23 February, 2020

UPDATE Profile 138: Curtiss SB2C-4 Helldiver as flown by Lt. Curtis Cameron, VB-87

Well!  It's starting to actually look like something, eh?

Before the philosophizing begins, there are some details to note.

A.  The white triangle on the tail was (likely) on the airplane c. 25 July, 1945.  But, within a few weeks, the insides of the white triangle would have been painted out to form a white "V."  

Buddy Barrett Tillman let me know that the U.S. Navy made a change to how the tail feathers were painted during June of 1945.   But, don't think for a second that, as soon as the edict was decreed, the ground-crew got to work and complied.   When the USS Ticonderoga (aircraft carrier) entered into combat during the summer of 1945, their minds were focused on other, more pressing matters (like going into combat).

VB-87 SB2C Helldivers, c. Sept, 1945. This photo is commonly reproduced in VB-87 lore and has been captioned as taken when the mission was aborted after Surrender was announced.  Probably not.   It's a much better guess that it was taken during the many "POW Patrols"** over Japan in the weeks just after the Ticonderoga took up home in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 1945.

 #206 is third from front.

B. Notice the lack of weathering (i.e. chipped paint, massive exhaust/oil stains, etc.).  That's because U.S. Navy airplanes were rarely "weathered" like their Marine or Army Air Force brethren.  

Sure, the grime of battle looks cool but no self-respecting Navy crew chief would allow his bird to be anything but as-pristine-as-possible.  How do we know?  One word: salt.

WWII ace Hamilton "Mac" McWhorter clued me in years ago when I was drawing his F6F from the USS Randolph.**  I showed him a progress shot and his reply (the gracious gentleman that he was) was quick, "Our (crew chiefs polished and cleaned those airplanes non-stop.  If it was on a ship, it was kept in as pristine of condition as possible.  The salt in the air was highly corrosive!"

Now, that doesn't mean that the paint didn't fade (a bit).  Or that the metal skinning didn't distort (it did).  Or, that a scuff mark was completely removed (there were other things to worry about).  But, it does mean there were very, very few paint chips and those that happened were quickly covered.

A nice, clean Helldiver of VB-85, mid-Aug, 1945.  Notice the guy in the back.  He's wielding a camera.
Notice the ships in the background, too.  That's Task Force TF-38.

What's a Task Force?  Well, this shot of TF-38 taken the day the Helldiver shot above was taken.
Nice "synchronized swimming" but the greater message is this:  Japan picked a fight in the hopes of quick peace.  That didn't happen.  Instead, the USA hunkered down, lit the fires and forged an industrial juggernaut that was unstoppable.

C.  If you squint, really hard, you'll see a bunch of circular holes in the wing root as well as a tinge of red.  That's because this particular Helldiver was of the variant that had perforated dive flaps installed.  

Red paint was applied to the inside of the flaps to let pilots flying behind know, "this airplane is going to be flying a lot slower."   Or, conversely, it could be used to let the pilots flying behind know, "you'd better get on the radio now and let him know his flaps aren't deployed or else he's going to be making a 15,000lb hole in the ocean/ground/target."***

Have a look at the picture below to get the effect...

That's me playing with a die-cast VB-87 Helldiver that I bought as a reference for this project.
BUT...notice the map!  That's an actual cloth "mission map" that Lt. Cameron used while flying combat over southern Japan!  I'm getting it properly scanned for inclusion here (at a later date).

But, it's a bugger getting SEVENTY YEARS of wrinkles out of delicate fabric...

So anyway.

Have another look at the photo above (the one with me "flying" the Helldiver over the map).  Specifically, look at the wrinkles.   

When I saw the maps (there are more), they were stored, wadded up, in a plastic tub. Truly, my heart just about "went Alien."****  In fact, I kinda made an unfortunate dork of myself in front of the family by exclaiming something like, "What?!  That's not how you store those maps!!  OH NO!!!"

Thankfully, Curtis Cameron raised gracious people and I quickly followed their calming lead, "Relax.  We'll figure out how to get the wrinkles out."  But, it was interesting to me when Cameron's daughter, now a mom, grandmother said, "John, we just didn't know.  He was just...dad, you know?  We had no idea that he was something so much more."

Of course, the family knew of Cameron's wartime service.  And yes, the medals were known.   And yes, the 'stuff' was kept (instead of being offered up as yard-sale fodder or worse, eBay).  Yet, it was the impassioned pestering and pontification from one-history-geek who refreshed the interest in the family jewels.

"He was a man's man," the daughter explained.  "Dad had three daughters. He loved airplanes, cigars, hanging out with the boys."

"Were you close?"

"Oh he was great!  He was, you know, my DAD!  But there was this distance.  (Husband) used to talk to dad about his wartime stuff but we girls, we just didn't.  It was another world."

"What do you think of him now?"

"This is fascinating to me!  It feels like (the family) is getting puzzle pieces to fill in part of our lives that we didn't know was missing."

 "Did you ever think of your dad as a hero?"

"Oh sure.  Who doesn't?! (laughs).  But now, I see that his being a hero meant more than just to our family."


And that's the thing - "...something more than just our family."

* break break *

So, years ago, our church pastor (at the time) Rick Weber, and I were having a little talk about the challenges of parenting.  He handed me a book from Watergate-crook-turned-born-again-evangelist Chuck Colson titled, "How Now Shall We Live?"   It was a pretty-ok book.  I read it once but don't know where I put it(maybe a yard sale?)

But, I will NEVER forget what Rick said after I asked, "Why you giving me this?"

He replied, "Because what we do matters.  If not now, some day."

Huh.  And here we are, living the dream, ironing out wrinkles, resurrecting memories and getting ready to memorialize a man in a space where hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators will walk by, pause and wonder...

I don't sign up for these projects to worry about markings, missions or medals (though it's really fun).  These projects are so much more impactful as they remind me of the power, the ripple and impact every act, every life, has on another.

More's coming.

*Japan had POW camps scattered around their country.  VB-87 flew patrols over the country to try and spot these camps.  I strongly recommend you read the book, "Prisoners of the Japanese" by Gavin Daws.  Click here and be prepared for easy but unsettling reading.

**Mac's Hellcat is some of my early work.  It breaks my heart to think my skills were so lousy then but I have good reason.  Some day, if we meet over coffee/beer/whatever, I'll tell you.  But, I'm freaking honored to have known him...

Mac, circa 2004; he's signing little prints of my artwork at a gathering of WWII historians and geeks.   If you have one of these prints, please contact me as I'd like to know more about the event...
***Dive bombers had to control their speed or else the forces of physics would overcome even the most determined will to pull the airplane out of a dive.

****That gross scene in the movie Alien where the monster leaps out of the hapless dudes chest.  I'd post a picture but it still freaks me out.