The Air Zoo welcomed a very special guest last week, Dr. Arthur J. Lendo who is traveling across the country to honor his uncle, John Henry Lendo. Dr. Arthur Lendo has donated more than $100,000 to restore the SBD-2P “Dauntless” Dive Bomber in his uncle’s honor.
“The story of this airplane and its pilot deserve to be told”, says Dr. Arthur J. Lendo, former president of Peirce College in Philadelphia and major donor behind the ongoing restoration efforts. “Combined, they represent a heroic American generation, a link to the past that shouldn’t be forgotten.”
“We’re honored by the trust and support Dr. Lendo and his family have given the Air Zoo. They have not only provided help to restore the SBD 2173 to its former glory, but they’ve assisted in ensuring our entire community has the unique opportunity to learn its important history by working directly on the aircraft”, states President and CEO of the Air Zoo, Troy Thrash. “The story of this SBD and its last pilot, John Lendo, is told every day at the Air Zoo, and thus far nearly 1,000 students and public visitors have contributed to the restoration. In the summer of 2020, the restoration of SBD 2173 is expected to be complete, and the aircraft will go home to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, where its stories will inspire visitors for decades to come.”
The Back Story:
On the afternoon of February 18th, 1943, 24-year-old Lieutenant Junior Grade John Lendo, born July 26, 1918 in Gardner, Massachusetts, climbed aboard SBD-2P “Dauntless” Dive Bomber 2173 at NAS Glenview, located just north of Chicago in Glenview, Illinois. As he ran through his pre-flight checklist, the USS Sable, a former side-wheel passenger ship hastily converted to a Carrier Qualification Training Unit (CQTU) in 1942, pitched and rolled on the icy, gray waters of Lake Michigan twenty miles away. Responsible for training the carrier pilots demanded by the United States’ entry into World War II, the carriers were kept in the inland Great Lakes for training as the large bodies of water offered similar weather and wave conditions to the ocean, without exposing ships to the threat of German and Japanese submarines aggressively patrolling both U.S. coastlines. Lt. Lendo was one of more than 17,000 aviators who would train on Lake Michigan between 1942 and 1945. A former flight instructor with over 1,600 hours of flying time, he took off that afternoon to complete five carrier landings, one of the final steps of his training before combat assignment to the Pacific. What transpired after takeoff would ensure, unexpectedly, that this young pilot’s name would become an important part of history over six decades later.
“My Uncle John was the personification of a heroic American generation” says Dr. Lendo. “The son of immigrants with no education of their own, who finds his way to an Ivy League school, graduates, and then volunteers to fight in one of history’s greatest conflicts. Along the way, he has a rendezvous with an aircraft that’s on its own journey, one that has taken it from combat in the Pacific to Lake Michigan where it’s used to educate and train him as a young carrier pilot. Their paths intersect and become linked on that afternoon in 1943, and it’s a story that should be told, an example of service and sacrifice for future generations.”
Landing an aircraft on a pitching, rolling carrier is considered one of the most dangerous tasks in aviation as the slightest miscalculation can mean injury or death. Crashes were common in the training program, and the young lieutenant certainly knew the risks as he flew towards his rendezvous with the Sable. What he didn’t know on that cold, February afternoon was that ice had begun to form in the aircraft’s carburetor and was slowly choking off the flow of fuel to the engine. As he lined up for his first landing of the day, disaster struck. Starved for fuel, the dive bomber’s engine sputtered and died, and Lendo found himself at low altitude with no power. A situation easily fatal for most young pilots, his experience and skill allowed him to maintain control as he piloted the crippled craft in for a “belly landing” on the surface of Lake Michigan, two miles from the USS Sable. Uninjured, he leapt into the icy water and awaited the Coast Guard “crash boat” already en route to pick him up. As Lt. Lendo fought to stay afloat, SBD-2P “Dauntless” 2173 slipped quietly below the surface and spiraled slowly down through the dark water. It touched down softly on the sandy lakebed some 200 feet below, where it would remain, largely intact, for the next 66 years. Learn more about John Henry Lendo here.
The discovery and subsequent recovery of SDB-2P 2173 brought more than just the aircraft back to the surface. The name of its last pilot, Lt. John Lendo, began to circulate, and when research revealed he and his F6F Hellcat went missing on December 14th, 1944 in a sweep against heavily defended Japanese airfields near Luzon, in the Philippine Islands, the restoration mission unofficially expanded to serve as a memorial to this member of the “Greatest Generation” who made the ultimate sacrifice. Dr. Lendo, having followed the news of the aircraft’s recovery, was pleased with the new attention the memory of his uncle was receiving, and began to explore ways the Lendo family might become involved.
SBD-2P 2173 arrived at the Air Zoo on July 1st, 2016 amidst much fanfare and media attention. It arrived at the front of the Air Zoo’s Flight Innovation Center to a crowd of all generations, among them several former World War II pilots. In his public remarks at the event, Troy Thrash, Air Zoo President and CEO, made John Lendo’s story a focus, emphasizing its importance to the restoration project. Two weeks after its arrival, Thrash was contacted by Dr. Lendo, who expressed his interest in supporting the project. Thrash met with Dr. Lendo and his brother Kevin in Philadelphia not long after, and the three discussed how the Lendo family could support the restoration of SBD-2P 2173. This initial meeting eventually resulted in a plan ensuring the timely completion of the aircrafts restoration.
About the Air Zoo
Located at 6151 Portage Rd., Portage, MI 49002, the Air Zoo is a Smithsonian-affiliated aerospace & science experience with over 100 rare air & space craft, inspiring interactive exhibits, indoor amusement park rides, full-motion flight simulators, hands-on science-based education programs, and more. The Air Zoo is a not-for-profit organization and is open 360+ days per year. For hours, tickets and info, visit airzoo.org.