On May 17th 1945, the Lockheed XP2V-1 Neptune flew for the first time. The Neptune, like many other naval aircraft of the time, was adapted to many different missions and roles. The 1,105 P-2s were built in seven primary variants and 30 sub-variants. Kawasaki of Japan built another 83 P-2s. When Naval Reserve Patrol Squadron VP-94 Crawfishers retired their P-2Hs in April of 1978, 31 years of distinguished service with the US Navy came to a close.
One of a Kind Born During War
The Neptune is unique in that it was and still is the only American naval land-based patrol plane ever purpose-designed and built. Lockheed actually began design work on a new land-based patrol bomber during early December of 1941. Lockheed was building the PV-2 Harpoon patrol bomber early in the war so it took until April of 1944 for the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) to contract with Lockheed to build the first two prototypes. After the prototype flew in 1945 production began in 1946 and the first operational P2V-1s went into service in 1947.
Replacing Aging Legends
The design of the P-2 was predicated on the theory that a pair of the new Wright R-3350 Cyclone 18 cylinder radial engines would enable the Neptune to carry more payload farther than even the four engine heavy bombers in use at the time. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortess was used by the Navy in small numbers as the PB-1 and PB-1W. The Consolidated B-24 Liberator was utilized by the Navy in much larger numbers as the PB4Y-1 and was the basis for the more specialized PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol bomber. But because the R-3350 engines were being used in Boeing B-29 Superfortresses at the time, Lockheed’s new maritime patrol platform was ready when called upon after the war ended.
The Trek of The Turtle
The Navy, with an eye toward post-war public relations, decided to show the new design off. The third production P2V-1 was chosen for a record-setting mission. The crew named the Neptune “The Turtle” but somehow the Navy tweaked the moniker to “The Truculent Turtle.” On September 29th 1946 The Turtle took off from Perth in Australia using rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO) on a non-stop flight planned to end in Washington, DC. Carrying a crew of four, a baby kangaroo, and all the avgas that could be Indian-wrestled aboard, The Turtle instead landed 55 hours and 18 minutes later at Naval Air Station (NAS) Columbus, Ohio- a journey of 11,236 miles. It took 16 years and Air Force B-52s to best the flight of The Turtle. She now resides at the National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola in Florida.
The Navy’s Nuclear Bomber?
One role for which Lockheed didn’t design the Neptune was thrust upon it by political considerations. The Navy feared it would lose clout in Washington if it did not possess a nuclear strike capability. More sophisticated and practical weapons were on drawing boards, but those were years away from being operational. 12 P2V Neptunes became that stop-gap nuclear strike capability. The atomic weapons of the day were large and heavy and required large aircraft to carry them. Luckily the solution was never tested in actual combat. However, the sight and sound of a navy blue P2V being rocketed off a carrier flight deck by RATO bottles is one few who witnessed it will ever forget.
Tools of the ASW Trade
After becoming operational the Neptune quickly took up its duties tracking submarines and shipping all over the world. The P2V was the first Navy maritime patrol aircraft to combine radar, sonar (via sonobuoys), and Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) sensors in the same airframe. These same three primary sensors have equipped every maritime patrol aircraft built since the P2V. The early variants of the Neptune carried none of these sensors. They were equipped with offensive and defensive 20 millimeter gun turrets and were capable of employing all manner of anti-shipping and anti-submarine weaponry.
Bolting On More Power
As the P2V developed it gained more powerful versions of the same R-3350 engines, different propellers, changes to and omission or inclusion of the offensive and defensive armament, modified landing gear enabling the aircraft to support arctic operations, avionics and mission-dedicated electronic equipment, airframe modifications including changes to the nose and tail, fuselage extensions, wingtip fuel tanks of various capacities, aerial searchlights, canopy configurations, and more. The P2V-5F variant added a pair of Westinghouse J34 jet engines, providing increased thrust for takeoffs and extra dash speed used when prosecuting or attacking targets. Future Neptunes would all be equipped to fly with “two turning and two burning.”
The first use of the Neptune in combat came during the Korean War. P2V-3s attacked ground targets day and night using bombs and rockets, laid naval mines in North and South Korean waters, flew electronic surveillance missions, and even flew transport missions when called upon to do so. Some Neptunes were modified with a special armored aft passenger compartment capable of seating six. After the Korean War ended the Navy changed the color schemes of most of its aircraft. In September of 1962, they changed their names too. The P2V became the P-2. The P2V-1 became the P-2A. The P2V-2 became the P-2B. The P2V-3 became the P-2C…and so on.
Crisis and Calamity
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, P-2s were instrumental in tracking Soviet shipping and submarines plying the shipping lanes (and sometimes avoiding them) back and forth between the Soviet Union and Cuba. But the P-2 flew most of its combat missions in Vietnam. Navy P-2s were used primarily for support and enforcement of Operation Market Time, the hundred month-long interdiction effort and blockade intended to halt the flow of arms from North Vietnam to South Vietnam predominantly by coastal shipping and small indigenous vessels.
In addition to maritime patrol duties, Navy Neptunes executed some other more specialized missions over Southeast Asia. Observation Squadron 67 (VO-67) Ghost Squadron earned the only Presidential Unit Citation awarded to a P-2 squadron while flying secret missions out of Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand over the Ho Chi Minh Trail dropping Igloo White acoustic and seismic sensors during 1967 and 1968. VO-67 lost three of their 12 OP-2E aircraft and 20 crew members while flying these sensitive but dangerous missions.
Putting the Heavy in Heavy Attack
Heavy Attack Squadron 21 (VAH-21) Roadrunners operated four night and all-weather AP-2H attack variants from Cam Ranh Air Base over South Vietnam during 1968 and 1969. The AP-2Hs were the ultimate attack Neptunes, equipped with the same electro-optical sensor suite as the Grumman A-6C Intruder and were capable of attacking targets with grenade launchers, 7.62 millimeter Gatling guns, as well as bombs and napalm.