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Michael Smith
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Leppla/Liska "Sail 12" SBD DauntlessBattle of the Coral Sea

January 1, 2022 · in Aviation · · 6 · 2.4K

During the Battle of the Coral Sea U.S. Navy Lieutenant John A. Leppla and Radioman 3rd Class J.A. Liska were pilot and gunner of -3 BuNo 4547 from Scouting Squadron 2 (VS-2) based onboard the Lexington, and were credited with shooting down five Japanese planes during one air action on May 8 while flying anti-torpedo plane cover for the Lexington. "Sail 12" had participated in the attack on the light carrier Shoho the day before, and was lost with the Lexington when it sank late in the afternoon of 8 May 1942 after Leppla had landed. (Or so I thought - more on that later).
I first built the Leppla/Liska SBD in 2017 for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The plane was a SBD-3 by MPC, which is a reboxing of the Airfix SBD kit. The SBD was out of the box with the exception of aftermarket decals, and was my first to finish using full glosscote/dullcote procedures and decal setting solution, but I didn't attempt any weathering.
Earlier this year I was finally able to pick up a 1/72 kit, and decided to finish it as the same aircraft as part of my plan to upgrade my favorite aircraft as better kits become available and I developed better modeling skills.

The colors were corrected from the prior build using Vallejo Air paints - while the blue-gray was more or less correct, I had mistakenly used a much lighter shade for the underside. I added some detailing to the cockpit, and left off the bombs, since the aircraft's significance lay not in its use as a bomber but in its use shooting down Japanese aircraft on May 7 and 8. I had several references for this build, but by far the most useful was the Bert Kinzey Digital Detail & Scale book, which is now available in e-book form. I could zoom in to useful pictures and put my iPad on an stand to refer to while working far more easily than I could the various books I consulted. That it had artist's depictions of the two Sail 12 appearances and well as multiple models using the markings helped as well.
The decals in the kit were a bit of a disappointment, with no stencils and national markings that I thought were undersized. The attached photo of a SBD labeled 12 on the Lexington in February 1942 shows larger roundels, so I used the 54" ones from the SuperScale 72-447 set. For the stencils I used those in the SuperScale 72-854. (Both sets included a Sail 12 option, as many SBD decal sets do).

Incidentally, the aircraft is the photo isn't necessarily Sail 12. It might be Bombing 12, or it might be a prior Sail 12 which was landed in March and replaced with a newer SBD-3. That's what happened with BuNo 2106 which served as B-2 in Bombing 2, then was offloaded in March, served at Midway, and eventually found its way to the Naval Aviation Museum. But the roundel size was larger than many of the Sail 12 sets I saw, and consistent with the sizing in the Starfighter Midway decal set, so I went with it, as well as its placement on the wing.
As in 2017, I built the aircraft that Leppla and Liska flew on the Lexington, not the version they might have flown after returning stateside, which had the squadron "2-" prefix, kill markings and squadron insignia.
I also made one additional change based on photographs from the Lexington's wreck which was discovered in 2018. As I noted, the actual aircraft had the "2-" squadron insignia eliminated by Coral Sea - but as the attached photo of TBDs T-9 and T-4 make clear, this wasn't done by repainting new aircraft codes, but only by painting over the "2-".

This meant that while the port side "S-12" was adjacent to the roundel, the starboard side had a gap where the "2-" was. This is perhaps a little clearer looking at the photo of T-8. So my Sail 12 reflects this discrepancy. For a good analysis of all the wreck aircraft, see .

The wreck photographs also include "Sail 11", BuNo 4531, whose wing confirms the size and location of the wing insignia. Interestingly, it also shows a very large fuselage insignia, something that the TBDs definitely had by then, but there's not a lot of evidence whether the SBDs did.

I mentioned that I thought Sail 12 went down with Lexington on May 8, 1942. Interesting, this doesn't seem to have been the case. Leppla was one of nine VS-2 SBDs that Lexington launched at 1300, thirteen minutes are the first of the explosions that eventually doomed the ship. They were taken aboard the nearby Yorktown (CV-5), and operated from her on the way back to Pearl Harbor. Leppla, along with several other Lexington pilots was taken into the new Replacement Fighting Ten (VFR-10), soon to be known as the "Grim Reapers" which Jimmy Flatley was setting up, initially for the new construction carrier Bonhomme Richard (CV-10), then still a long eight months from launching at Norfolk. With a few weeks CV-10 was renamed Yorktown after CV-5 was sunk at Midway, and the Grim Reapers ended up shipping out on Enterprise for the Guadalcanal campaign.
BuNo 4547 appears to have been transferred to VS-8, and presumably was with that unit at Santa Cruz operating from Hornet when it was sunk, while its former crew, Leppla and Liska, in separate aircraft, were operating from Enterprise. If it was there, it again escaped loss of its home carrier, landing on Enterprise. Presumably Enterprise offloaded it with the rest of the Hornet's surviving air group at Noumea - we do know that Admiral Halsey told CinCPac on November 6 that he was keeping the Hornet's air group together for the time being. BuNo records record it as lost on December 31, 1942 in the South Pacific, but I don't have details on where or how.
Sail 12 has always been a favorite aircraft of mine - in part because it was an option of almost every SBD kit I saw growing up, but also because it was modeled at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola when I first visited the museum in 1978. It's nice to finally have a decent model of it on the shelf.

Reader reactions:
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9 additional images. Click to enlarge.

6 responses

  1. A wonderful build, Michael and a very interesting story!

  2. Beautiful builds, Michael @mcsmith1964
    Thanks for sharing the history part as well.

  3. A great story, your love of this aircraft really shows through in the model.

  4. Looks great! I have also built the Hasegawa SBD, and have the MPC one on the stash. I plan on making that one a Mexican A-24, as I think the scheme will distract the viewer from the poorer quality kit!

  5. Great article.
    Do you have any photographs showing this plane with red spinner, light gray coming up to wing edge or gray on cowling? I have the Kinzey book with its artist interpretations but haven’t seen actual photos.

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