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TBM X5 of VT-51

X Marks the Spot

March 26, 2018

X Marks the Spot

December 2019 Update: The Museum’s TBM Avenger has been restored and is proudly displayed in Hangar 79.

Posted on March 26, 2018
By Burl Burlingame | [email protected] | Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

My father flew P-51 Mustangs during the war, and when I was a wee lad, building a model kit of one, I asked him what color the inside of the cockpit was. “Hell if I know,” he answered, “all I remember is that when we flew inverted, the gum wrappers fell up into the canopy.”

Stop the presses! A pilot actually admitting he wasn’t sure about something? They say you can always tell a pilot, but you can’t tell ‘em much.

Which brings us, naturally, to restoring our TBM Avenger, now under way in the Ted Shealy’s shop. It will be painted, as accurately as possible, as young naval lieutenant George H.W. Bush’s aircraft during WWII. But the key words above are “as possible.” Every restoration is an interpretation, using the best archival sources available. As much as possible, these are original photographs, technical orders, erection-and-maintenance manuals, period publications, color chips and mixes and other materials. We also can’t use environmentally unfriendly materials that were common during the war.

The absolute worst archival source available, unfortunately, is the human memory. One of the first things to fade is an accurate sense of color (oddly, the memory of smell is one thing that really sticks with you, for decades). Old pilots might be sure about everything, but we always have to check the details. And, like my father, keeping track of minute color, camouflage and livery details wasn’t on the top of a pilots’ checklist. No matter what they might tell you today. I’ve had old pilots argue with photographs they’re holding in their hands.

Lt. Bush flew aboard light carrier San Jacinto (CVL-30), and there are only a couple of photographs of him that show him with a TBM. One shows him and his crew standing next to a TBM tailfin with a dark band and the codes “X2” on it. It is assumed by most historians that this is his plane — Bush himself doesn’t know. Curiously, some reconstructions of his plane show the code “X3” and other “X2” — and others show variations of “X2.”

“X2” itself, however, is a good clue. San Jacinto’s ID code during 1944 was the letter X — it later changed to a white square — and if the picture is mid-1944, that means the camouflage pattern on the TBM is almost certainly the three-color graded naval scheme used before they switched to an overall dark blue camouflage.

We get all that just from the letter X. But more photographs or period publications would be even better!

By coincidence, our C-47 also has the letter X in her livery. We knew it from squadron records, and from a fuzzy photograph, but even better, as we carefully sanded down the strata of paint applied over the decades, the shadow of the X appeared, right where we thought it would. Whew!

TBM Bush Barbara III — Clearly one of Bush’s Avengers (it was rare to have personal names on Navy planes) this is Barbara III. It is not known if this is the plane he was shot down in, or if this is X2 of VT-51. What happened to Barbara I and Barbara II?

TBM Bush in cockpit — This closeup of Bush in the cockpit of an Avenger is taken from the squadron scrapbook, and may be a posed picture. It doesn’t give us any information about his aircraft.

TBM Bush X2 — Bush and his crew in front of an Avenger tail marked X2. The dark stripe behind the codes is non-standard, as is the placement of the letters, and we do not know if this is his actual aircraft.

TBM X5 of VT-51 — Another Avenger from VT-51 shows how the camouflage and markings were usually applied aboard USS San Jacinto. We have to assume Bush’s plane was similarly marked.

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