There IS an airplane story in here….trust me...but this mixes a little aviation with a little detective work!
My grandfather, Joseph Turecek, worked through the Depression as a mill hand at the Sidney Blumenthal & Co. carpet/fabric mill in Shelton, CT. In the late 1930s, he was working in the carpet design group. He designed the company’s carpeting for the 1939 World's Fair in New York and was given tickets to the Fair which he and my grandmother used for their honeymoon. After the company moved to North Carolina in the mid 1950s, Grandpa became a draftsman and worked many years at Armstrong Rubber Tire Company (https://connecticuthistory.org/armstrong-finds-a-niche-in-the-tire-market/) in West Haven and then in New Haven, where my father also spent the majority of his professional career as a chemical engineer. (If you’ve ever driven on I-95 through New Haven (Long Wharf area), the very distinctive Armstrong Rubber Tire Company building is located adjacent to Ikea (and is currently used by Ikea as a billboard. The building, built in 1968 was designed by Marcel Breuer and Robert Gatje and is styled as “Brutalist” is on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places.)
(Photo courtesy of www.ConnecticutHistory.org)
My grandfather’s passion (besides his family, hunting and fishing) was drawing and painting throughout his life. In the 1940s (and probably late 1930s as well) he took correspondence courses in art. In the 1960s (and quite likely earlier), he taught adult painting classes at the Shelton Community Center and the Ansonia High School. He also organized amateur art shows in Shelton and the area. He even won a prize for his painting, “Portrait of My Grandmother,” shown at the annual Jaycee Art Festival.
Grandpa passed away in 2001 and his kids inherited the numerous oil paintings, watercolors and sketches that he had done. For a long while, my uncle Joe had most of them, but then the siblings got together and divvied them up. The vast majority of the oils and watercolors are rural landscapes—often with a barn or stream somewhere in the setting. They were often painted onsite at favorite haunts of his in towns throughout the Housatonic River Valley. Some of the sketches (I saw them once at my aunt’s years ago) were of Hollywood movie stars in the 1940s and 1950s.
A couple of weeks ago, Michiko and I went up to my parents to visit for a while and to go through the paintings, as each of my Dad's kids is getting a chance to now pick a few paintings for our homes. Michiko and I chose three that seem to cover a variety of Grandpa’s styles, from thick pallete knife painting to finely detailed brushwork. One is a view of a roiling brook, another is a bend in a rural country road overlooking a valley and the third is a view of a river valley.
My dad also showed us some of the watercolors (including a beautiful black and white moonlight scene) and then pulled out a beautifully executed painting of three Chance Vought SB2U-1 Vindicators, pre-World War 2 dive bombers, of all things. On the back was his name and address in careful block printing, along with “Fortune Magazine” and “Please Return”.
I don’t think my grandfather was ever a commercial artist (eg doing ads, commissioned artwork, etc.) so this painting had me scratching my head a bit. So I put on my investigator’s hat and went to work. First, I asked a work colleague who knows WW2 airplanes what they were and he came up with the Chance Vought SB2U-1 Vindicator. The prototype XSB2U-1 flew first on January 5, 1936 from Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT. (Rentschler Field is now Pratt & Whitney Stadium, home of the UCONN Huskies football team. The original airfield operate from 1931 until its decommissioning in the 1990s.)
The Vindicator was developed as a fast scout and dive bomber, the first low-wing aircraft accepted by the Navy for carrier operations. It was the first monoplane built by Vought and had retractable landing gear, a 750hp Pratt & Whitney engine and was all metal, except for fabric covering on the movable tail surfaces and rear empennage. Versions of the aircraft were sold to the French government (before their surrender to Germany) and then to the British government, who called them the “Chesapeake.” According to a history of Chance Vought, Vindicators flown by US Marine Corps pilots were critical to the successful defense of Midway Island in 1942.
After identifying the airplane model, along with clues of the formal tophat logo and the numbers on the empennage of each plane, I determined that the planes in the painting were from the VB-3 squadron, assigned to the USS Saratoga (CV-3) in the Pacific Fleet. The Squadron got Vindicators starting in December 1937 and by 1 March 1938, they had 18 of them. In January of 1939, the Squadron was assigned to Naval Air Station San Diego as the Saratoga went in for a refit. Eventually, the Squadron was reassigned to the Atlantic Fleet to join the USS Ranger (CV-4) and bcame VB-4. Through various machinations, the Squadron’s lineage shows that it ultimately became VFA-14 and today is based out of Naval Air Station Lemoore and operate the F/A-18E Super Hornets. The Squadron is the oldest active squadron in the Navy, having been formed in 1919 and assigned to the first Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, in 1926. The unit is known as the Tophatters, (though they call themselves the “High Hats”) with a motto of “The Oldest and the Boldest,” and is highly decorated, including two Presidential Unit Citations, the Navy Unit Commendation, two Meritorious Unit Commendations, five Battle stars, and numerous safety and Battle Efficiency awards.
Emblematic of the unit’s grit and bravery was an anecdote I ran across. During a World War 2 air battle over the Bonin Islands in the Pacific, Lt Paul Pablo made a final radio call: “I’ve already got four and I’ve got thirty cornered.”
Anyway, back to the mystery of the painting. Given that it was so unlike any of my grandfather’s other work, I surmised that the painting originally came from a US Navy stock photo or something. As I dug in, I found an official US Navy photo of the same three aircraft in a echelon formation.
Knowing I was on to something, I kept looking for images and found a Chance Vought Aircraft advertisement that showed the same three aircraft in line abreast (or battle spread) formation—a mirror image of the painting my grandfather had done. The ad ran at least a couple of times—I found a reference in a 1938 Aero Digest magazine as well as the December 1938 issue of Popular Aviation. I also found that Fortune Magazine did a double issue in March of 1941 focused on aviation, although I don’t know whether the Vindicator ad ran in that magazine.
The real question however, is WHY did my grandfather paint it. There, I’m a bit stumped though I have some educated guesses. The best guess is that as part of the correspondence course in art that he was taking in the 1940s (possibly as early as the late 1930s?), he would have done a lot of copies and originals for the course. It’s possible that the advertisement struck him as an interesting one to copy.
However, the additional tidbit is that my grandfather knew Igor Sikorsky. In 1939 or 1940, while he worked for the Sidney Blumenthal & Co. carpet company (they had a big mill called the Shelton Looms), my grandfather installed carpeting in Igor Sikorsky’s office. There’s a letter from Sikorsky to my grandfather, dated July 26, 1940, thanking my grandfather for a “beautiful picture” that he would be “proud to display it in my home.” In return, he sent my grandfather a copy of Sikorsky’s autobiography “The Story of the Winged-S”, which my dad has. In trying to track down further information about the painting last summer, the Sikorsky Historical Archives kindly did some research and found the carbon copy of Sikorsky’s letter, but no version of my grandfather’s note or any details on the painting. They even went so far as to reach out to Igor’s three sons, but none recalled the painting. I would surmise that Sikorsky would not have displayed the Vindicator painting at his home, so it was probably one of the more countryside type paintings.
The timing is also interesting. The ads I found for the Vindicators ran in mid/late 1938. In 1928, the Chance Vought Corporation was bought by United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (headquartered in Hartford, CT) and but stayed its own separate division, along with a laundry list of other major aviation firms:
- Chance Vought Corporation
- Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company
- Boeing Airplane Company
- Boeing Transport Company
- United Airports of Connecticut
- Hamilton Standard Propeller Corporation
- Pacific Air Transport Company
- Stout Air Services, Inc.
- Northrop Aircraft Corporation
- Sikorsky Aviation Corporation
- Stearman Aircraft Company
- United Exports, Inc.
- United Aircraft Company of California
- National Air Transport
When the Air Mail Act of 1934 was enacted, United was forced to divide its businesses, resulting in Boeing Aircraft, United Airlines and the United Aircraft Corp. of which Vought was a part. At the time, Vought was based in East Hartford, CT (having originally started in Astoria and then Long Island City). In early 1939, the Vought division was moved to Stratford, CT to merge with Sikorsky Aircraft to become Vought Sikorsky Aircraft. So the coincidental timing of the Vought move to join Sikorsky, along with my grandfather installing carpeting in Sikorsky’s office in 1939 or 1940 is all very intriguing.