COURTESY OF SUMNER H. WHITTEN
Sumner H. Whitten was among the lucky members of his squadron to fly in the obsolete Vought SB2U-3 Vindicators during the Battle of Midway and survive to tell the tale.
Discovered in 1859 and annexed by the United States in August 1867, Midway atoll consists of Sand and Eastern islands, surrounded by a coral reef less than six miles in diameter. Located 1,135 miles from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the tiny atoll served as a cable station and an airport for Pan American Airways’ China Clipper until March 1941, when the U.S. Navy began construction of a naval air station (NAS). Completed in August, Midway NAS included a 5,300-foot runway on Eastern Island and hosted a mixed bag of Navy, Marine and U.S. Army Air Forces personnel when the atoll was shelled by Japanese destroyers Sazanami and Ushio on the morning of December 7, 1941. With the outbreak of war in the Pacific, Midway became a vitally important base–though at that time none of its personnel could have imagined how important.
Among the reinforcements sent to bolster Midway’s defenses on December 23, 1941, was Marine Air Group (MAG) 22, commanded by Lt. Col. Ira B. Kimes and made up of fighter squadron VMF-221, equipped with Brewster F2A-3 Buffalos, and scout bombing squadron VMSB-231, operating Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bombers. When the Battle of Midway began in earnest on June 4, 1942, it saw the last American use of both the Buffalo and the Vindicator in combat. In an interview with Jon Guttman, former SB2U-3 pilot Sumner H. Whitten described his role in the pivotal sea battle of the war in the Pacific.
World War II: Could you tell us something about your background before joining the Marines?
Whitten:I was born in Newton, Mass., on August 14, 1917, and went to high school there. I went on to Amherst College, from which I graduated in 1940. I enlisted in the Marine Corps in February 1940, going on active duty in June of that year. I spent a couple of months at the Boston Navy Yard, then I moved to NAS Squantum, right across the bay from Boston, where I underwent elimination training to qualify as a pilot. I had spent three or four hours flying planes while I was in college, and I only needed six more hours of flight time before I soloed. I was then supposed to go to NAS Pensacola, Fla., but they had no openings there for privates. So I was put on active duty, got a job collecting bills and flew Fridays and Saturdays with the Navy Reserves and Marine Corps until October, when I was ordered to Pensacola. The commander still wouldn’t let me into flight training as a private, so I suggested, ‘Then promote me!’ The next day, I was promoted to private first class, making $30 a month plus flight pay, and I had a car.
WWII:What types of aircraft were you trained in at Pensacola?
Whitten:In Squadron 1, at Saufley Field, we used the Stearman N3N-3, a biplane, for basics and aerobatics. Then, in Squadron 2, we used the SB2U-1, 2, 3 and 4 for section tactics. We also used more modern SBU-1s and 2s for preliminary dive-bombing practice. These were all old fleet biplanes. We then moved back to Saufley Field and into Squadron 3 for instrument work, using SNJ-1s, 2s and 3s. We used the radio navigation facilities at Mobile, Ala., and Crestview, Fla. It was during the later phase of Squadron 1 that the powers that be discovered I was a college graduate and made me a Marine cadet. Less pay, more work, more discipline!
WWII:What was your training like as a cadet?
Whitten:Marine cadets were sent to NAS Opa-Locka, Fla., outside Miami, for carrier type training. We flew the old BT-1s and 2s, SBC-3s and 4s, Grumman F4F-4B, F2F-2s and 3, and F3F-2s and 3s. Training was navigation, section tactics, dive bombing, gunnery, all types–rear seat, front guns on SBs and, of course, fighters. Also fighter tactics and preliminary field carrier landings. I graduated from Opa-Locka in April 1941 and reported to the 2nd Marine Air Wing [MAW] at NAS North Island in early May. There, I was attached to the Advanced Carrier Training Group, undergoing Navy training for carriers using SNJs and SBDs [Dauntlesses].
WWII:Did you actually land on a carrier?
Whitten:No. All our carriers were at sea. We had a dirt field where they outlined an area the size and shape of a carrier deck. Everything was controlled by the landing signals officer [LSO]. You’d come around the pattern, gear and flaps down; he’d signal you with paddles as to your correct attitude, altitude and speed. At the proper time and place he’d give you the cut. You landed, took off again and repeated the drill. Then came the war.
WWII:What did you do after the Japanese carriers struck at Pearl Harbor?
Whitten:I spent December 7 and 8 loading the carrier Saratoga–mainly lifting 75-pound boxes of supplies. They loaded a Marine fighter squadron and Navy planes aboard her, and she left for Pearl Harbor. Then many other personnel were shipped to Pearl aboard the liner President Cleveland. In late December, while we were at MCAS [Marine Corps Air Station] Ewa, Hawaii, 14 of us new pilots were assigned to MAG-22 at Midway–seven to the fighter squadron VMF-221 and seven to the dive-bomber squadron VMSB-231. At Midway there was MAG-22, made up of VMSB-231, flying SB2U-3s, and VMF-221, flying F2A-3s–both obsolete aircraft. The 17 SB2U-3s of VMSB-231, originally based at MCAS Ewa, had been flown from Oahu to Midway in squadron formation, 1,135 miles in nine hours and 45 minutes. Lieutenant Leon M. Williamson, with whom I flew at Midway, was one of those on that squadron flight. The SB2Us had special wing tanks–112 gallons in each wing. Add that 224 gallons to the 253 in the fuselage tank, and burning only 22-26 gallons per hour, and it seemed like you could go on forever. I went out to Midway on the only troop-carrying destroyer the Navy had in the first week of January 1942.
WWII:What was your impression of the Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator?
Whitten:The SB2U-3 was a good plane in its time–1936 to 1940–but it was obsolete by the time Vought built 57 of them for the Marine Corps in 1940. It had been designed in 1934, but it didn’t go into production until 1936. In addition to the normal 1,000- or 500-bomb armament, the SB2U-3 had outboard wing racks for either two 100-pound bombs or 32 anti-personnel bombs, which weighed 3 or 4 pounds each but produced a lot of drag. It was also armed with a .50-caliber and a .30-caliber machine gun in each wing root, firing outside the arc of the propeller. The rear-seat gunner had a .30-caliber machine gun. This gun used cans of 95-100 rounds each, so that the gunner had about 1,000 rounds in the 10 cans he carried. The SB2U-3 was a slow plane, as far as speed went, and a lousy bomber. They didn’t know much about dive brakes when they built the SB2U-1 and 2. Up until then, dive bombers had been biplanes, and they produced enough drag to keep down the speed in a dive, but with the 750-hp Pratt & Whitney engine driving a cleaned-up monoplane like the SB2U series, you’d easily see 390-400 knots on your airspeed meter in a dive from 8,000 feet. It was like riding a rock! You could hardly maneuver–the ailerons became stiff as a board. We would drop our landing gear, which slowed us down a bit–15 to 20 knots–but you still had to be very strong to operate an SB2U in a dive. In comparison, those SBDs with perforated dive brakes could hold their speed down to 280 knots coming down in a 70-degree dive from 8,000 to 3,000 feet. The only thing wrong with the early SBD type was that it was underpowered–later models were more powerful, but they should have installed that 1,200-hp engine in it to begin with.
WWII:On December 23, 1941, 17 SB2Us and 13 F2As arrived at Midway to bolster its defenses. What were your impressions of that duty prior to the battle in June 1942?
Whitten:There were coral revetments on Eastern Island, with wooden wheel troughs to hold the aircraft–after you landed and taxied up to them, you backed the plane into them down an incline. I was assigned Aircraft Bureau No. 2054, with the code number 11 on the fuselage. My crewman was Sergeant Frank E. Zelnis. Me being from outside Boston, and he from a very recently immigrated Latvian family, we could hardly understand each other, but finally–a couple of weeks later–we could interpret each other over the intercom. Frank was a good ordnance man who taught me about the guns on the plane. He cleaned his own gun, while my job was to clean the fixed .50s and .30s–Zelnis taught me how. I was also responsible for cleaning inside the cockpit, as well as the brakes and wheels, including the tail wheel. Keeping the brakes clean was important because the coral dust we kicked up during takeoff and landing wore out the brake bands in no time.
WWII:In photographs from that time, VMSB-231’s SB2U-3s display white bands on their fuselages. Was that a unit practice?
Whitten:Yes, but not as a marking practice. 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.
WWII:What were some of your operational activities during those months?
Whitten:We’d make anti-submarine patrols in the morning and from 4 or 5:30 p.m. into the night. In between, we’d practice bombing during the day. There was a barge out in the lagoon, but we got no practice in hitting a moving ship. Meanwhile, Japanese submarines were watching us–they knew what we had. Every Friday night the Japanese shelled us, but the three or four rounds they fired were not too effective considering that the island was no more than 4 feet above sea level. We’d sit on top of our dugout on Friday night, wondering where the shells would come from and where they would go. Most went right over the island and into the lagoon. They sometimes hit, making a hole 15 feet long, and we’d just fill it in. During April 1942, several of VMSB-231’s personnel were sent back to MCAS Ewa to form new squadrons, and I received new pilots. On March 1, the squadron was redesignated VMSB-241, the ‘Sons of Satan.’
WWII:When did the squadron routine change?
Whitten:In early May, we detected a radar target, and our Buffalo fighters went out on a mission in which they shot down a four-engine flying boat 60 miles northwest of the island–a gunnery sergeant was credited with shooting it down. That suggested that something was up. We started looking for places to put anti-aircraft guns. On May 26, the aircraft ferry Kitty Hawk brought 19 SBD-2s to Midway to reinforce the squadron. But Jap subs sank our supply ship, so we had no more food and ammunition.
WWII:On the morning of June 3, 1942, U.S. Navy Consolidated PBY-5As spotted Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo’s Combined Fleet approaching Midway. Boeing B-17s and PBYs from the island attacked the Japanese, but caused little damage. The real battle began the next morning. What was VMSB-241’s part in that first action?
Whitten:We got a signal at 6 a.m. or so to get up and get going. Then we got another order–no go–so we stopped. An hour later, we went, with VMSB-241’s commander, Major Lofton R. Henderson, leading 16 SBDs and Major Benjamin W. Norris leading 12 SB2Us, though one had to drop out with mechanical problems. By then, Japanese carrier planes were attacking Midway–when we were taking off, bombs were falling on the island. All aircraft of the squadron were to rendezvous 40 miles east of the island, but when our SB2Us got there the SBDs were long gone, so we climbed at 200-300 feet per minute until we reached 8,000 feet, just above the clouds. The weather over Midway on June 4 was clear, with scattered clouds. However, as we proceeded northwest toward the Japanese fleet the cloud cover became more complete. By the time we were within 25 miles of the projected attack point, the cloud cover was solid to broken, heavy clouds, extending up to 8,000 feet. We could see, between breaks in the overcast, elements of the Japanese fleet. I can remember seeing a carrier going on a course of say 120 degrees, with flames coming out of it and a destroyer alongside, along with a couple of other wakes. Then, suddenly, we came under attack. Zelnis said three [Mitsubishi A6M2] Zero fighters came at him, joined after two or three runs by more.
WWII:How did you react to this unexpected Japanese attack?
Whitten:We flew in three four-plane sections, in a step-down formation. We were flying in an ‘S’ pattern all the time. As I said, Zelnis was a damn good gunner, and I was greatly relieved by that. He was firing almost continuously, in two- to three-round bursts so as not to waste the 90 rounds in his drum, which he would then have to change. You had to be awfully adept at doing this in a slipstream, with fighters firing at you. During the fight, a Zero went under my right wing with black smoke pouring from the junction of the engine and fuselage and wing. That is probably the one with which he was officially credited. Another Zero came down at a 90-degree angle, burning back down the whole fuselage. I personally believe that Zelnis should have been credited with two kills, but for a gunner, one is more than normal, and we lost several gunners before we got to the fleet.
WWII:Did you abandon your attack at that point?
Whitten:No. We dove down, in column formation, through cloud breaks, still under attack by Zeros, coming out at about 3,500-4,000 feet, in the vicinity of a battleship. So that is what we attacked, since to find the carriers would have meant flying around while still under attack.
WWII:That was the battleship Haruna. Did you cause any damage to her?
Whitten:No, I made a lousy attack–from 4,000 feet, I could not get a good approach. Making too shallow a dive, diagonally from starboard aft to forward port, I dropped my bomb off the bow of the ship, but didn’t hit it. But we scared ’em. Major Norris, 2nd Lt. George T. Lumpkin and 2nd Lt. Kenneth O. Campion dived on the battleship, too. Norris managed to score a near miss that caused it some damage. I think there was a direct hit made amidships.
WWII:What did you do after dropping your bomb?
Whitten:I then made a sharp right turn and started home at 100 feet. We made it back okay–ours was the only plane in the squadron that was not damaged during the battle. Two SB2Us, crewed by Campion and Private Anthony J. Maday and 2nd Lt. James H. Marmande and Pfc Edby M. Colvin, failed to return. Second Lieutenant Allan H. Ringblom’s plane ran out of fuel, and he had to ditch, but he and his gunner, Private E.L. Webb, were rescued by a motor torpedo boat, PT-26. Lieutenant Cummings also had to ditch a few miles short of Midway, and was rescued by PT-20. Our squadron commander, Major Henderson, was dead, among the first SBDs shot down by the Zeros, and Captain Elmer Glidden had taken charge of his flight when it attacked the Japanese carrier Hiryu.
WWII:Later that day, in spite of heavy losses to the American planes, Navy SBD-3s managed to score fatal hits on the Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu. Hiryu’s planes crippled the carrier Yorktown, but she was destroyed in turn by more carrier-based U.S. Navy Dauntlesses. By then, you had participated in a second mission. Could you describe that?
Whitten:When the survivors of our morning strike returned to Midway, we refueled, rearmed and waited to go out. It was not until 7 p.m., however, that we got the message, ‘There are two burning carriers out there–let’s go get them.’ The SBDs, now led by Captain Marshall A. Tyler, went out on their own. Norris was leading five SB2U-3s in a V formation; I was on Williamson’s left wing. The weather was bad, however, and we never found a target. It became dark–Williamson’s lighted compass and the flames from his exhaust stack were the only lights I could see. We zigzagged around some clouds, and suddenly nobody was there–the others must have gone on. I made a square search for two minutes, then said to myself, ‘Be damned, I’m going home.’ After another 15 minutes, I thought, ‘There’s no point carrying this 500-pound bomb around,’ so I jettisoned it. After another square search, I found Pearl and Hermes, a coral outcropping southeast of Midway, so I knew where I was. I turned around and headed for Midway, but Midway didn’t turn up. I did a two-minute square search, then another for four minutes, then turned back. Then Zelnis told me, ‘Make a 180–I see flames.’ I didn’t see anything, but I turned in that direction for a minute or so, and then I saw the fire–an oil tank that the attacking Japanese planes had hit on Sand Island. The defenders shot at us all around the landing pattern, but they missed us and I landed, after which they took a half a pail of fuel out of my tanks. Major Norris’ plane never came back, but everyone else did. By the time I’d finished my debriefing, it was about 2 or 2:30 in the morning. I didn’t wake up until 9 the next morning.
WWII:Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Takeo Kurita’s Cruiser Division 7, made up of the heavy cruisers Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma and Mogami, was en route to bombard American positions on Midway when Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto ordered a general retirement at 2:55 a.m. on June 5. At 3:42, the Japanese sighted the submarine Tambor and took evasive action. While performing evasive maneuvers, Mogami collided with Mikuma. Damaged and lagging behind, the cruisers became fair game for American aircraft the next morning, June 6. Wasn’t VMSB-241 among the attackers?
Whitten:Yes, everyone was up at 4:30 a.m. and went out to attack those cruisers, but they didn’t wake me up for that. We had more crews than planes, and 2nd Lt. Robert W. Vaupell, who was the duty officer on the 4th, took off in my SB2U. Tyler’s six SBDs failed to finish Mogami, but our six SB2Us, led by Captain Francis M. Fleming, got a couple of hits on Mikuma–one got a solid hit forward of the ship, and another got a bouncer off the back end. Dick Fleming’s SB2U was hit by anti-aircraft fire early in the attack and burst into flames, but he flew his plane into the ship, killing himself and his gunner, Pfc George A. Toms. The executive officer of Mikuma, who survived the battle, said he thought Fleming was a very brave man because he hit the after turret and put it out of action. He also caused a fire that was sucked into Mikuma’s starboard air intakes, suffocating her engineers. Both cruisers suffered further attacks, and Mikuma sank on the afternoon of June 6, with about 1,000 of her crew. Fleming was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
WWII:What did you do after Midway?
Whitten:I flew out to Pearl Harbor in mid-July in a B-17. I became the official rear top gunner–of course, I knew nothing about it. I then became the operations officer of VMB-234, a squadron with no airplanes, working with pilots with 175 hours’ flight time until we got nine SBD-1s. Later, re-equipped with brand-new SBD-4s, we went to Guadalcanal to relieve VMB-233, arriving on December 12. I was there when we took over Guadalcanal on February 7, 1943, during which time we bombed the Japanese supply destroyers that we called the Tokyo Express coming down from Rabaul. I also took part in the first bombing raid on Munda and one to Kahili on Bougainville, which was the absolute limit of the old SBDs. We all had 500-pound bombs and were on the reserve tank when we landed. I finally made it home in mid-April 1943 and was assigned to Vero Beach, Fla., to be a dive-bomber pilot instructor, then to Deland as the base gunnery officer. Pro-moted to major, I served on the admiral’s staff at Jacksonville for six to eight months. I was sent to the West Coast to a Curtiss SB2C-4 squadron, then to a Grumman TBM squadron. Later I was assigned to the Forward Air Control Program under General James C. Magee, attached to the 4th Marine Division. We had Army personnel assigned to train with us for the Japan invasion. I was assigned, along with a Navy gunfire expert, as Marine Corps liaison to the Army Air Forces’ 1st Air Support Control Squadron. We were about to go to Japan–already aboard the ship–when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese called the war off on August 14, 1945.
WWII:What did you do after V-J Day?
Whitten:I was assigned to MCAS Cherry Point, N.C., MAG-14, as commanding officer [CO] of the group’s service squadron. We prepared 200-300 airplanes for shipment overseas, including Vought F4U Corsairs to France, SB2C-4 Helldivers to Greece and TBM Avengers to England. During the Korean War, I served my squadron time as CO of VMF-312, flying F4U-4Bs. After my six months’ duty in the squadron, I was assigned command of the Air Base Squadron.
WWII:Did you continue your career after Korea?
Whitten:Yes. After being shipped home to El Toro, Calif., I served in an F4U squadron again until it was refitted with jets–Grumman F9F-2s, then F9F-4s. The unit later went to Kaneohoe, Hawaii, and we checked out aboard the carrier Oriskany. I suffered the only accident–my tail hook broke and I went right into the barriers. I went on the 1st Marine Air/Ground Brigade, which later developed into the present Marine Air/Ground Task Force, stationed aboard Navy amphibious task forces in various strategically sensitive areas around the world. After returning from Hawaii, I went to San Diego, Calif., and Albuquerque, N.M., for atomic special-weapons training. Upon completion of schools, I was assigned to the Amphibious Training Command. I was informed that I could expect to spend the next five years overseas. Since I had spent 10 of the last 15 years in the Corps on overseas duty, I decided that was enough. It had led to a divorce from my first wife, so I left the Corps on December 31, 1954, with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
WWII:Did you continue a civilian career in aviation?
Whitten:I tried to sell bonds, but it came to nothing, so I later went to work for Convair, performing flight tests of the F-102s and F-106s. Later I worked on the Atlas missile program as a specialist in building the missile silos as a hydraulics, cryogenics and air-conditioning engineer. From Convair, I moved to Lockheed to work on the F-104 program, and then to the company’s ‘Skunk Works,’ to conduct testing of the YF-12A and the SR-71, both Mach 3-plus aircraft. After Lockheed I worked on the Northrop F-5 program. In 1970, I married an Air Force systems analyst working at the El Segundo, Calif., plant. I retired in 1979. My second wife died the same way as the first–of cancer from too many cigarettes–in 1987. I married my third wife later in 1987–she doesn’t smoke.
WWII:Looking back on your part in the turning point in the Pacific War, have you any further comments on Midway?
Whitten:We did what we could with what we had. I’d like to add, though, that I have always admired the guts of those rear-seat gunners. Especially those in the Vindicators who had to change ammo cans in the face of enemy attacks. Those kids–and most of them were kids–were a trusting lot. They rode along backwards, most of the time, not having a say about where or why or how or when. They died when their pilots died, far too many times. And their recognition has never equaled their devotion to duty.
This article was written by Jon Guttman and originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!