Early Life and Joining the Marine Corps

Aviation Training on Obsolete Aircraft

Driving Cross Country, Pearl Harbor and Overseas Deployment

From Pearl Harbor to Midway

Being Based on Midway Island

The SB2U Vindicator and Flying Anti-Submarine Patrols From Midway

Opening Round of the Battle of Midway

Going After the Japanese Battleship Haruna

Going to Guadalcanal and Reflections on Midway

Victories at Midway and Guadalcanal

Reunions and Quality Crewmen

Japanese Submarines at Midway Island

Whitten's First Combat During the Battle of Midway

Having Good Rear Seat Gunners


Sumner Whitten was born in Newton, Massachusetts. After high school he went to Amherst College. In college he was in the glee club. The last performance his club did before he graduated was for the Amherst Alumni Association, after which Whitten and his friends took their dates into New York City. When they walked past a recruiting station, the boys' dates bet them that they wouldn't go in and enlist. In 1940, everyone on the East Coast knew that war was coming. The people could see it by all of the work available at defense plants working to provide Lend Lease materials to Britain and France. Whitten and his three friends enlisted. Two of his friends volunteered for the Army Air Corps, one went into the Navy, and Whitten volunteered for the Marine Corps. He got a notice to report to the Marine Corps 20 days after he got out of college. He reported to the Navy Yard in Boston where he stayed for a couple of months. Whitten had done some flying in college and had soloed. He had always wanted to fly. Whitten was sent to Squantum [Annotator's Note: Naval Air Station Squantum in Quincy, Massachusetts] but couldn't get into flight training because he was only a PFC and he had to be a sergeant to get into flight training. He was put on active reserve until a spot opened up for him. While waiting for a spot to open at flight school he went to work at a bank as a bill collector. The first collection Whitten went on was for a young man who had bought a guitar but hadn't made a payment yet. They talked for a while and Whitten got the man to pay his bill. Whitten was making good money, about 45 or 50 dollars a month. He also had a car that the bank gave him. He only had to pay about 240 dollars which was the balance owed on the car. Whitten would work during the week and drive down to Squantum on the weekends. One weekend, he was told to go to Pensacola on Monday. He packed his bags and drove down to Pensacola.


Sumner Whitten was admitted to the training program as a PFC. When it was discovered that he had a college education he was made a cadet. At E Base, Whitten flew N3Ns [Annotator's Note: Naval Aircraft Factory N3N Canary trainer aircraft]. There were two dirigibles named the Macon and the Akron, each of which could carry four airplanes. The Macon and Akron were lost and the contract with Goodyear to build another four dirigibles was cancelled. The trainers of the time were designed in the teens and a new type was needed. The Navy got the N3N, which was constructed of leftover parts from dirigibles. The Army Air Corps got Stearmans [Annotator's Note: Boeing-Stearman Model 75]. Whitten got five or six hours in a Stearman. When Whitten was moved up to Squadron 2, they flew several types of former fleet aircraft learning formation flying. In Squadron 3 they had AT-6s, SNJs [Annotator's Note: North American T-6 Texan was designated AT-6 by the Army Air Corps and SNJ by the Navy], but they were only trained in the back seat learning instrument flying. Then, Whitten was sent to Opa-Locka, Florida. Opa-Locka was a new base. They spent the first two weeks in tents then moved into the new barracks. Whitten flew many different types of aircraft here. They learned to fly fighters and dive bombers. They flew just about everything that had been on carriers but was no longer on them. Whitten requested an assignment to the West Coast, thinking that the Marine Corps would send him to the East Coast. He was assigned to the West Coast.


Sumner Whitten would rent his car out for five dollars per night. Whitten took his graduation leave in New England then took off for the West Coast. In May 1941, there were no cross country freeways. In Albuquerque they were widening the highway from two lanes to three lanes. Whitten found another route on his map so he could avoid the construction. He followed the alternate route. The road went from paved to dirt, then from dirt to no road at all. Whitten kept following it and eventually came across a survey crew. They told him how to get to where he needed to go. In New Mexico, Whitten tried to cash a check at a bank. It was a government issue check and the bank wouldn't take it. Whitten ended up cashing it at the local post office. Whitten ended up in San Diego where his training continued. When the war started, Whitten was with the group that loaded the Saratoga [Annotator's Note: USS Saratoga (CV-3)]. Every available aircraft was loaded onto the ship. The Saratoga then left for Pearl Harbor. The Saratoga began life as a battle cruiser. Whitten was one of 14 second lieutenants who went aboard a presidential line transport Cleveland [Annotator's Note: American President Line SS President Cleveland].


Sumner Whitten arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, west of Honolulu. The mess from the attack on Pearl Harbor was still being cleaned up. Just prior to his arrival VMSB-231 [Annotator's Note: Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 231 (VMSB-231)], an SB2U-3 [Annotator's Note: Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bomber] squadron, left for Midway. Whitten and 13 other lieutenants were put aboard a transport destroyer and sent to Midway. Whitten was the senior lieutenant so he was assigned a watch as OOD, Officer of the Day [Annotator's Note: Officer of the Deck]. Luckily for Whitten, the CPO's [Annotator's Note: chief petty officers] knew what to do. Whitten was assigned to VMSB-231. At the time, Whitten had about 135 to 140 hours of flying time and thought he was very experienced. Whitten was given the position of wingman for the squadron CO [Annotator's Note: comanding officer], Major Chapel. He and the others he had arrived at Midway with had to get checked out in the SB2U-3. The squadron flew morning and evening anti-submarine patrols. Every Friday, Japanese submarines would shell the field. Whitten and his friends would yell back and forth at each other about which group the shells would fly over. The men lived in dugouts. There were six men in each dugout. Whitten was surprised to have the bottom bunk offered to him. When the first storm hit, he found out why. The dugouts would get two to three inches of water in them during a big storm. The men would spend most of their time at the squadron office. Whitten's job was as Assistant Ordnance Officer. One of his jobs was to disperse the ammunition. There was navigation and dive bombing training at Midway. They didn't have any practice attacking a moving target and Whitten feels that is the reason they were so ineffective.


While on Midway, Sumner Whitten's squadron was changed from VMSB-231 [Annotator's Note: Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 231 (VMSB-231)] to VMSB-241 [Annotator's Note: Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241)]. This was just a change made on paper effective 1 May [Annotator's Note: 1 May 1942]. Nothing physically changed. Whitten doesn't know why this was done. The morning and evening patrols they flew were about three and a half hours long. The aircrews would fly two out of every three days. Whitten had a gunner named Frank Zelnis from Chicago. Frank had been born in Latvia and Whitten and Frank had a hard time understanding each other. Frank was the best gunner in the squadron but the worst radioman. A signal would send out MO's [Annotator's Note: these were the letters M and O sent out in Morse Code] about every 45 seconds. By following this, the plane's direction finder would indicate the heading back to home base. Twice a week Whitten and Frank would go to the radio shop to practice following the MO. Frank would do well until they got in the air. A few times, the fighters would pull a target for the gunners to practice. Frank was good. During the Battle of Midway, Frank got credit for one and a half Zeros [Annotator's Note: Japanese Mitsubishi A6M fighetr aircraft, known s the Zeke or Zero]. Whitten believes it should have been two and a half. Gooney birds were big. A mature bird weighed about ten pounds. They were also inquisitive and would get close to the men. The men stationed on Midway would harass the Gooney birds. The men had to be careful with the Gooney birds because they could take off a finger when they bit. The birds would also try to take off into the wind produced by airplane engines. The maintenance on the aircraft was the responsibility of the pilots. They had to know how to clean and adjust them. They were also responsible for the cleaning of the wing mounted guns if they were fired. The gunners were responsible for the rear guns. There was only one mechanic to work on the plane so the aircrew helped him out when he needed it. In their down time, the airmen would read up on Marine Corps history and would be given lectures on the subject. They got navigation training at least twice a week.


[Annotator's Note: Sumner Whitten served in the USMC as a pilot flying Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bomber with Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241) and participated in the Battle of Midway. Whitten flew in two attacks from the island during the battle and was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.] In March or April [Annotator's Note: March or April 1942], an American submarine followed a Japanese convoy into Yokosuka harbor. The submarine's skipper brought the boat to the bottom of the harbor. When an outbound convoy left, the submarine skipper followed it out. The skipper saw a carrier being fitted out and fired some torpedoes at it. The Japanese chased the submarine out of the harbor and damaged it. The submarine was forced to stay on the surface. When the submarine got close to Midway the skipper requested an escort. Captain Smith and Whitten flew out to meet the submarine. Whitten patrolled south of the submarine between it and Midway. The submarine put out its low frequency antenna so the relief planes could locate the boat. After two hours, Whitten's relief arrived and he went back to Midway. Whitten was able to stay in the air for that length of time because of the tanks in the wings. The SB2U-3 and the SB2U-2 were different planes. The SB2U-2 had a .50 [Annotator's Note: Browning ANM2 .50 caliber machine gun] in each wing and a .30 [Annotator's Note: Browning ANM2 .30 caliber machine gun] out the back. The SB2U-3 had a .50 and a .30 in each wing. Under the seat, there was room for 24 anti-personnel bombs. The SB2U-3 also had about 25 more horse power and had 112 and a half gallon fuel tanks in each wing giving the SB2U-3 250 additional gallons of fuel. The extra fuel was the reason Whitten and Captain Smith were able to stay in the air for so long. Whitten believes that the crew of the submarine was swapped out and flown to Pearl Harbor. When the war began the seats in planes were changed to armored. The seats were higher but the canopy didn't change to accomodate the extra seat height. One pilot, Bruce Heck, always had a busted neck after a three hour flight. Around 1 May [Annotator's Note: 1 May 1942], Whitten noticed that additional PBYs [Annotator's Note: Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat] were operating out of Sand Island. About two weeks later, the airmen were briefed that there were Japanese submarines in the area and to stay above 1,500 feet while looking for them so they wouldn't be shot at.


Sumner Whitten noticed heavily armed Marines around the runway. At about that time they were warned to be prepared for enemy action. A flight of B-17s [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber] arrived then left again. The B-17s went through the group's gas and ammunition. Around 1 June [Annotator's Note: 1 June 1942], four TBMs [Annotator's Note: Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber] arrived followed a day later by four B-26s [Annotator's Note: Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber]. The B-26s were to each carry a torpedo. The men were briefed about four or five days prior to the Battle of Midway that the Japanese were planning an attack. The Marine airmen were told to bury all of their personal items and to not tell anyone where they were. The airmen kept flying their regular patrols. They knew that the Japanese were planning to attack but they didn't know when or where. One day, the regular patrols were called off and the group spent the day practicing bombing runs. The group didn't fly the two days before the Battle of Midway. On the morning the battle started, the group was told to get off of the ground and rendezvous at a point about 25 miles east of the island. Just before taking off, the flight was called off. About 30 minutes later they were again ordered to take off. Whitten and his wingman were the last to leave the island. When they took off, the bombs were already falling. After forming up at the rendezvous point, Whitten's group was given a course and set out. About an hour into the flight they were jumped by Japanese fighters. Whitten's first indication that they were anywhere near the Japanese fleet was when he felt the shaking caused by his gunner firing. Zelnis [Annotator's Note: USMC Sergeant Frank E. Zelnis was Whitten's rear seat gunner] kept firing every now and then. Whitten's wingman, Cummings [Annotator's Note: USMC Second Lieutenant Daniel L. Cummings], had his gunner killed. The pilots were weaving around to help keep the fighters off of them. The Major told the group that they would never make it to the fleet and that they would attack a battleship that was below them. The Japanese fighters followed Whitten's group into their dives. Whitten heard Zelnis fire a long burst then looked out and saw a smoking Japanese fighter heading downward. When the group got low enough to see the battleship, the Haruna [Annotator's Note: Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Haruna], they were at about 3,500 feet. The group made a glide bombing attack on the ship. Whitten's bomb missed the bow of the ship.


After dropping his bomb, Sumner Whitten turned to get away from the Haruna's [Annotator's Note: Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Haruna] escort destroyers. When he got up to about 5,000 feet, he was joined by one of the new pilots, Koutelas [Annotator's Note: USMC Second Lieutenant George E. Koutelas]. Koutelas still had his bomb. When Whitten told him that he still had his bomb, Koutelas peeled off and Whitten never saw him again. Whitten returned to Midway. They were told about a burning Japanese carrier and were sent out after it. The group took off around quarter to nine at night. The SB2Us [Annotator's Note: Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bomber] were armed with 500 pound bombs. The group didn't fly with any lights which they were used to using when flying at night. Whitten flew by the exhaust stack and compass light on Williamson's plane. The group kept changing course every few minutes. Whitten believes it was because the Major was trying to keep out of the clouds. Whitten suddenly found himself all alone. After several minutes he made a square search but that still turned up nothing. He decided to return to base. He dropped his bomb and headed back. Whitten crossed a familiar reef that he knew to be about 60 miles south east of Midway. He turned in the direction he knew Midway would be in. When he got to where Midway should be, it wasn't there. Whitten decided to go back to the reef and land there. Zelnis [Annotator's Note: USMC Sergeant Frank E. Zelnis, Whitten's rear seat gunner] yelled up to Whitten that there was a fire burning behind them. He turned the plane around but saw nothing. He was about to give up when the clouds moved and he could see a huge fire. He homed in on it and landed on Midway. When he landed, he was almost out of gas. The following day, the group went out after the Haruna again. Williamson was the only pilot in the group to make all three flights. The Haruna was hit and damaged and was later sunk by an American submarine. During the battle, the Haruna was hit by an American kamikaze which severely damaged the ship. After the battle, VMSB-241 [Annotator's Note: Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 (VMSB-241)] only had three SB2U-3s and two SBD [Annotator's Note: Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber] that were still flyable. Whitten's didn't have a scratch on it. Whitten had made four or five flights during the battle.


Sumner Whitten received orders to return to Ewa [Annotator's Note: following the Battle of Midway]. He got aboard a B-17 [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber] on which he was made the top turret gunner. When he got back, he was assigned to VMSB-233 [Annotator's Note: Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 233 (VMSB-233)] with Williamson [Annotator's Note: USMC Captain Leon M. Williamson] and Schlendering [Annotator's Note: USMC Second Lieutenant Harold G. Schlendering]. Before reporting in to 233 he was reassigned to VMSB-243. Whitten was made the Operations Officer of that squadron. At the time, the squadron only consisted of Porky Blain [Annotator's Note: USMC Captain Richard L. Blain] who was the exec [Annotator's Note: executive officer, second in command], the CO [Annotator's Note: commanding officer] Major Roberson, Whitten, a Sergeant Major, a line chief, and an ordnance chief. They then got in new pilots, gunners, and mechanics and took off for Guadalcanal. On the morning of the attack, the group had been briefed about what they were going after. The morning before the battle began they were told of the make-up of the Japanese fleet and the location of the enemy supply fleet. Whitten's group was ordered to go after the carriers. Whitten believes that if they had actually gone after the carriers none of them would have survived. Whitten's group glide bombed their target. He doesn't think that they would have been able to get up to altitude for a dive attack and if they had they wouldn't have been able to see their target through the clouds. When Whitten's division broke off at about 5,500 feet he saw a carrier with smoke coming from it. He thought it was a damaged carrier but the smoke was just from the exhaust. The carrier was really moving and was about seven miles away. Whitten believes that they would have been shot out of the air if they had gone after it. Whitten's group didn't know the extent of their losses until they got back. Major Henderson [Annotator's Note: USMC Major Lofton R. Henderson] was lost during the first attack, Major Norris [Annotator's Note: USMC Major Benjamin W. Norris] during the night attack, and Fleming [Annotator's Note: USMC Captain Richard E. Fleming] was lost the following day. Not counting those officers, 50 percent of the SB2U-s [Annotator's Note: Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator dive bomber] were lost during the first attack on the battleship [Annotator's Note: Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Haruna]. The guys that didn't make it were the new guys. When the SBDs [Annotator's Note: Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber] came in they were brought on a transport and delivered to Sand Island. There, they were filled with 25 gallons of fuel and flown over to where Whitten was. After the battle Whitten got to fly an SBD. There were only five dive bombers left. The SB2U-3 and SBD had very different flight characteristics. Whitten has been asked if the Japanese could have still taken Midway. He thinks that they could have but the Navy could have decimated whatever the Japanese had. Midway Island had seven inch coastal guns for defense. When the Japanese lost all of their air cover they left. Whitten believes the Japanese could have taken Midway if the Navy had disappeared or was sunk.


The guys at Midway knew that the Navy was out there but not where they were. Sumner Whitten was at Midway when an SBD [Annotator's Note: Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber] from the Hornet [Annotator's Note: USS Hornet (CV-8)] stopped on the island to refuel. They then got word that the Navy had found the Japanese fleet. It wasn't until Whitten was about to leave for Guadalcanal that he learned of the results of the battle. Whitten's group had been all but wiped out but the damage done to the Japanese was far greater. From Whitten's prospective at the time of the battle, his group had taken a beating. On the following day, there were only two fighters and five dive bombers available. Within a couple of days a few more fighters arrived. Whitten doesn't think that they Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war. The Japanese has massive forces all over the Pacific but the United States did not. He believes that the turning point of the war was the victory on Guadalcanal. This battle shortened the distance that US forces would have to travel to engage the enemy and lengthened the distance the Japanese had to go. From Midway to Japan is about 3,500 miles. From Midway to Honolulu it is only about 1,900 miles. Therefore, it was easy for US forces to attack Midway had the Japanese captured it. Had the Japanese captured the island they would only be able to resupply it by sea. The American victory at Midway put a big crimp on the Japanese Navy. The Japanese Army was spread all over the Pacific. The American Army and Marine Corps were spread thin but not as bad as the Japanese. The Japanese lost a whole army on Guadalcanal that had been brought in from Java. That was the turning point of the war. Whitten was on the first bombing mission from Guadalcanal to Munda. His group had no fighter cover and were jumped by the Japanese, but did alot of damage with 15 dive bombers. His group would hit the Japanese about every third day with 12 or 15 airplanes. That is when the US went on the offensive. Midway wiped out the Japanese fleet as far as being an effective offensive weapon. They were still effective as a defensive weapon with their destroyers and submarines. At Leyte and the other battles, the Navy [Annotator's Note: the US Navy] sank the fleet [Annotator's Note: the Japanese fleet].


Sumner Whitten is proud to have survived the Battle of Midway. A few years ago he was contacted about Battle of Midway reunions. He attended one. The way he sees it, they were just doing what they were trained and told to do. Zelnis [Annotator's Note: USMC Sergeant Frank Zelnis was Whitten's rear seat gunner during the Battle of Midway] contacted Whitten a few days after his last flight and told him that he had decided to get back into ordnance. He had had enough flying. Zelnis died in Tucson. Whitten's gunner at Guadalcanal, Frank Takak [Annotator's Note: not sure of spelling] had been a cartographer in China. He was wounded during an attack on the Tokyo Express. A 20mm shell hit the face plate on his gun. He recovered and returned to being a gunner. After the war, Takak transferred to naval intelligence and was commissioned. He also had a confirmed kill. Zelnis was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Winning an aerial fight was quite an accomplishment for a rear seat gunner. Whitten has always felt that the rear seat gunners never got the credit they deserved. Whitten sure appreciated the gunners he had behind him.

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