Shades of Grey

Deciphering History

My current project, a Curtis SB2C-4 Helldiver of VB-82 on USS Bennington, has been considerably delayed because I’ve gone down [again] the rabbit hole of how to decipher the black and white images of my subject aircraft. On the face of it, the Helldivers on Bennington in April 1945 were all Glossy Sea Blue as their aircraft were clearly not the Tri-Colour scheme of Non Specular Sea Blue over Non Specular Intermediate Blue over White undersides.

At least, that’s what I though I knew.

Turns out, the first thing I had wrong was one of the most basic elements of the assumption; it’s not Tri-Colour at all, it’s Four-Colour.

Sourced from a most informative thread on and also from

While the sketch above shows an Avenger not a Helldiver, it shows how the four colours were applied with the “extra” colour being a Semi-Gloss Sea Blue applied to the wings and horizontal stabilisers. The thread on the Britmodeller which is linked above includes contributions by Dana Bell, one of the foremost researchers on US wartime colours, and is in its whole an excellent reference to the history and application of the US Navy’s wartime paint schemes. The picture below shows the four-colour scheme clearly on a Helldiver, the leading edges are the same as the upper fuselage but rest of the wings are clearly not.

But, anyway, turning back to my Helldiver; as it’s an all GSB scheme what has this tri/quad colour discussion got to do with my project? Well, I found this picture while researching Bennington’s Helldivers and it immediately had me scratching my head…

This aircraft has what appears to be a different colour on the upper fuselage compared to the lower. What’s that about?

Two theories immediately came to mind; either this was a phenomena of reflectivity, somehow the light is reflecting off of the glossy paint differently around the curves fo the airframe; or it’s actually a different colour. As Hyperscale’s “Plane Talking” forum is a great source of knowledge and expertise on US military aircraft, I posted a question seeking opinion or knowledge on this image. Below is the link to the discussion as it played out.

While my theory was that this was an aircraft that was originally a four-colour repainted to GSB when the spec changed it’s fair to say that the consensus of the Hyperscale participants was for reflection instead. And I must agree, it’s a strong argument; consider the image below where there is no doubt the aircraft is all GSB but the sunlight reflecting off the upper parts makes it look much lighter. There are plenty of similar images that show the same effect and I don’t dispute this as a strong theory to explain the original image either.

And yet the way the demarcation sweeps up so purposely towards the tail on #95; and yet the way it perfectly joins at the stabiliser; and yet…

Consider the picture below, which I posted early in the Hyperscale thread and repeated later but which received almost no attention…

…which is a shame because I thought this one was the smoking gun, so to speak. Based upon it, my hypothesis that this aircraft (while it’s a different aircraft, both are from the same squadron, on the same ship, at the some time) was a four-colour which was re-painted to GSB rests on the following details;

1. Clear Evidence of Some Repainting

The underside of the wing is clearly a different colour on the inboard portion to the outboard part, and the contrast between the two is too great to be “old” GSB and “new” GSB, in my opinion. However, if this was an aircraft that was formerly four-colour, the White underside of the inboard [of the wing fold] portion of the wing would have been repainted while perhaps the Intermediate Blue outboard portions outboard of the wing fold would have been left as they were. I think it’s interesting that the new paint reaches approximately as high above the deck as a man would be able to reach working a paint brush off a ladder.

2. Clear Demarkation at the Base of the Fin

Where the fin becomes part of the fuselage the colour abruptly changes. While that could be a reflectivity change (as it could be on a line directly towards the rear from the base of the glass) I don’t think it is; there is simply no difference in angle to the sun to cause a change in reflectivity right at the point the fin joins the fuselage. However, if this was a repaint the fin would have been repainted from Intermediate Blue original to GSB as I believe it shows in this picture.

3. Difference in Weathering, Wear and Reflectivity

The paint on the wing surface is very weathered but also looks to be a different shade of blue compared to the GSB on the fuselage side. If this is an overall GSB aircraft I would expect it to have far less contrast between the fuselage side and wing surface. If however this is a repaint, the fuselage would be new paint while the upper wing would be left the original GSB. Additionally, there’s also a clear difference in the reflections of the deck hands on the paint in this area.

4. The Tail Surfaces.

There’s a difference again between the surface of the horizontal stabilisers and the upper fuselage. To me, this actually is a reflectivity issue and indicates a new coat of GSB on the entire tail to replace the Intermediate Blue that would have been there prior to the repaint.


Are #95 and #83 definitely repainted? No, but #83 has undisputedly had some repaint. Is that repaint consistent with any other theory though? yes, it could be evidence of a maintenance repair, anti-corrosion process or a myriad of other maintenance functions. Is my hypothesis at least as plausible however? I’d argue yes, it is.

On balance, this one could go either way; and indeed in some respects I’d agree that it might even be more likely that these aircraft were GSB and the pics are telling a different story than that which I am reading. However, I suggest the repaint option is also valid, possible, and in some circumstances even probable given that there are no pictures of VB-82 four-colour Helldivers while we know that there were certainly contemporary (to the day, in fact) squadrons in the same task force still flying them.

I theorise that when the change to overall GSB was initiated fleet-wide, a decision was made on Bennington to repaint [some of] its Helldivers from their original four-colour scheme to [an] overall dark blue. I further believe that in doing so, the painters covered only the White and Intermediate Blue of the four-colour scheme, deciding for expediency’s sake that the original four-colour scheme dark blue fuselage uppers were fine as they were, thereby saving the time and effort of masking the windows to paint the canopy frames, and that they could live with the Intermediate Blue on the underside of the outer wings.

I decided therefore that my Helldiver would be painted as a four-colour overpaint if for no other reason than it’s different; and that it is possibly, probably, I’d even argue likely, to be correct in that scheme.

I’m curious as to what you might think, please feel free to let me know in the comments below.

References and Credits

All references and credits are contained within the hyperlinked threads on the Hyperscale and Britmodeller forums.

Copyright:  I claim original work and Copyright 2020 for the text in this article and the photos of the model.  As usual though, I am indebted for the material used in research listed above in the References and Credits section. Except where noted otherwise, I sourced all other images and photos from the internet and are used under fair-use.  Any copyrighted images will be removed or credited forthwith upon request by its rightful owner.

12 thoughts

  1. “If this is an overall GSB aircraft I would expect it to have far less contrast between the fuselage side and wing surface.”

    I don’t have a particular answer on this dilemma, and I did see the discussion on Hyperscale. But the above quote does contain a caution- watch out for what you “expect” when interpreting information!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely Bob. Confirmation bias for sure plays a part in these dilemmas. In my case, I know I’m predisposed to looking for something unusual.


  2. I was under the impression that both the graded scheme and the overall GSB scheme were factory schemes. Is there direct evidence that aircraft issued in the graded scheme were ever repainted in the GSB scheme? For example, the F6F-3 received the graded scheme at the factory, the change in production to the F6F-5 coincided with the change to the GSB scheme so an F6F-3 in the GSB scheme would either be an exception to the paradigm or a repaint. Not saying it never happened but I’ve not heard of it, maybe a depot somewhere was doing it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jeff, thanks for the comment. I doubt it was a depot thing, I’m assuming it was done on the boat.

      I hadn’t heard of repaints either, but I think the pics say it could have happened; my case is that these pics show it to be plausible. In any event, I take photo evidence over documentation because a photo at least shows *something* tangible, even if it’s open to interpretation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The photo of #95 is very interesting, and I think it is interesting that we tend to become embedded in a position with respect to paint schemes or colors because that has become the prevailing view over the years without giving consideration of other possibilities to explain what you see in photos that make us scratch our heads. Did Curtiss make the decision to exhaust their stock of semi-gloss Sea Blue before they started painting planes overall GSB? Were paint specifications handed down by the Navy strictly followed at the factory? Unfortunately, there is rarely documentation to validate possible explanations that differ from the prevailing view. Build and paint the model as to what you see.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this thread and research. I am exploring the same color. I’d like to build a model for a friend whose father was a tail gunner on an SB2C on the Bennington. I wish I asked him while he was alive. I did ask him once how he kept from shooting off the tail while being chased. He said, Well Pete, you let go of the trigger when you come to the tail, then press it again once you’re past it. ( or something to that effect)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter, I’m glad it’s been of some use. I revisit this one from time to time and still think my hypothesis holds up, but of course it’s all conjecture in the end. I’m sure your SB2C will be a great tribute to your father’s friend. Cheers.


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