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WWII pilot’s family reunited with restored plane at Air Zoo

After more than five years of meticulous restoration at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, a restored World War Two dive bomber that crashed into Lake Michigan during World War Two is heading to a new home. The Douglas S-B-D “Dauntless” will be on display at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum in Hawaii. Earlier this month, it was celebrated at a family reunion.

On a cold day in February 1944, a young Navy lieutenant on a training mission crashed the plane into Lake Michigan when it lost power. Sixty-five years later, a man in Florida was getting ready for a morning jog when a meeting with a stranger uncovered part of his family’s history.

“He asked me my name and he said ‘Lendo? I’ve heard that name before.  As a matter of fact, I saw your plane on television.’ And I said excuse me, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And he said a plane had just been salvaged from Lake Michigan and the last pilot to fly the plane was Lt. John Lendo.”   

That’s how Arthur John Lendo first heard about it.

“Neither my brother or I ever had the privilege of knowing my Uncle John,” said Art Lendo, who now lives in Tennessee.  “Like so many Americans of my baby-boomer generation, I was named after family members who served so heroically in World War Two.”

Art’s uncle survived the Lake Michigan crash, only to be killed in action ten months later, on a combat mission over the Philippines.

Photo of the pilot, Lt. John Lendo.
Credit Courtesy photo / The Air Zoo and the Lendo Family
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The Air Zoo and the Lendo Family
Lt. John Lendo

As modern commercial airplanes took off, Lieutenant John Lendo’s nephews, Art and Kevin, along with other relatives, gathered recently near his fully restored plane in Kalamazoo.  Kevin got special permission to climb into the cockpit, the first person to do so since his uncle’s crash in 1944.

“My being able to sit in the cockpit of the Dauntless Bomber that Lt. John Lendo crash-landed into Lake Michigan was an amazing experience for me,” said Kevin Lendo by email. “He was the war hero uncle I never got to meet.” 

They were there to celebrate the young pilot’s life - and the people who helped restore his plane. Air Zoo Director Troy Thrash said the museum is unique because the restoration itself is a public exhibit. It’s one of the reasons why the Navy moved this important restoration to Kalamazoo.

“Many organizations will restore an airplane by taking it and putting it in a building where nobody gets to see what’s going on,” said Thrash.  “And we said we want to restore these aircraft right on our exhibit floor. And oh, by the way, we’re going to invite our community to work side-by-side with our restoration volunteers.” 

A core crew of 75 restoration volunteers and two staff members worked with hundreds of community volunteers. Because of the pandemic, it took over 40-thousand hours of work over five years by more than 15-hundred people to finish the project. Even the pilot’s nephew – Art Lendo - volunteered.

“It was an incredibly wonderful hands on, get some grease under your fingers, kind of experience,” he said.

How did the plane end up on the bottom of Lake Michigan? Thrash said the Navy converted two Lake Michigan ferries into miniature aircraft carriers to help train 17-thousand pilots to land at sea. More than a hundred planes were lost in crashes between 1942 and 1944.

Thrash said the Navy salvaged Lendo’s bomber because only 14 of that type were built. It served at Pearl Harbor and was damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea in the South Pacific. Volunteer Wayne Debroske said that’s how it ended up being used for training.  

“So, it was no longer combat worthy,” said Debroske.  “Since it was still flyable, that’s when they transferred it as a trainer over in Glenview, Illinois, and from there that’s how it ended up in Lake Michigan.” 

Debroske is looking forward to the next project but admitted he’s sad to see the dive bomber go.

“I probably feel worse than when all three of my daughters left and went to college,” Debroske joked, then said somberly, “kind of getting an attachment to it. It’s become kind of a personal part of you. The love of my daughters was definitely better than this, but here goes a piece of me again.”

After five years, Art Lendo said he considers the Air Zoo family. Lt. John Lendo’s namesake found a deeper purpose in the work that was done here.  

“This aircraft, it’s been our opportunity to tell a story about generations of Americans,” Art Lendo said.  “In other words, the Lendo family, is really an American story.”