the SB2U-1 on October 26, 1936, with deliveries to fleet squadrons commencing in December 1937. Among them was Bombing Squadron (VB) 3, which as part of its indoctrination in the airplane during 1938 made a triangular cross-country flight between San Diego, Oakland, and Salt Lake City to demonstrate the airplane’s capabilities for reliable sustained speed. A newspaper in the latter city published an article the following day, which commented on the new airplane. “Veiled in mystery, eight U.S. Navy scout-bombers arrived at the Salt Lake City Airport Friday afternoon. Only a few hours before they had left the deck of the U.S. Aircraft Carrier Saratoga in the Pacific, thus demonstrating how easy it would e for Uncle Same to attack an enemy seven or eight hundred miles inland while the air base floated…in the ocean.”
Among the pilots in VB-3 was Aviation Cadet James D. Arbes, who had a momentous first night flight in the SB2U-1 after reporting to the squadron in late 1938. A passenger riding with him inadvertently tripped the switch that activated the flotation gear, the inflated bags first appearing to Arbes in the glow of the engine exhaust. The bag on one wing inflated before that on the other, throwing the plane out of control for a period of time, but even after both bags inflated, controlling the SB2U proved difficult. “The rudder pedals were banging on my feet and the stick was shaking, making it difficult to hang onto…The plane was coming down rapidly and was very nose heavy. I two blocked the prop control and gave the engine full power which enabled me to bring up the nose.” With the slight increase in altitude, Arbes managed to miss crashing into the Officers Club and, using the lights from hangars along the side of the field for a horizon, he located a spot to make wheels up landing and skidded to a stop. After ensuring that his passenger was okay, Arbes, waved his flashlight hoping to attract the attention of a rescue crew. Soon afterwards, a car appeared, out if which stepped a gentleman in civilian clothes, who peppered the young aviation cadet with questions before departing. Only later, after a crash crew got to him, did Arbes learn the identity of the man who questioned him—Vice Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force.
Despite this experience, Arbes considered the SB2U “a very forgiving and easy aircraft to fly.” Around the carrier, he remembered the airplane handling “beautifully.” He never experienced so much as a blown tire. However, in dive bombing, he recalled that if the airplane was not trimmed properly, even though it might be pointed right at the target, the flight path would not be on line and the bomb would miss. Steep dives sometimes resulted in the wrinkling of the wing surfaces, with Rear Admiral Paul R. Norby, USNR, recalling a local remedy being to lower the wheels in a dive to act as dive brakes and slow the airplane down, the SB2U not having the perforated dive flaps that were on the SBD Dauntless, which entered fleet service in 1940.
Deliveries of the SB2U-1 had barely begun when the Navy contracted for the SB2U-2, which came in with a slightly heavier gross weight as the result of added equipment, in January 1938. Following this batch of 58 aircraft were 57 SB2U-3s, which were ordered on September 25, 1939. The -3s boasted higher operating weights owing to added armor protection, armament, and fuel capacity and was the first to carry the nickname Vindicator. This coincided with the beginning of World War II, the SB2U part of the Neutrality Patrol s initiated in September 1939, to report and track belligerent air, surface, or underwater threats to the sea approaches of the United States and West Indies. Arbes remembered his patrols over the waters around Bermuda and the Azores Islands. “An old British freighter in the vicinity of our track served as bait and a British cruiser was also in the vicinity to attack any German submarine we may locate. Should a submarine be sighted…we were t o broadcast its position on a designated frequency in plain language.” Arbes never had the satisfaction of spotting a German U-boat.
By the end of 1941, a total of 136 versions of the SB2U were in operational service with seven scouting and Marine scout bombing squadrons, the SBD Dauntless having succeeded the type in equipping Navy bombing squadrons. Ultimately, the Vindicator would have but one opportunity to fly combat against the enemy when Marine Scout Bombing Squadron (VMSB) 241 operated against the Japanese Fleet during the Battle of Midway. By that time, like the TBD Devastator that had also entered service in the mid 1930s and equipped Navy torpedo squadrons, the SB2U was outdated and ill-equipped for war. In a play on the airplane’s nickname, squadron pilots called their aircraft “Wind Indicators,” with VMSB-241 mechanics forced to wrap bands of tape around the fuselages of some of the aircraft to hold the fabric surfaces in place.
The condition of the airplanes, combined with the experience level of those flying them, prompted the employment of glide bombing rather than true dive bombing on training flights in the weeks leading up to the battle. For one gunner, training was rudimentary given what awaited him. “As far as training was concerned, one time, when we were on a [anti]submarine patrol, my pilot asked me if I would like to fire at a few white caps on the ocean,” Duane Rhodes remembered of a flight in the back seat of an SB2U-3. “I believe he just wanted to know whether or not the gun would fire…The first moving target I ever fired at in the air was a Zero [that] was also shooting at me.”
Rhodes would not be alone. VMSB-241 operated a mix of SB2U-3 Vindicators and SBD-2 Dauntless dive bombers when the squadron launched to attack the Japanese Fleet on the morning of June 4, 1942, and they saw plenty of action over the Japanese carriers and their escorts. The glide-bombing attacks from an altitude of 2,000 ft. meant prolonged exposure to enemy attack as described by Second Lieutenant Daniel Cummings.
In his after action report, he noted how his gunner was killed by an attacking Japanese Zero fighter almost immediately upon arriving over the enemy fleet. After dropping a bomb on what he believed was a Japanese destroyer, Cummings once again confronted enemy fighters. “For the next fifteen minutes I had nothing to do except try and get away from five fighters that were concentrating on me. In the hit and run dog fighting, which was my initiation to real war, my old obsolete SB2U-3 was almost shot out from under me. I finally made my escape in the clouds.” Despite his elevator controls being frozen and instruments shot away, Cummings managed to get to within five miles of Midway before running out of fuel and ditching his aircraft and being rescued by a PT-boat.
The following day, the serviceable SB2U-3s and SBD-2s launched once again to attack two Japanese cruisers that had collided during the night. Captain Richard Fleming’s Vindicator was hit by antiaircraft fire, but he was credited with dropping his bomb before crashing into Mikuma. Fleming, who died along with his gunner Private First Class George Toms, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
By June 8th, only 5 of the 12 SB2U-3s operational when the Battle of Midway began survived, a report noting that the “fabric and general condition of [the] airplanes [was] very poor. [The] planes were in combat and all were operated at full power many times for much longer than the allowable time.”
Following the Battle of Midway, SB2Us remained in service for a period of time, operating with the Carrier Qualification Training Unit at NAS Glenview, Illinois, and also equipping Bombing Squadron (VB) 9 as late as February 1943, as the squadron awaited delivery of its front line SBD-5 Dauntless dive bombers. This was the last report of the aircraft in service, the end of an airplane that had paved the way for the dive bombers that were the scourge of the enemy during World War II.