During the 1930s, several nations developed advanced dive bombers. These aircraft were considered more effective than level or horizontal bombers for many missions, especially for attacking maneuvering ships at sea. In 1934 the U.S. Navy issued an invitation to industry for the design of a new dive bomber. Six companies responded, among them Chance Vought, a division of the United Aircraft Corporation in Hartford, Connecticut. Considered one of America’s most capable aeronautical firms, United Aircraft had been building planes for the U.S. Navy since 1919.
A team led by Rex Buren Beisel designed the Chance Vought entry.1 It was a single-engine, low-wing monoplane with an all-metal structure with aluminum and fabric covering, retractable landing gear, and configured for carrier operations with folding wings. The Navy ordered a prototype XSB2U-1 in October 1934 but was concerned that the high landing speed of a monoplane could be difficult for carrier operations. Thus, less than three months later, the Navy ordered a similar biplane scout bomber—the XSB3U-1—from Chance Vought for evaluation.2
The SB2Us could carry either a 500- or 1,000-pound bomb under the fuselage and a 100-pound bomb under each wing. Initially the right wing had a .30-caliber machine gun with 500 rounds or a .50-caliber gun with 200 rounds, and a flexible .30-caliber gun manned by the radio operator. The wing-mounted guns subsequently were increased to two .50-caliber weapons and to four guns in the SB2U-3.
Both prototypes reached Naval Air Station Anacostia in Washington, D.C., in April 1936. The monoplane XSB2U-1, having first flown on 4 January 1936, quickly established its superiority, and further work on the biplane was halted.
Delivery of the first of 54 SB2U-1s to the Navy began in December 1937. At the time they were among the world’s most advanced scout-bomber–type aircraft, with hydraulically operated landing gear and flaps. The wings were folded manually, as the Navy had declined the use of hydraulics to save weight.
The first SB2U-1s went to Bombing Squadron 3 on board the carrier Saratoga (CV-3). An additional order soon was placed for 58 SB2U-2s, the principal change being in equipment that slightly increased the aircraft’s weight. These were followed by 57 SB2U-3 variants built for Marine Corps land operation, the principal change being additional fuel tanks and a larger horizontal tail. The Marines sometimes called this aircraft “the flying fuel tank.” The name “Vindicator” was first applied to these variants and soon became a universal moniker for the SB2U series.
(One SB2U-1 was modified with twin floats to evaluate that configuration for a scout bomber. The concept was found impractical, and the aircraft was redelivered as a land plane—the first SB2U-3. All subsequent 3s were float-capable but never used in that capacity.)
SB2U bombing and scouting squadrons soon flew from the decks of five U.S. aircraft carriers—the Lexington (CV-2), Saratoga, Ranger (CV-4), Wasp (CV-7), and Essex (CV-9). The folding-wing SB2U was especially welcome on board the relatively small Ranger and Wasp. The Essex, commissioned on 31 December 1942, transitioned to the Douglas SBD Dauntless scout bomber before she sailed for the Pacific and a highly credible combat career in the Pacific war.
The first SB2Us to see action—albeit not combat—were on board the Ranger and Wasp on Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic from 1939 to December 1941, when the United States entered World War II. On the patrol the Wasp operated Marine SB2U-3s in addition to her own SB2Us. In March 1942 the carrier sailed for Great Britain and, leaving her scout bombers ashore, made two voyages into the battle-ravaged Mediterranean to deliver British fighters to Malta. During those two trips, in April and May 1942, the Wasp’s SB2Us operated from Royal Naval Air Station Hatston in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The U.S. planes carried out coastal patrols, practiced tactics with a Norwegian Spitfire squadron, and conducted training flights.
The Wasp reembarked her planes after the Malta runs and soon sailed for the Pacific; upon arrival at San Diego in June 1942 she traded her SB2Us for Dauntlesses. The Lexington and Saratoga had taken aboard Dauntlesses in place of their SB2Us prior to the outbreak of war. The Ranger, operating in the Atlantic until July 1944, traded her SB2Us for Dauntlesses later in 1942. Thus ended SB2U operations from aircraft carriers.
Beyond the five U.S. carriers that had SB2Us in their air groups, plus training flights with other ships, Vindicators flew—albeit briefly—from French and British carriers. The Chance Vought demonstration aircraft V-156, the basic SB2U, was flown in Paris in October 1938. The French naval air arm—Aeronavalé—ordered 40 aircraft. Similar to the U.S. SB2U-2, the first planes were crated, shipped, and reassembled, with two French squadrons being formed in the fall of 1939. These squadrons successfully flew carrier qualifications on board the carrier Béarn and then were transferred to northern France when the Germans invaded in May 1940. Most of the planes were destroyed in combat, although eight may have fallen into German hands when France surrendered in June 1940.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy ordered 50 Vindicators, including the remnants of the French buy. Designated Chesapeake I, the aircraft began arriving in Britain early in 1941. Squadrons were formed, but the planes were found to be unsuitable for British escort carriers, mainly because of their long takeoff run. The Chesapeakes served in the training role, being promptly discarded when the war ended.
Only the Marine Corps had SB2Us in Pacific combat squadrons when war erupted. On 7 December 1941, all eight SB2U-3s from Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron (VMSB) 231 on Oahu were destroyed in the Japanese surprise air attack. Eighteen other VMSB-231 planes were on board the Lexington, bound for Midway. News of the attack caused the “Lex” to abort the delivery and return the planes to Oahu, sending them to the Ewa air station.3
On 17 December, 17 of the squadron’s Vindicators flew nonstop from Oahu to Midway. Led by a PBY Catalina flying boat, the aircraft travelled 1,137 miles in 9 hours, 45 minutes, a record for a mass flight of single-engine landplanes.
By June 1942 the squadron—redesignated VMSB-241—consisted of 17 SB2U-3 and 19 SBD-2 aircraft.4 At the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942, the Marine squadron flew two missions. The first was an attack on Japanese carriers and other ships, but they inflicted no damage; the second was a scouting mission that failed to locate Japanese ships. On 5 June the Marine planes attacked two Japanese cruisers that had been damaged in a collision. The aircraft inflicted no damage except that one damaged Vindicator may have crashed into the cruiser Mikuma, but that occurrence was not confirmed by other pilots in the strike nor by Japanese records. That plane was piloted by Captain Richard E. Fleming, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his heroism in the battle.
VMSB-241 lost 8 Vindicators, 5 Dauntlesses, and 24 pilots and enlisted gunners at Midway. It was the last action for Vindicators. The Marine squadron remained on Midway until March 1943. By then the squadron’s Vindicators as well as all other SB2Us in U.S. service were relegated to training roles. Through combat losses, training accidents, and planes being scrapped, none are believed to have survived the war. There was no vindication for the Vindicator.
2. An outstanding discussion of the SB2U Vindicator is Jack Killop’s website “Chance-Vought SB2U Vindicator” at www.microworks.net/pacific/aviation/sb2u_vindicator.htm. Also highly recommended are Dana Bell, United States Navy SB2U Vindicator (Tucson, AZ: Classic Warships, December 2009), and Tom Doll, SB2U Vindicator in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1992).
3. The squadron’s ground personnel and material did reach Midway on board the seaplane tender Wright (AV-1).
4. The Dauntlesses had arrived at Midway on board the aircraft transport Kitty Hawk (APV-1).
Chance Vought SB2U-1 Vindicator
Type: Scout bomber
Crew: pilot, radioman-gunner
Gross weight: 7,972 pounds with 1,000-pound bomb
Length: 32 feet, 11 inches
Wingspan: 42 feet
Wing area: 305 square feet
Height: 14 feet, 2 inches
Engines: 1 Pratt & Whitney R-1535-96 radial; 825 horsepower
Max. speed: 250 mph (without external stores)
Ceiling: 26,200 feet