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Did the Dauntless Dive-Bomber Decide the Battle of Midway?

Did the Dauntless Dive-Bomber Decide the Battle of Midway?

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The Douglas SBD Dauntless was the United States Navy’s standard carrier-borne dive-bomber at the beginning of the Pacific War. She was a single-engine monoplane and had first entered service with the fleet in 1941.

She had only a moderate performance and could be armed with a single bomb below the main fuselage (either a 500lb when she was acting a Scouting aircraft or a 1,000lb weapon in her main role), carried on a swing-out crutch to clear the propeller.

U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the Battle of Midway, 6 June 1942.

What this aircraft did have, however, were two things that were to prove vital in the battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy: the accuracy that dive-bombing alone could provide and a two-man crew (pilot and rear-gunner), totally trained and dedicated to their mission and the will to carry it out.

Contrasting tactics

In Second World War carrier-versus-carrier naval battles, although desirable, it was not essential to actually sink an aircraft-carrier target in order to take her out of the battle. One only had to score hits on the carrier’s flight deck to render her inoperative.

British aircraft carriers had armoured decks – their main threats were expected to be the heavy bombers of the German Luftwaffe or the Italian Regia Aeronautica in the confined waters around Europe. But American and Japanese carriers in the wide wastes of the Pacific only had wooden decks, with the vulnerable hangar decks and engine rooms below them.

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The pre-war policy then was always to land the first blow with the maximum number of aircraft, as that could decide the issue in carrier warfare. The Japanese operated their carriers in groups of four to six, fully harmonised to maximise the attack force, as at the Pearl Harbor attack.

The American aircraft-carriers had a different policy whereby, although acting in concert, each carrier mounted her own strike. There were plus and minus factors in each scenario; in the Japanese case, find one carrier and you found them all; in the American case their policy spread chances, but could result in uncoordinated attacks.

But being the first to attack the enemy was paramount to both sides.

American carriers carried fighter aircraft (VF), torpedo-bombers (VT), scouting (VS) and dive-bombers (VB) to form an Air Group. Three USN carriers were present at the Midway battle in June 1942.

In overall command was Admiral Chester W Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, while at sea the two US Task Forces were TF17 (Yorktown) under Frank J Fletcher and TF16 (Enterprise and Hornet) under Raymond A Spruance.

Nimitz was a submarine specialist, Fletcher and Spruance were both cruiser specialists. It was these men who, ironically, fought the most important air-sea action of the Pacific War.

USS Yorktown at Pearl Harbor days before the battle.

‘Hit first with the maximum force’

These carriers were all of a similar type and the Dauntless components roughly equal in each ship. There were also US Marine Corps Dauntless land-based on Midway atoll itself, and these had both the SBD and the older Vindicator dive-bombers.

Thanks to brilliant code-breaking by Joseph Rochefort at Pearl Harbor, the Americans knew almost precisely the composition of the Japanese carrier striking force of four carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and Soryū commanded by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo) along with their accompanying escorts, and time and date of attack.

Akagi, the flagship of the Japanese carrier striking force in April 1942 prior to the battle.

Nimitz arranged an ambush accordingly based on ‘Point Option’. Unfortunately, Fletcher decided to search for more Japanese carriers away from this position and ordered Spruance’s force to follow him.

Thus, all three American carriers required two hours hard steaming to get back to within extreme striking extreme distance, wasting crucial time, during which much had happened to frustrate the ‘hit first with the maximum force’ mantra that the whole pre-war US carrier battle plans had been based upon.

Nagumo’s tortuous dilemma

It was the Japanese who opened the battle early on 4 June 1942, with a strike by 108 aircraft against Midway itself.

Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese commander in chief, had cautioned Nagumo to keep half his aircraft back in case US carriers should turn up against expectation. Meanwhile the various US land-based aircraft from that atoll attacked the Japanese carriers in wave after wave, but failed to damage any vessel, despite themselves suffering heavy losses.

A B-17 attack misses Hiryū.

US Army B-17 heavy bombers also attacked and returned to Pearl Harbor claiming to have destroyed the Japanese fleet. This was widely reported by newspapers in the States. In truth, the Flying Fortresses failed to score so much as a single hit.

Thinking another attack on Midway itself was required, and not having had any reports of American ships from his own scouting aircraft, Nagumo then made the fatal decision to send off his ‘reserve’ force against Midway.

This required some of them being re-armed but meanwhile Fletcher finally released Spruance to make an attack with his two carriers, while he continued to recover his own search force from their fruitless hunt away to the north-east.

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The Japanese finally discovered the American carriers in turn and left Nagumo in a torturous dilemma of his own making, with the returning aircraft having to be landed on and the existing aircraft having to be again re-armed against ship targets.

By the time Spruance was ready to launch his own aircraft, the Japanese, highly efficient, had recovered their initial strike force but were not yet ready to launch their second attack.

The Americans thought that the Japanese carriers would continue on their course toward Midway to make their recovery and finally dispatched Enterprise and Hornet’s Air Groups on that assumption, but this also proved erroneous.

Yorktown at the moment of impact of a torpedo from a Nakajima B5N of Lieutenant Hashimoto’s 2nd chūtai.

When the American flyers reached the plotted position of their enemy, they found only empty ocean. Hornet’s group turned south toward Midway to find the enemy while Enterprise’s group, led by Commander Wayne McClusky, turned north. By that time, both forces were critically low on fuel.

McClusky was lucky enough to sight a Japanese destroyer returning to join Nagumo’s force and she led them straight to the target. Meanwhile Fletcher in Yorktown had finally recovered his search aircraft and belatedly flew off with his own attack force. Crucially, he held half of them back in case the Japanese had more carriers to the north after all.

Dive attacks and direct hits

Both the surviving Enterprise SBDs and the reduced Yorktown Dauntless element fortunately arrived over the Japanese carriers at the same time. They made their dive attacks immediately and scored direct hits on the Akagi, Kaga and Soryū.

Caught in the middle of re-arming, all three were heavily damaged from bombs; huge fires broke out and all three were gutted with huge loss of life. Despite claims to the contrary, however, many of their aircrews survived.

The Hiryū survived, partly due to finding refuge in a rain squall and partly due to Fletcher’s decision to hold back part of Yorktown’s striking force. This error enabled Hiryū to launch two separate attacks on Yorktown which damaged her and brought her to a stop.

She was abandoned and later sunk by a Japanese submarine, along with a destroyer. Meanwhile further attacks by the Dauntless from the surviving US carriers wrecked the Hiryū and she also was ultimately sunk.

The abandoned and burning Hiryū photographed by an airplane from the Hōshō.

In further attacks over the following days, the heavy cruiser Mikuma, which had been badly damaged in a collision with a sister ship, was also repeatedly hit and finally sunk, while the Mogami and the destroyer Arashio, were both hit by the SBDs and badly damaged.

A remarkable aircraft

The little Dauntless had inflicted all the damage suffered by the Japanese that remarkable day.

She went on to serve at the battles of Guadalcanal, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, Bougainville (including a squadron flown by New Zealanders) and the Philippine Sea, while US Marine Corps Dauntless fought ashore during the liberation of the Philippines.

A rescued U.S. airman on Midway.

Other Navy Dauntless aircraft bombed the Vichy battleship Jean Bart at Casablanca, raided German convoys off Norway from the carrier Ranger and served with the French in Vietnam between 1945 and 1947. Truly, she was a remarkable aircraft.

Peter C Smith is the author of more than 70 books of aeronautical, naval and military history, including The Dauntless in Battle and the definitive Midway: Dauntless Victory, both published by Pen & Sword Books.

Douglas SBD Dauntless

The Douglas SBD Dauntless is a World War II American naval scout plane and dive bomber that was manufactured by Douglas Aircraft from 1940 through 1944. The SBD ("Scout Bomber Douglas") was the United States Navy's main carrier-based scout/dive bomber from mid-1940 through mid-1944. The SBD was also flown by the United States Marine Corps, both from land air bases and aircraft carriers. The SBD is best remembered as the bomber that delivered the fatal blows to the Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. [1] The type earned its nickname "Slow But Deadly" (from its SBD initials) during this period.

SBD Dauntless
A-24 Banshee
A U.S. Navy SBD releasing a bomb. Note the extended dive brakes on the trailing edges.
Role Dive bomber
Scout plane
National origin United States
Manufacturer Douglas Aircraft
Designer Ed Heinemann
First flight 1 May 1940
Introduction 1940
Retired 1959 (Mexico)
Primary users United States Navy
United States Marine Corps
United States Army Air Forces
Free French Air Force
Produced 1940–1944
Number built 5,936
Developed from Northrop BT

During its combat service, the SBD proved to be an excellent naval scout plane and dive bomber. It possessed long range, good handling characteristics, maneuverability, potent bomb load, great diving characteristics from the perforated dive brakes, good defensive armament, and ruggedness. One land-based variant of the SBD – omitting the arrestor hook — was purpose-built for the U.S. Army Air Forces, as the A-24 Banshee.

Did the Dauntless Dive-Bomber Decide the Battle of Midway? - History

Posted on 12/11/2020 11:04:43 AM PST by LibWhacker

THEY WERE THE Navy’s last chance.

It was 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, June 4, 1942. Forty-seven U. S. Navy dive bombers had found what they were looking for. Far below, four Japanese aircraft carriers were launching the first planes of a massive strike that could decide the Battle of Midway. So far, two days of American air and submarine attacks had failed to damage a single ship of the peerless Japanese Aircraft Carrier Striking Force. The priceless intelligence advantage the U.S. had gained through years of backbreaking effort by Navy codebreakers was about to be squandered. The heroic sacrifice of Navy torpedo plane crews who had pressed home their slow-motion attacks in the face of deadly Japanese opposition looked to be in vain.

But now, at the last possible moment, three squadrons of SBD Dauntless dive bombers from the American aircraft carriers USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise had arrived unobserved and unopposed in the skies above the Japanese fleet.

Somehow, against all odds, the Americans had achieved precisely the situation that Navy commanders had dreamed of: dozens of dive bombers screaming down on Japanese flight decks jammed with gassed up and armed aircraft, fueling hoses snaked about, bombs and torpedoes scattered hastily across the hangar bays.

The broad flight decks of the carriers were perfect targets for the American pilots whose aircraft, training, and combat tactics had prepared them for precisely this type of attack. Dive bombing had been developed by the U.S. Navy in the 1930s, and in 1942 it was the most accurate form of air attack. That was one reason that Navy carrier air groups had more dive bombers than any other type of aircraft. By pointing his plane directly at the target until he released his weapon, a skilled pilot could keep his eye on the target throughout his dive and simplify his bomb’s trajectory.

No Easy Task But success was far from certain. This was just the second great carrier versus carrier battle of the Pacific War, and no one yet knew what to expect. Pilots from Yorktown had fought at Coral Sea, but pilots from Enterprise had not. Dive bombers from the third U.S. carrier at Midway, USS Hornet, hadn’t even found the Japanese fleet.

Pre-war doctrine supposed that aircraft carriers couldn’t survive a massed air strike. But at Coral Sea, one month earlier, three of the four fleet aircraft carriers that were attacked – two Japanese and two American – did survive. Yorktown was one of the survivors. Pre-war doctrine also held that B-17 bombers could effectively bomb ships from high altitude, but attacks against Japanese ships by Flying Fortresses at Midway scored no hits. It was becoming clear that the real war was going to be different from the conflict that was envisioned.

The dive bombing attacks themselves would be difficult. Carriers were big targets, but they were moving fast and the American pilots would have to fly precise flight profiles to hit them. During their 40-second dives, the aviators would have to continuously work their rudder pedals and sticks to correct their plane’s speed, heading, and dive angle to remain on target, while the carriers below maneuvered violently. For much of the dive, the pilots could track their targets through spotting scopes, similar to the telescoping sights that snipers mounted on their rifles. But the bomber scopes provided only a 3X magnified view it was up to the pilots to make the necessary adjustments in three axes to ensure a hit.

Today A Computer Would Do It The plane’s dive flaps held the bomber’s speed at about 276 knots, giving the pilot a little more time to make adjustments. It also made the plane an easier target for enemy anti-aircraft gunners and defending fighters. For gunners on the targeted ships, a diving plane appeared almost motionless in their sights, slowly growing in size as it neared, which greatly simplified their aim. Fortunately for the dive bomber crews, most anti-aircraft mounts lacked the ability to fire directly up, so the volume of fire the planes faced was limited.

American dive bombers typically approached their targets at an altitude of around 20,000 feet, flying at more than 200 knots. When they spotted a ship, dive bomber pilots increased speed and descended to about 8,000 feet. Since Japanese vessels mostly lacked radar, whenever possible the Americans approached their targets from out of the sun. When over the target, pilots pulled the noses of their planes up to put the aircraft into a stall, opened their dive flaps, and then turned down toward their target.

The ideal dive angle was 70 degrees a dive might take 30 or 40 seconds. During that time, the rear seat radioman/gunner – on his back, facing the sky – would be nearly weightless. Gunners often described how spent shell casings that had fallen to floor of the plane would drift up past their eyes. The pilot hoped to release his bomb when he was between 2,000 and 1,500 feet above the target. At that altitude the bomb would fall for less than 10 seconds. But even during that short time, a ship turning at 30 knots might move 500 feet.

So, the pilot had to fly a narrow flight profile, continuously adjusting his own deflection, speed, and dive angle to correct for the movement of the target, for the effect of gravity, and for the effect of the wind on his plane and on his bomb, once it was released. He had to correctly estimate the wind direction and speed and the target ship’s current course and speed and aim where the target ship would be when the bomb reached the surface. If the dive angle was slightly off, the bomb would land short or fly past the target. If the plane’s heading was slightly off, the bomb might miss to either side.

Since aircraft – even dive bombers – are designed to fly horizontally, putting a plane into a 70-degree dive alters the forces affecting the aircraft and causes the attacking plane to drift across the target, decreasing accuracy. Dive flaps helped correct this problem, but it was just one more thing that pilots had to contend with.

Today a computer would instantly process the flood of incoming information and fly the correct profile, but in 1942 the pilot was the computer.

Insanely Dangerous Once the bomb was released, the aviator pulled out of his dive, a maneuver that might leave him struggling to breathe as he experienced as much as six times the force of gravity. These stresses were considerable and dive bombers were built to handle them, but pilots could be rendered briefly unconscious by the forces.

If everything went well, the bomber would level off at around 500 feet and the pilot would start jinking rapidly to avoid anti-aircraft fire from enemy ships and defending fighters.

This, of course, was the primary drawback to dive bombing. Pointing your plane at an enemy ship and diving as close as possible before releasing your weapon sounded good in theory and was accurate in practice. But finishing your bombing run directly over your target at 500 feet altitude was insanely dangerous. Shipboard gunners probably couldn’t hit you as you flashed by, just above their masts. But your escape would leave you in antiaircraft range for a long time, and at an altitude of 500 feet you would have little room to maneuver if attacked from above by enemy fighters.

The vulnerability of dive bombers after releasing their weapons was a major reason why the Germans abandoned dive bombing attacks against land targets whenever enemy fighters were present. By mid-1942, a German dive bombers’ life expectancy in combat had fallen to less than five days.

There was nothing easy about hitting a moving target at sea in the face of anti-aircraft fire or defending fighters. The plane is moving, the target is moving, and the air around the plane is moving. It takes many hours of practice and considerable skill. At Midway, Marine Corps pilots who had just received new dive bombers attacked Japanese ships using glide bombing techniques because they had not been sufficiently trained in dive bombing. They scored no hits.

By Chance a Coordinated Attack By the time the Navy dive bombers arrived above the Japanese carriers, U.S. land-based and carrier-based planes had been engaging the Japanese formation nearly continuously for two hours. While no hits on the enemy vessels had been achieved, and more than 35 American aircraft had been shot down, the attacks had disrupted Japanese operations, scattered their ships, and had drawn Japanese fighter planes down to the surface of the sea.

Two SBD squadrons from Enterprise arrived together, while a third squadron from Yorktown appeared at the same moment from another direction. It was a fluke that all three formations converged simultaneously the Americans had made no effort to have all of their attacking planes arrive over the Japanese fleet at once. The Yorktown bombers had actually taken off an hour later than the Enterprise planes.

The dive bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters all flew at different speeds coordinating their arrival over a moving target whose location at the time of arrival could only be guessed was impossible in 1942. Planes could only be launched one at a time, so it might take an hour to assemble a full strike force. By then, the first planes aloft would have used 30 minutes or more of fuel circling their own fleet. Without knowing exactly where the enemy ships would be when the strike would arrive, it was impossible to calculate courses and speeds that would bring all the planes over the enemy at the same time. At Midway, American commanders, desperate to strike the Japanese carriers before they could attack the U.S. fleet, sent their planes off in small groups as soon as they were launched. That decision doomed the torpedo bombers – 39 of 43 were shot down. But inadvertently the strikes opened the way for the dive bombers to attack unhindered by Japanese fighters.

Communications Failures Almost Saved a Japanese Carrier Miscommunication between the attacking SBDs almost spared one of the Japanese carriers. LCDR Wade McClusky, Enterprise Air Group Commander, wanted one of his squadrons to attack the carrier Kaga, and the second to attack carrier Akagi. But the pilots didn’t hear his instructions and both squadrons dove on Kaga. At the last moment, one of the section leaders, Lt. Richard Best, realized what was happening and redirected his five-plane section to attack Akagi. The luckless Japanese carrier was struck with just one bomb, but the secondary explosions from fueled and armed aircraft ignited massive fires that couldn’t be contained. Kaga, attacked by more than 20 planes, was struck four or five times.

Meanwhile, Yorktown’s squadron, approaching from the other side of the formation, dove on a third Japanese carrier, the Soryu, striking her with at least three bombs and leaving her aflame. The fourth Japanese carrier, Hiryu, was hidden by a rain squall and was not attacked. This would prove disastrous for the Yorktown later, as the undamaged Hiryu would launch a retaliatory strike that would cripple the American carrier. A Japanese submarine would finish Yorktown off on June 7.

By 10:25 am, three of Japan’s front-line aircraft carriers were blazing wrecks. Later that day, Hiryu would be attacked and destroyed as well. The Japanese canceled their planned invasion of Midway and withdrew. Their attempt to destroy the U.S. carriers in a decisive battle was a failure.

Eighteen Dive Bombers Were Lost No one knows for sure how many attacking SBDs were shot down at Midway, but it’s clear that 18 of the 47 dive bombers that struck the Japanese carriers that morning never made it back to their ships. Two more had to ditch near their carriers because the pilots were running too short on fuel to actually land. Some planes were shot from the sky, others crashed into the sea when they ran out of fuel. At least three aircrewmen were plucked from the sea by the Japanese and were interrogated and executed.

During the Battle of Midway, the U.S. deployed a total of 223 carrier aircraft and 113 land-based planes of various types, including B-17 bombers, torpedo bombers, fighters, and SBD dive bombers. But the only significant damage inflicted against the Japanese was by SBD dive bombers. Overall, the United States lost 92 officers, 215 enlisted men, an aircraft carrier, a destroyer, and approximately 150 aircraft at Midway.

A Rugged Little Plane The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps would operate SBD Dauntless dive bombers for the rest of war, even though a replacement plane, the Curtis SB2C Helldiver, had been designed by mid-1941. But delays in development of the more powerful SB2C meant that SBD’s remained the Navy’s primary dive bomber until 1943. Marine Corps Dauntlesses operating from Henderson Field played a critical role in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

The SBD Dauntless was a rugged little plane that could absorb significant damage and still make it home, which made it popular with its crews. The plane possessed long range, good handling characteristics, maneuverability, a potent bomb load, and outstanding defensive armament. Early in the war, when U.S. carriers operated only a single squadron of fighters, SBD’s were sometimes deployed to defend their carriers from torpedo bombers as part of a low-level combat air patrol. At the Battle of Coral Sea, while defending USS Lexington and Yorktown, SBDs shot down several Japanese torpedo bombers.

The Dauntless was one of the most successful and important U.S. aircraft of the Pacific War. SBDs sank more enemy shipping than any other aircraft, including six aircraft carriers, 14 cruisers, six destroyers, 15 transports or cargo ships, and countless smaller craft.

Nearly 6,000 SBD’s were built during the war. A handful remain, including a veteran of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.

He loved that plane and spoke highly of it.

Years later after I left home, my folks told me he had carried the national colors in a Memorial Day Parade for the VFW, sat down after finishing the parade route, and died of a heart attack.

Carried the colors ‘til he died. Heroes to the end.

My nine year-old is obsessed with Midway and WWII carrier warfare. He loves Battle 360 on the History Channel and the Midway movie. He’s getting a Lego USS Enterprise for Christmas.

He thinks Star Wars is a boring joke. Dad is pleased.

Our Bombing and Scouting squadrons equipped with the Dauntless Dive Bombers flown by some very brave men carried the day at Midway. Not to be overlooked, though, were the attacks by our obsolete and slow TBD Devastator torpedo bomber squadrons. Only four TBD’s survived the day, and none scored a hit on a Japanese ship, but they drew the Japanese fighter cover down to the deck, allowing the SBD’s to dive on the Japanese carriers without worrying about Zeros on their tail. A little known fact is that not a single TBD Devastator was lost in action before Midway, and they had a pretty good hit rate on Japanese ships, even with the defective torpedos they carried.

Why America's Douglas SBD Dauntless Was Such a Good World War II Dive Bomber

Key point: This bomber was very useful even though it was slow. Here's how the Navy used it in battle.

World War II gave us many stories of aerial warfare, men and their machines fighting their way to victory and glory in the name of humanity. However romantic such a notion may be, World War II was the first in which airpower actually won battles, decided the outcome of campaigns, and ultimately the course of the conflict itself. That victory came about as a result of Allied airmen dropping ordnance onto the most important things the Axis countries owned, turning them into rubble or wreckage. It’s a simple formula actually: precisely drop enough lead or high explosive onto something, and it will be destroyed.

“Fighter Pilots Make Movies. Bomber Pilots Make History!”

But not everyone saw the worth of that idea in the 1930s and 1940s. Most airpower enthusiasts of the day saw bombing in terms of large formations of huge multi-engined planes, fighting their way past hostile defenses to carpet an objective with bombs, the target being embroiled in the mess.

The early days of World War II, however, did not see America’s few victories won by huge formations of heavy bombers. Those battles were won by one small, tubby, and not terribly fast airplane, flown by men whose courage and tenacity are still a source of envy and wonder to historians of the period. There was a saying going around at the time: “Fighter pilots make movies. Bomber pilots make history!” The men who made that history were the aviators of the Navy and Marine scout and bombing squadrons, and their war horse was the Douglas SDB Dauntless dive-bomber.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that before laser-, infrared-, and satellite-guided bombs came into being, delivering ordinance from aircraft was hardly a precision process. Huge sums of money were spent developing specialized bombsights for level bombers, to help lay their loads onto targets with some modicum of accuracy. However, without some sort of terminal guidance for the bombs themselves, even the famed Norden bombsight of World War II would do no better than to lay a string of bombs across an area the size of several football fields. There were, however, simpler and more intuitive ways of putting a bomb close to an aim-point from the air.

Concept Of Dive-Bombing Created

Nobody knows who first came up with the idea of aiming bombs at a target from a diving airplane, but sometime in World War I this became an intuitive way of getting bombs closer to the desired target. The result was a specialized kind of weapons delivery known as dive-bombing. Technical dive-bombing was a uniquely American creation, the product of a small cadre of U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) aviators who wanted to provide close bombing support to riflemen on the ground. It was Lieutenant L.H.M. Sanderson who, in 1919 as a member of Marine Observation Squadron Nine, noted that a diving aircraft pointed at a target made more accurate deliveries, causing the tactical adoption of glide- and dive-bombing by the USMC. Further experimentation showed that the reduced horizontal velocity component of the diving aircraft (compared to that of a level bomber) combined with the superior view of the target by the pilot made for truly precise weapons deliveries by skilled pilots.

Navy Begins Procuring Dive-Bombing Aircraft

By the mid-1930s, the Navy and Marines had both seen the virtues of dive-bombing. The USMC was using it to support troops on the ground as flying artillery, while their sea-service brethren developed the tactics as a precision antishipping tactic. To this end, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) began to procure purpose-built dive-bombing aircraft, with the specialized equipment and structures necessary to make them a truly deadly form of warfare. These included aerodynamic “dive brakes” (to slow and steady the aircraft during the dive), extra structure (to withstand the stresses of pulling out after the dive), “trapeze” bomb-release systems (to help the bomb clear the propeller), and telescopic bombsights (to assist the pilot in putting the weapon precisely onto the target).

Seeking The Next Generation Of Bombers

Curtiss, long a supplier of Navy and Marine aircraft, produced most of the early dive-bombers. In fact, it was a demonstration by Marine Curtiss F8C Helldivers that led German Air Minister Ernst Udet to procure several for the emerging Luftwaffe as the inspiration for the famous Ju-87 Stuka. The 1930s were a time of amazing technological advancement in the aviation industry, and several new companies began to produce dive-bombers for the Navy and Marines. One of these was the Vought SB2U Vindicator, the first all-metal, low-wing monoplane procured for use by the sea services. Brought into service in 1938, the Vindicator provided a great deal of experience in operations of such aircraft, and led the BuAer to look for a more advanced model for the Navy and Marines. That search led to an emerging aircraft manufacturer in southern California: the Douglas Aircraft Company (DAC).

Founded by Donald Douglas, DAC already had an impressive standing in the aviation world by the late 1930s. Manufacturer of the incomparable DC-3 (which became the military C-47/R4D Skytrain/Dakota), DAC already had built a solid reputation with the Navy with the TBD Devastator torpedo bomber. Despite the unfortunate reputation it would acquire at the Battle of Midway in 1942 (where 39 out of 43 would be shot down), the TBD was the finest carrier-based torpedo bomber in the world when it was delivered in 1937. Like the SB2U, the TBD was a rugged, all-metal, low-wing monoplane that clearly represented the future of carrier aircraft. With the clouds of war beginning to grow, the DAC was going to be a major player in that effort.

Initially, the contract for the Vindicator replacement went to the El Segundo division of Northrop, which was producing a fairly conventional scout bomber design known as the BT-1. But, Northrop sold this division to DAC, and with it came one of the greatest aircraft designers of all time: the legendary Ed Heinemann. Heinemann had already produced a number of successful designs and almost immediately saw the possibilities for an improved model of the BT-1. At the same time, Heinemann began to be influenced by DAC’s founder on how he might design better aircraft for the sea services.

“They Have To Take Punishment And Still Work”

He would later write in his book, Aircraft Design: “One day when I was a young man just beginning to design airplanes, the great person who founded the company that bore his name, Donald Douglas, took me by the shoulder and taught me a lesson that was simple, though vital to success. At the time, we were trying to generate business from the U.S. Navy. ‘Navy planes take a beating,’ he said. ‘They slam down on the carriers when they land and get roughed up by the unforgiving elements of the high seas. If we want the Navy to buy our airplanes, we must build them rugged. They have to take punishment and still work.’”

Applying this and other ideas to the basic BT-1 design, he refined it into the XBT-2, what became known as the Scout-Bomber-Douglas Aircraft Company, or SBD.

SBD Rolled Out With Several Changes

The SBD was a surprising little airplane, as much for what it did not have in the way of features as for what it did have. For example, the SBD broke with the trend for folding wings to save deck and hangar space. By using a compact wing and platform, Heinemann was able to design the SBD to be small enough to fit up to three dozen onto U.S. carriers along with their other squadrons of fighters and torpedo bombers. The lack of a folding wing also saved weight and removed a weak point that made for a more rugged design. Another SBD innovation was the inclusion of perforated split dive brakes, which also functioned as flaps on takeoff and landing.

When fully extended, the split flaps allowed a pilot to dive the SBD at an angle of up to 80° with a terminal velocity (the point where aerodynamic resistance balances engine power and gravity) of around 250 knots. This limited the stresses on the aircraft during pullout and provided a more stable platform during the dive. Nevertheless, the Dauntless (the name the Navy gave the SBD) was stressed to withstand up to 9 “gees” during maneuvering, and even was able to handle so-called “zero lift” (nearly vertical) dives. To help the pilot see the target and assist in aiming, a padded 3X sighting scope was mounted over the control panel. All of this was designed to help the two-man crew (a pilot and radio operator/gunner) to put a bomb onto the deck of a moving ship or a ground target with accuracy.

The Douglas Dauntless and Other Heroes of Midway

With the world’s largest carrier fleet, the Japanese navy ruled the Pacific in the first half of 1942, a time when naval tactics were changing from ships pounding away with guns to aerial battles fought by carrier-based aircraft. At Midway, the opposing fleets never came within sight of each other.

Having been tipped off to Japanese plans by U.S. cryptographers, the Navy sent Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats from Midway to search hundreds of miles of ocean. It was a Catalina crew who spotted the Japanese fleet.

★ Consolidated PBY Catalina ★ Maybe the prettiest aircraft of World War II, the Catalina flying boat was a patrol bomber best remembered for spotting the Japanese fleet in advance of the Battle of Midway, but were also effective against submarines Catalinas sank 40 subs. (Philip Makanna) ★ Grumman F4F/FM-2 Wildcat ★ The first of the great Grumman Cats, the F4F Wildcat was slower than the Japanese Zero fighters pitted against it, but it was built stronger—one of the reasons Grumman earned the nickname “Iron Works.” American pilots overcame the Wildcat’s shortcomings with tactics, such as the Thatch Weave (developed by Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Thatch), a criss-cross pattern flown by a pair of F4Fs to cover each other against attackers. (NASM) ★ TBD Devastator ★ Torpedo bombers were built to sink ships, and the Douglas TBD Devastator sank a few in the early rounds of the Pacific war. In the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, Devastators teamed up with Dauntless dive bombers to sink a Japanese carrier, but Devastators dropped their torpedoes at an altitude under 1,000 feet, and the slow bombers were vulnerable to Japanese fighters. After six months of combat, the Devastator was withdrawn from service. Not a single Devastator is on display today, though several have been located on the ocean floor, one off the coast of San Diego. (U.S. Navy)

From three U.S. carriers, Grumman F4F Wildcats flew escort for the slower Douglas Devastator torpedo bombers and Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers, which would attack the Japanese ships. But timing the departures of these airplanes, with their different speeds and cruising altitudes, proved difficult. Whole squadrons of Wildcats wasted most of their fuel waiting for the slower airplanes to take off. Others got lost and had to return to the carrier without even sighting the enemy.

The Devastators were particularly easy prey, since they dropped their torpedoes while skimming as low as 100 feet over the water. The Wildcats did what they could against Japanese Zeros, but they were outnumbered, and their opponents’ climb rate was three times greater.  Of 41 Devastators launched, four made it back to their ships.

In the first three hours of the battle, not a single U.S. bomb or torpedo had hit a Japanese ship, despite eight separate attacks by a total of 94 airplanes. Then the tide turned. In an oral history recorded years later, Wildcat pilot Jimmy Thach recalled trying, with five other pilots, to hold off the Zeros: “The air was just like a beehive. I was utterly convinced that we weren’t any of us coming back because there were still so many Zeros. And then I saw a glint in the sun that looked like a beautiful silver waterfall. It was the dive-bombers coming in.” While Wildcats and Devastators had kept the Zeros busy, Dauntlesses from the Yorktown and Enterprise had gotten through.

In the space of eight minutes, Dauntless pilots dropped bombs that fatally damaged three of the four Japanese carriers. Japan’s navy never regained the upper hand.

Douglas SBD Dauntless

Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 05/25/2021 | Content © | The following text is exclusive to this site.

The Douglas DBS Dauntless dive bomber was a key cog in the America Navy war effort throughout the Pacific during World War 2. Though a product of the middle-to-late 1930's, the type continued to soldier on even as more advanced warplanes were appearing out of American factories as the war progressed. Despite its classification and appearance, the SBD Dauntless could more than handle its own against the lightly armored Japanese fighters in the Theater. The Douglas SBD would build for itself a history of resilience despite its inherent limitations in design - a history that very few other aircraft of the war would be able to match - and be responsible for the sinking of thousands of tons of Japanese shipping.

Design was conventional with the large radial engine mounted in the extreme forward portion of the fuselage, just forward of the cockpit. The glazed cockpit could accommodate two personnel - the pilot in a forward area and the gunner in a rear cockpit, seated back-to-back. The rear cockpit contained a trainable gun position (7.62mm type machine guns) and played a major defensive role in the survival of many an SBD system and crew. The pilot doubled as the bombardier and also manned fixed-forward gun systems which (eventually) would feature two 12.7mm (.50 caliber) heavy machine guns. Wings were of low-wing monoplane types situated under the fuselage and featured the noticeably large perforated dive flaps so consistent with the series. The empennage was a traditional assembly with a single vertical tail surface. The real meat and potatoes for the SBD was in her ability to carried a substantial bomb load that could be supplanted by depth charges if need be. A total of 2,250lb of external ordnance was capable.

Capabilities for the SBD were adequate considering the type, with power derived from the single Wright-brand R-1820 series air-cooled engine rated at over 1,000 horsepower (and achieving progressively better returns as new engines were introduced throughout her production life). Top speeds of 250 miles per hour could be reached along with a ceiling of just around 25,500 feet with a range of well over 1,000 miles. At first glance, the performance specs might have left a little to be desired of in the SBD design but it was soon proven to be a steady performer even when called upon to battle the fabled Japanese fighters. Japanese fighters, though agile and mounting powerful weaponry, were relatively lightly armored (if at all) and offered up a fair fight to the equally-powerful SBD series. The Dauntless would earn itself many an air kill before the end of the war thanks to the know-how and bravery of her crews and deficiencies in the design of her adversary aircraft.

The SBD came online as a development from the Douglas company (after their absorption of the Northrop Corporation) and was designed in request to a new US Navy dive bomber proposal. The XBT-1 was the product of this development and led to limited production of BT-1's. This was followed by a now re-designated XSBD-1 series featuring improvements to flying surfaces and the landing gear and entered official production with the more identifiable "SBD" designation in the initial SBD-1 models. Early versions featured a relatively weak setup of forward-fixed 7.62mm machine guns (x2) and a single trainable gun of equal caliber to cover the rear. The SBD-2 appeared soon after and offered up an increase to fuel capacity. The SBD-3 gave crew members reason to celebrate as a bulletproof windscreen was finally introduced along with self-sealing fuel tanks and improved armor protection. Armament was also revised and improved to the series standard of 2 x 12.7mm machine guns (forward-fixed) and 2 x 7.62mm guns at rear. The SBD-3 also introduced the Wright R-1820-52 powerplant and even better fuel capacity. The definitive SBD model arrived in the SBD-5 which sported the more powerful R-1820-60 series radial with an increase to total ammunition and produced to the tune of some 3,000 examples.

Along with the base SBD models, the Dauntless was also featured as a photographic reconnaissance platform and designated with the appropriate "P" as in SBD-1P, SBD-2P and SBD-3P models. The naval and marine SBD-3, SBD-4 and SBD-5 also formed the basis of the US Army's acquisition of the type in the A-24 "Banshee" guise though these proved far less successful than her Navy sisters. The British Fleet Air Arm took delivery of at least nine SBD-5 models and designated them as the Dauntless DB.Mk I series though these reportedly would never see combat action.

The Dauntless was pressed into service immediately after official hostilities with the Empire of Japan began following Pearl Harbor. They served primarily off of the American carriers (Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise among the notable) still in operation in the Pacific and led to some early , albeit limited, successes. In any case, their strategic usage allowed for an offensive air arm to be established against the might of the Japanese reach in the region. The Dauntless would soon be in action in the Battle of Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway (sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers), working side-by-side with TBD Devastator torpedo elements to form a deadly one-two punch - with cover provided by the effective F4F Wildcat fighters - against Japanese vessels and shore-line positions. The decisive Battle of Guadalcanal followed along with the Battle of Philippine Sea soon after. American dive bombing techniques improved with the results to show for it. Despite being nearly ten years old with better and newer designs overtaking the role, the SBD continued on with units through to the end of the war.

The SBD Dauntless truly earned her mythical status and became the symbol of American resurgence after the Pearl Harbor attack. The aircraft garnered the affectionate nickname of "Slow But Deadly" to signify her designation and was a favored aircraft by those who understood and respected her capabilities. While the vulnerable "glide bombing" was still considered the route for fighter-bomber hybrids like the SBD, trained Dauntless crews made the most of their "dive bombing" - literally taking the aircraft into a steep angled dive over the target - forays to sink more enemy shipping than any other aircraft in the Pacific Theater. The legendary status of the SBD Dauntless and her crews was indeed earned. An aircraft - whose visual appearance might have done little to the enemy's psyche at first glance - was a sure wake up call to those Japanese sailors manning the flight decks onboard Empire aircraft carriers. A true classical warbird in every sense of the word.

As an interesting side note, the Douglas SBD Dauntless did not feature folding wings, a common feature among carrier aircraft even to this day. Folding wings make for an economical way to maximize storage space aboard space-strapped aircraft carriers. The reasoning behind this design decision on the Dauntless was to provide for a stronger internal wing support structure seeing it that the aircraft - being a dive bomber and all - would be exposed to a tremendous amount of stress in its attacks (made up of high-force combat dives and climbs). The Dauntless would be one of the last US Navy aircraft to not utilize folding wings.

Dauntless Forever: The Dive Bomber That Changed the Course of World War II

The Lone Star Flight Museum’s Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless flies near Galveston, Texas, in 2015. Built in 1942 as an A-24B, the museum’s dive bomber was returned to flight in 1997 after a 12,000-hour restoration.

The “slow but deadly” Douglas SBD dive bomber employed 1930s technology and tactics to turn the tide in the Pacific War

Name the most effective American bombers of World War II and you’ll certainly come up with the B-17, B-24 and B-29, maybe the twin-engine B-25, but how many will think to include the little Douglas SBD Dauntless on the list? The Dauntless dive bomber flew almost entirely over the Pacific, and there it did more to win the war than any other bomber type, even including the Superfort’s two atom bomb missions. Yet of the 35 U.S. types that flew major combat in WWII, none was as old-fashioned and low-tech as the SBD.

Show someone who isn’t an aviation fan photos of a Dauntless and a North American AT-6 trainer, which first flew in 1935, and they won’t be able to tell the difference. The two airplanes are nearly identical in size, shape and detail. With a wingspan half an inch narrower than the AT-6’s, the SBD-5 had exactly twice the trainer’s horsepower and only moderately better performance—40 mph more cruise speed, a 1,300-foot higher ceiling, 500 feet per minute better rate of climb—but the extra grunt gave it the ability to typically carry a 1,200-pound bombload, including a ship-killing half-tonner under the fuselage centerline.

With those bombs, SBDs sank five of Japan’s eight fleet aircraft carriers and a sixth light carrier. The Dauntless played a major role in reducing Japan’s cadre of world-class navy pilots to a bunch of low-time novices left to fling their airplanes and bodies at American ships as kamikazes.

Ed Heinemann’s 1936 Northrop XBT-1 (top) handled poorly, but his Douglas XBT-2 (above) fixed many of its problems and led directly to the SBD. (U.S. Navy)

The SBD started out as a Northrop, not a Douglas. Its designer, Ed Heinemann, worked for Jack Northrop, who had developed the sleek, precedential Alpha, Beta and Gamma mailplanes of the late 1920s and early ’30s. Northrop was already producing for the Air Corps the pre-SBD, Gamma-based A-17A dive bomber. Building on this substantial foundation, Heinemann initially came up with the ill-handling Northrop XBT-1 dive bomber of 1936. By the time Donald Douglas took over the Northrop company, Heinemann had fixed its failings and developed the much-improved XBT-2, the direct forerunner of the Dauntless.

The XBT-2 got letterbox wing slots—not leading-edge slots but fixed flow-throughs well aft of the leading edge, mid-chord directly ahead of the ailerons. These slots kept the airflow attached and cured the XBT-1’s nasty stall characteristics. They also helped to create the outstanding lateral-control handling qualities that would make the SBD so effective at precisely altering its aim during a near-vertical dive, as well as its docile behavior during carrier landings. One of Heinemann’s most important accomplishments toward perfecting the Dauntless design was its beautifully balanced controls. When properly trimmed, an SBD’s solid and steady dive, responsive to minor adjustments in every direction, made it a remarkably stable and accurate weapons platform.

Heinemann was one of the most effective warplane designers of the 1940s through the 1960s. In addition to the SBD, he was responsible for the Douglas A-20 and A-26 attack bombers, the AD-1 Skyraider, A3D Skywarrior (the “Whale,” to this day the heaviest aircraft ever produced for routine carrier use) and the A-4 Skyhawk. He also oversaw the creation of the F-16 Viper when he ultimately became vice president of engineering at General Dynamics in the early 1960s.

Heinemann was busy enough with the SBD that he had nothing to do with the clumsy Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber, contemptuously nicknamed the “Torpecker.” Its main contribution to the war was to distract the Japanese during the Battle of Midway with its fruitless low-level attacks while SBDs dove on the carriers from above. During one Midway mission, 41 Devastators attacked the Japanese fleet. Thirty-five were shot down and not one scored a successful torpedo hit. (Admittedly, blame had to be shared with their terrible Mark 13 torpedoes, which rarely ran true or exploded on impact.) Meanwhile, SBDs fatally damaged all four Japanese carriers participating in the June 4-5, 1942, battle.

A problem with early fixed-gear dive bombers had been that centerline bombs tended to bobble around in the airstream and bounce off the landing gear immediately after release. (It might seem that dropping a bomb through the prop disc would be a greater problem, but that would have required a steeper dive than what was then being achieved.) The solution was bomb displacement gear, usually called a bomb crutch or yoke—a simple device that swung the released bomb through a 90-degree arc that put it well away from the fuselage before it was fully dropped. Heinemann fitted the fixed-gear Northrop XBT-1 with a bomb yoke and retained it for the Dauntless, which could actually dive steeply enough to put its bomb through the prop.

Crewmen load a 500-pound bomb onto an SBD aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise on August 7, 1942, the first day of strikes against Guadalcanal and Tulagi. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Despite its antediluvian appearance and low-tech approach, the SBD was slow to achieve squadron service. The first two versions, the SBD-1 and -2, weren’t even war-worthy, since they had neither armor nor self-sealing fuel tanks. The combat-ready SBD-3, the “Speedy Three,” entered service at roughly the same time as the advanced Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

The SBD started its war in the Pacific right on time—on the morning of December 7, 1941—but it was an inauspicious debut. Seven Dauntlesses were shot down or crashed and more were destroyed on the ground, totaling about two dozen lost. Three days later, however, an SBD from the carrier Enterprise sank the submarine I-70 north of Hawaii, scoring the first Japanese fleet sub of the war.

Another early action in which an SBD played a part was Jimmy Doolittle’s April 1942 Tokyo Raid. In its S-for-scouting role, a Dauntless dis­covered the Japanese picket ship that forced the early launch of Doolittle’s bombers. Though he knew the small boat had spotted him, the SBD pilot was unable to break radio silence and had to fly back to Doolittle’s task force and drop a weighted message on Enterprise’s flight deck.

SBD-3s on Enterprise accompany the carrier Hornet and its B-25s during the April 1942 Doolittle Raid. (Library of Congress)

The SBD-4 gained a 24-volt electrical system, a wider-chord wing with more rounded tips and a Hamilton Standard hydromatic prop. But the SBD-5 became the go-to Dauntless, with 1,200 horsepower rather than the earlier 1,000. An equally important upgrade was a reflector bombsight in place of the previous three-power telescope. The tube-with-an-eyepiece sight was prone to fogging as a Dauntless dove from 15,000 feet through increasingly warm, humid Pacific air, as was the windshield, which in the SBD-5 got a demisting heater. The SBD-6 gained a further 150 hp but was already being replaced by the unloved Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. (One carrier skipper, Captain Joseph “Jocko” Clark of USS Yorktown, refused to allow Helldivers aboard his ship. He demanded SBDs.)

The SBD’s most recognizable feature was its perforated flaps, riddled with 318 precisely tapered and flanged, slightly ovalized three-inch holes. The modification had been suggested by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics when the early XBT-1 prototype revealed serious tail buffeting during dives. The outer horizontal stabilizer reportedly flapped through a two-foot arc, and Heinemann himself, riding as a backseat observer, admitted that it “scared the hell out of me.” The shakes were caused by turbulent vortices tumbling off the flaps, and the holes allowed a carefully calculated amount of air to feed straight aft while the flaps retained the ability to hold the airplane at a safe dive speed.

A Dauntless lands aboard the escort carrier Santee. (U.S. Navy/Interim Archives/Getty Images)

There were two sets of Dauntless flaps: conventional split flaps that stretched below the wing trailing edge and under the fuselage, and dive flaps, which deployed upward above each wing’s trailing edge. All were perforated. For takeoff and landing, the lower flaps were set. They were also used for diving, but with the additional drag of the upper flaps. The dive flaps were powerful enough that the airplane couldn’t maintain level flight, even under full power, while they were deployed. It was therefore critical that pilots begin retracting the slow-acting hydraulic flaps just before pullout from a dive.

One feature the Dauntless lacked was folding wings, considered indispensable for parking on carriers. But Ed Heinemann wanted the strongest possible wings for an SBD’s typical 5G+ pullouts. No hinges for him. A novel solution to the parking problem was troughs just wide enough for SBD tailwheels, extending out laterally from a carrier’s deck so that a row of Dauntlesses could be parked with their main gear just at the deck’s edge.

The SBD was surprisingly effective in air-to-air combat. During the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, Dauntlesses shot down more Japanese aircraft—35—than did the accompanying Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters. Throughout the Pacific campaign, SBDs claimed a total of 138 enemy airplanes while themselves falling fewer than 80 times (record-keeping was inexact) to Japanese fighters.

One SBD pilot, Lieutenant Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa, attacked seven Zeros and shot down three of them in a single mission during the Coral Sea battle the previous day he had participated in the sinking of the Japanese light carrier Shōhō. Cook Cleland, later famous as a Thompson Trophy racer, also was credited with several SBD victories.

Left: The pilot’s “office” of the SBD-6 in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.. Right: The rear-seater manned a twin .30-caliber machine gun. (Photos: National Air and Space Museum/Eric Long and Mark Avino)

A Dauntless pilot controlled a pair of cowl-mounted .50-caliber guns firing through the prop arc, and the SBD was maneuverable enough to make them an occasional threat. But the most effective guns were the rear-seater’s flexible twin .30s. (Early SBDs had just one tail gun, but it was quickly found to be impotent.) The most notorious Dauntless gunner was Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had been a Marine intelligence officer. McCarthy was savvy enough to understand that a combat record, no matter how bogus, would someday play well with voters, so he cadged the occasional local ride in a Dauntless and later parlayed “Tailgunner Joe” into an effective campaign slogan. Never mentioned was the fact that he had once holed his own airplane’s vertical stabilizer with an unskilled burst.

The gunner was also an SBD’s radio operator, and his seat swiveled so he could do double duty. He also had a set of rudimentary flight controls—airspeed indicator and altimeter, throttle and a control stick that could be unclipped from the left cockpit sidewall and dropped into a socket on the floor. He had no way to put the landing gear or tailhook down, but he could at least take a wounded pilot back to the ship and ditch near it.

The Army got its own version of the SBD, the A-24 Banshee, though it was largely unloved. Besotted with their heavy bombers and grand strategic bombing plans, Army Air Forces leaders had no use for dive bombing. They believed intentionally diving a bomber straight toward anti-aircraft defenses at danger-close range was simply a way to put aircrews in harm’s way. They couldn’t make the A-24 work as a level or glide bomber, so they used it as a trainer and utility aircraft.

This despite the fact that the AAF was well aware of the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka’s success against ground targets, particularly armor, during the German army’s 1939-40 Blitzkrieg and the ill-advised Soviet campaign. If there was one airplane that seriously challenged the SBD for the title of world’s best dive bomber, it was the Stuka. But the U.S. Army had few tanks itself at the beginning of WWII and little experience in countering them. During the two prewar decades during which the Navy had practiced and perfected dive bombing, the Army had studiously ignored the tactic.

In fact, AAF leader Henry “Hap” Arnold tried to cancel the initial order for 16 A-24s, claiming the Army had already tested the dive-bombing concept and found it lacking, largely due to a dive bomber’s vulnerability to enemy fighters. Arnold was overruled by General George C. Marshall.

U.S. Navy SBD-3s patrol off Midway Atoll, where on June 4, 1942, Dauntlesses changed the course of the Pacific naval war in four dramatic minutes. (Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Nonetheless, the AAF taught its A-24 pilots to bomb in a 30-degree “dive,” which was actually a steep glide. The maximum the Army would allow was 45 degrees, which was still glide bombing. Some benighted Army pilots had the brass to call the Banshee “a lousy dive bomber.”

How useful might Army dive bombers have been? One example: At the end of the 1943 Battle of Sicily, German and Italian troops fled across the narrow Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland aboard a shooting gallery of ships and boats. Army fighter bombers flew a total of 1,883 sorties and managed to sink just 13 of them.

After the war, the surviving Banshees became part of the Air Force, which redesignated them F-24s. They remained in service until 1950, well after the last SBDs had been retired.

The British Fleet Air Arm considered using SBDs and tested several of them. Their nicknames for them were “Clunk” and “Barge” rather than “Slow But Deadly.” One of the test pilots, Cap­tain Eric “Winkle” Brown, the most experienced carrier pilot of all time, was underwhelmed by the little Douglas.

“The Dauntless was underpowered, painfully slow, short of range, woefully vulnerable to fighters, and uncomfortable and fatiguing to fly for any length of time, being inherently noisy and drafty,” Brown later wrote. “It was a decidedly prewar aeroplane of obsolescent design and certainly overdue for replacement.” Damning with faint praise, he called the SBD-5’s performance “sedate.”

The Dauntless left Brown baffled. Its performance deficits were so obvious that he deemed it “a very mediocre aeroplane.” Yet he knew its Pacific combat record and could only conclude that the SBD “was among that handful of aeroplanes that have achieved outstanding success against all odds.” (He had only to look to his own Royal Navy’s Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber, the infamous Stringbag, for another example of such an anomaly.)

If the Dauntless had a secret ingredient, it was that “most important, it was an accurate dive bomber.” Brown found it easy to make precise downline corrections in a dive with the “pleasantly light” ailerons. He also admitted that the Dauntless was hell for stout. “Extremely strong but also rather heavy,” which gave it “a loss rate in the Pacific…lower than that experienced by any other U.S. Navy shipboard aeroplane.” In fact, the Dauntless had the lowest loss rate of any Ameri­can combat aircraft of the war.

The SBD began to be replaced in Novem­ber 1943 by the brutish, short-coupled Helldiver—which, in fact, was supposed to have gone into service early enough in the war that the Dauntless would never have been needed. “Events that stick in my memory include every flight I ever made in the SB2C Helldiver,” recalled former Patuxent River test pilot Rear Adm. Paul Holmberg. “We had three to use in testing. Of the three, two had their wings come off.”

The Helldiver’s handling qualities were so bad—much of which could be attributed to the unusually short fuselage—that pilots quickly took to calling it the Beast. The airplane had been intended to trump the SBD in speed, range and weight-carrying ability, yet when it went into service it provided minimal improvements over its predecessor.

The SB2C’s moment of glory came in April 1945, when Helldivers and Grumman Avengers sank the supership Yamato, one of the two heaviest and biggest-gunned battleships ever built. It was the last great dive-bombing feat of any war.

Meanwhile, the SBDs evicted from the fleet continued to fly into 1944 in the hands of the Marine Corps, in support of the island-hopping campaign. They became what Stukas had once been: flying artillery, giving close air support to both Marine and Army troops, particularly in the Philippines. Near-vertical dive bombing was often the only way to bring heavy ordnance to bear against troops in heavily jungled areas. Douglas developed .50-caliber machine gun pods for underwing mounting on SBDs, for dive strafing.

Pilot George Glacken and gunner Leo Boulanger fly in an SBD-5 near New Guinea in April 1944. (J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The last SBDs to see action were those of the French navy, flying in 1947 in support of the Indo­china War. The SBD-3 was originally intended for export to France, in 1940, but the French order for 174 aircraft was taken over by the U.S. Navy after the country’s fall. The French eventually got the airplane when some 40-plus A-24 Banshees were delivered to Algeria and Morocco in 1943, plus a further 112 SBD-5s and A-24s in 1944. Some of them operated over France after D-Day.

The French removed their Dauntlesses from combat in late 1949, but they continued flying as trainers through 1953. In the U.S. a few civil SBDs operated as photo-mappers, mosquito sprayers and skywriters—one of the last painted in Pepsi-Cola red, white and blue. An SBD even ended up at MGM Studios in Hollywood for use as a wind generator during filming.

One of the world’s most concentrated SBD graveyards is the floor of Lake Mich­igan, where 38 Dauntlesses were lost in training crashes. Only a few have been recovered, largely because the Navy insists it still owns them. Many of those still on the bottom are particularly rare because they have substantial combat history. After having gone to war, they were superseded by the Helldiver and then sent back to the U.S. for training use.

What was once intended to be a stopgap to await the arrival of a real dive bomber ended up flying through the end of WWII and becoming the most effective carrier-based dive bomber of all time, of all maritime nations. “The SBD’s contribution to winning the Pacific War was unexcelled by any other American or Allied aircraft,” wrote Aviation History contributor Barrett Tillman, the world’s leading Dauntless expert and historian.

As Tillman points out, the Navy got more than its money’s worth. The last SBD-6s cost $29,000 in 1944 dollars (about $425,000 today), less government-supplied equipment such as the engine, instruments, radios and ordnance. Call it a Slow But Deadly bargain.

For further reading, contributing editor Stephan Wilkin­son recommends: The Dauntless Dive Bomber of World War Two, by Barrett Tillman SBD Daunt­less: Douglas’s US Navy and Marine Corps Dive-Bomber in World War II, by David Doyle and Douglas SBD Dauntless, by Peter C. Smith.

This feature originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe today!

Douglas SBD Dauntless

The SBD (Scout Bomber Douglas) Dauntless was derived directly from the Northrop BT-2 design of 1935. After Northrop became a subsidiary of Douglas, the new aircraft took on a Douglas designation.

First orders for the SBD-1 and SBD-2 were placed by the Marine Corps and the Navy respectively on 8 April 1938, both entering service near the end of 1940. In March 1941, the SBD-3 was introduced, featuring protective armor and a more powerful engine than its predecessors. Armament consisted of two .50-inch machine guns fixed forward on the engine cowling and twin 0.30 inch machine guns manned by a second crewman for protection astern. Simultaneously, Army Air Corps’ interest in the design led to additional production orders, those in Army service designated A-24 and nicknamed “Banshee”. The SBD-5 (A-24B) followed soon after, its principal characteristic being a further engine upgrade.

When fighting began in the Pacific, the Dauntless performed with distinction. As the standard carrier-borne Navy dive-bomber, SBDs flew from the decks of the carriers Lexington, Enterprise, Yorktown, and Saratoga and first engaged the Japanese fleet in the Battle of the Coral Sea. A month later, SBDs accounted for three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, and Hiryu) sunk in the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942, considered the turning point in the Pacific theater. On the other side of the world, SBDs from the US carrier Ranger struck German and Vichy French positions in North Africa in support of Operation Torch.

In addition to its service with US Navy, Marine and Army Air Force units, SBDs were also operated by Mexico, New Zealand and the free French. SBDs briefly saw combat flying from French aircraft carriers in Indo-China. By the time production ceased in July 1944, a total of 5,936 SBD/A-24 aircraft had been manufactured.

History of the LSFM Dauntless

Manufactured by Douglas Aircraft as an A-24B in 1942, this aircraft was transferred to the Fuerza Aerea Mexicana (Mexican Air Force) and on completion of its military service was sold to a Mexican aerial photography business. In 1972, the aircraft was acquired by the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, where it remained on display in non-flying condition until acquired by LSFM in 1994. After a 12,000 hour in-house restoration, the A-24 was returned to flying condition in June 1997 in the markings of the more numerous naval versions, the SBD. It earned Reserve Grand Champion at Oshkosh in 1997 and the “Golden Wrench” award for its pristine restoration. The aircraft remains airworthy and is only one of a handful of A-24B/SBD-5s flying today out of a total of 3,640 built (USN 2,965 USAAF 675).

SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber Development

In 1935 the Northrop Corporation began design work on the Northrop BT-1. Just two years later, the company was overtaken by

/> Side view of the SBD-1 Dauntless Dive Bomber.

Douglas and the existing design work continued under the Douglas Aircraft Corporation. The BT-2 was then developed from the BT-1 based on modifications that were ordered in November 1937 and were the baseline for the SBD. The first version of the SBD would enter its service life in the middle of 1939. A year later, the U.S. Navy and USMC would place orders for the new bomber which would be designated as the SBD-1 (USMC) and SBD-2 (USN). The next version of the dive bomber was the SBD-3 which started to be manufactured in early 1941 and would feature four machine guns, self-sealing fuel tanks, as well as increased armor. The succeeding SBD-4 would provide an upgraded electrical system (12 volt compared to 6 volt), and some of these aircraft were converted into pure SBD-4P recon aircraft.

The SBD-5 was the subsequently developed model by the Douglas factory located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The SBD-5 would be the most produced version of the aircraft during WW2 with more than 2,400 of the model being built. This version would feature increased ammo storage as well as a 1,200 Horse Power engine. The SBD would be flown by the US Navy, USMC, Royal Navy, New Zealand Air Force, Free French Air Forces, and the U.S. Army Air Force (also called the A-24 Banshee).

The True Story of the Battle of Midway

“At the present time we have only enough water for two weeks. Please supply us immediately,” read the message sent by American sailors stationed at Midway, a tiny atoll located roughly halfway between North America and Asia, on May 20, 1942.

The plea for help, however, was a giant ruse the base was not, in fact, low on supplies. When Tokyo Naval Intelligence intercepted the dispatch and relayed the news onward, reporting that the “AF” air unit was in dire need of fresh water, their American counterparts finally confirmed what they had long suspected: Midway and “AF,” cited by the Japanese as the target of a major upcoming military operation, were one and the same.

This codebreaking operation afforded the United States a crucial advantage at what would be the Battle of Midway, a multi-day naval and aerial engagement fought between June 3 and 7, 1942. Widely considered a turning point in World War II’s Pacific theater, Midway found the Imperial Japanese Navy’s offensive capabilities routed after six months of success against the Americans. As Frank Blazich, lead curator of military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, explains, the battle leveled the playing field, giving U.S. forces “breathing room and time to go on the offensive” in campaigns such as Guadalcanal.

Midway, a new movie from director Roland Emmerich, known best for disaster spectacles like The Day After Tomorrow, traces the trajectory of the early Pacific campaign from the December 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Halsey-Doolittle Raid in April 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea in May of that same year, and, finally, Midway itself.

Ed Skrein (left) and Luke Kleintank (right) play dive bombers Dick Best and Clarence Dickinson. (Reiner Bajo/Lionsgate)

Traditional military lore suggests a Japanese victory at Midway would have left the U.S. West Coast vulnerable to invasion, freeing the imperial fleet to strike at will. The movie’s trailer outlines this concern in apt, albeit highly dramatic, terms. Shots of Japanese pilots and their would-be American victims flash across the screen as a voiceover declares, “If we lose, then [the] Japanese own the West Coast. Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles will burn.”

The alternative to this outcome, says Admiral Chester Nimitz, played by Woody Harrelson in the film, is simple: “We need to throw a punch so they know what it feels like to be hit.”

According to the National WWII Museum, Japan targeted Midway in hopes of destroying the U.S. Pacific Fleet and using the atoll as a base for future military operations in the region. (Formally annexed in 1867, Midway had long been a strategic asset for the United States, and in 1940, it became a naval air base.) Although the attack on Pearl Harbor had crippled the U.S. Navy, destroying three battleships, 18 assorted vessels and 118 aircraft, the Doolittle Raid—a bombing raid on the Japanese mainland—and the Battle of the Coral Sea—a four-day naval and aerial skirmish that left the Imperial Navy’s fleet weakened ahead of the upcoming clash at Midway—showed Japan the American carrier force was, in Blazich’s words, “still a potent threat.”

Cryptanalysts and linguists led by Commander Joseph Rochefort (played by Brennan Brown in the film) broke the Japanese Navy’s main operational code in March 1942, enabling the American intelligence unit—nicknamed Station Hypo—to track the enemy’s plans for an invasion of the still-unidentified “AF.” Rochefort was convinced “AF” stood for Midway, but his superiors in Washington disagreed. To prove his suspicions, Rochefort devised the “low supplies” ruse, confirming “AF”’s identity and spurring the Navy to take decisive counter-action.

Per the Naval History and Heritage Command, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa), commander of Japan’s imperial fleet, grounded his strategy in the assumption that an attack on Midway would force the U.S. to send reinforcements from Pearl Harbor, leaving the American fleet vulnerable to a joint strike by Japanese carrier and battleship forces lying in wait.

“If successful, the plan would effectively eliminate the Pacific Fleet for at least a year,” the NHHC notes, “and provide a forward outpost from which ample warning of any future threat by the United States would come.”

Midway, in other words, was a “magnet to draw the American forces out,” says Blazich.

Japan’s plan had several fatal flaws, chief among them the fact that the U.S. was fully aware of how the invasion was supposed to unfold. As Blazich explains, “Yamamoto does all his planning on intentions of what he believes the Americans will do rather than on our capabilities”—a risky strategy made all the more damaging by the intelligence breach. The Japanese were also under the impression that the U.S.S. Yorktown, an aircraft carrier damaged at Coral Sea, was out of commission in truth, the ship was patched up and ready for battle after just two days at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard.

Blazich emphasizes the fact that Japan’s fleet was built for offense, not defense, likening their Navy to a “boxer with a glass jaw that can throw a punch but not take a blow.” He also points out that the country’s top military officers tended to follow “tried and true” tactics rather than study and learn from previous battles.

“The Japanese,” he says, “are kind of doomed from the start.”

The first military engagement of the Battle of Midway took place during the afternoon of June 3, when a group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers launched an unsuccessful air attack on what a reconnaissance pilot had identified as the main Japanese fleet. The vessels—actually a separate invasion force targeting the nearby Aleutian Islands—escaped the encounter unscathed, and the actual fleet’s location remained hidden from the Americans until the following afternoon.

"Dauntless" dive bombers approach the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma on June 6, 1942. (National Archives) The U.S.S. Yorktown was struck by Japanese torpedo bombers during a mid-afternoon attack on June 4. (National Archives) Ensign Leif Larsen and rear gunner John F. Gardener in their Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless bombers (U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

In the early morning hours of June 4, Japan deployed 108 warplanes from four aircraft carriers in the vicinity: the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu. Although the Japanese inflicted serious damage on both the responding American fighters and the U.S. base at Midway, the island’s airfield and runways remained in play. The Americans counterattacked with 41 torpedo bombers flown directly toward the four Japanese carriers.

“Those men went into this fight knowing that it was very likely they would never come home,” says Laura Lawfer Orr, a historian at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. “Their [Douglas TBD-1 Devastators] were obsolete. They had to fly incredibly slowly … [and] very close to the water. And they had torpedoes that, most of the time, did not work.”

In just minutes, Japanese ships and warplanes had shot down 35 of the 41 Devastators. As writer Tom Powers explains for the Capital Gazette, the torpedo bombers were “sitting ducks for fierce, incessant fire from shipboard batteries and the attacks of the swift, agile defending aircraft.” Despite sustaining such high losses, none of the Devastators scored a hit on the Japanese.

Ensign George Gay, a pilot in the U.S.S. Hornet’s Torpedo Squadron 8, was the sole survivor of his 30-man aircrew. According to an NHHC blog post written by Blazich in 2017, Gay (Brandon Sklenar) crash landed in the Pacific after a showdown with five Japanese fighters. “Wounded, alone and surrounded,” he endured 30 hours adrift before finally being rescued. Today, the khaki flying jacket Gay wore during his ordeal is on view in the American History Museum’s “Price of Freedom” exhibition.

Around the time of the Americans’ failed torpedo assault, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo—operating under the erroneous assumption that no U.S. carriers were in the vicinity—rearmed the Japanese air fleet, swapping the planes’ torpedoes for land bombs needed to attack the base at Midway a second time. But in the midst of rearmament, Nagumo received an alarming report: A scout plane had spotted American ships just east of the atoll.

The Japanese switched gears once again, readying torpedo bombers for an assault on the American naval units. In the ensuing confusion, sailors left unsecured ordnance, as well as fueled and armed aircraft, scattered across the four carriers’ decks.

Black smoke pours from the U.S.S. Yorktown on June 4, 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

On the American side of the fray, 32 dive bombers stationed on the Enterprise and led by Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) pursued the Japanese fleet despite running perilously low on fuel. Dick Best (Ed Skrein), commander of Bombing Squadron 6, was among the pilots participating in the mission.

Unlike torpedo bombers, who had to fly low and slow without any guarantee of scoring a hit or even delivering a working bomb, dive bombers plummeted down from heights of 20,000 feet, flying at speeds of around 275 miles per hour before aiming their bombs directly at targets.

“Dive bombing was a death defying ride of terror,” says Orr in Battle of Midway: The True Story, a new Smithsonian Channel documentary premiering Monday, November 11 at 8 p.m . “It’s basically like a game of chicken that a pilot is playing with the ocean itself. … A huge ship is going to appear about the size of a ladybug on the tip of a shoe, so it’s tiny.”

The Enterprise bombers’ first wave of attack took out the Kaga and the Akagi, both of which exploded in flames from the excess ordnance and fuel onboard. Dive bombers with the Yorktown, meanwhile, struck the Soryu, leaving the Japanese fleet with just one carrier: the Hiryu.

Close to noon, dive bombers from the Hiryu retaliated, hitting the Yorktown with three separate strikes that damaged the carrier but did not disable it. Later in the afternoon, however, a pair of torpedoes hit the partially repaired Yorktown, and at 2:55 p.m., Captain Elliott Buckmaster ordered his crew to abandon ship.

Dusty Kleiss is seated second from the right in this photograph of the U.S.S. Enterprise's Scouting Squadron Six. (William T. Barr/U.S. Navy)

Around 3:30 p.m., American dive bombers tracked down the Hiryu and struck the vessel with at least four bombs. Rather than continuing strikes on the remainder of the Japanese fleet, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (Jake Weber) opted to pull back. In doing so, Blazich explains, “He preserves his own force while really destroying Japanese offensive capability.”

Over the next several days, U.S. troops continued their assault on the Japanese Navy, attacking ships including the Mikuma and Mogami cruisers and the Asashio and Arashio destroyers. By the time hostilities ended on June 7, the Japanese had lost 3,057 men, four carriers, one cruiser and hundreds of aircraft. The U.S., comparatively, lost 362 men, one carrier, one destroyer and 144 aircraft.

Best and Dusty Kleiss, a bomber from the Enterprise's Scouting Squadron Six, were the only pilots to score strikes on two different Japanese carriers at Midway. Kleiss—whose exploits are at the center of the Smithsonian Channel documentary—scored yet another hit on June 6, sinking the Japanese cruiser Mikuma and upping his total to three successful strikes.

In Midway's trailer, Admiral Chester Nimitz, played by Woody Harrelson, says, "We need to throw a punch so they know what it feels like to be hit." (Lionsgate)

George Gay, the downed torpedo bomber memorialized at the American History Museum, watched this decisive action from the water. He later recalled, “The carriers during the day resembled a very large oil-field fire. … Billowing big red flames belched out of this black smoke, . and I was sitting in the water hollering hooray, hooray.”

The U.S. victory significantly curbed Japan’s offensive capabilities, paving the way for American counteroffensive strikes like the Guadalcanal Campaign in August 1942—and shifting the tide of the war strictly in the Allies’ favor.

Still, Blazich says, Midway was far from a “miracle” win ensured by plucky pilots fighting against all odds. “Midway is a really decisive battle,” the historian adds, “. an incredible victory.

But the playing field was more level than most think: While historian Gordon W. Prange’s Miracle at Midway suggests the Americans’ naval forces were “inferior numerically to the Japanese,” Blazich argues that the combined number of American aircraft based on carriers and the atoll itself actually afforded the U.S. “a degree of numerical parity, if not slight superiority,” versus the divided ranks of the Imperial Japanese Navy . (Yamamoto, fearful of revealing the strength of his forces too early in the battle, had ordered his main fleet of battleships and cruisers to trail several hundred miles behind Nagumo’s carriers.)

Naval historians Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully’s Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway deconstructs central myths surrounding the battle, including notions of Japan’s peerless strategic superiority. Crucially, Parshall and Tully write, “The imperial fleet committed a series of irretrievable strategic and operational mistakes that seem almost inexplicable. In so doing, it doomed its matchless carrier force to premature ruin.”

George Gay's khaki flying jacket is on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. (NMNH)

Luck certainly played a part in the Americans’ victory, but as Orr says in an interview, attributing the win entirely to chance “doesn’t give agency to the people who fought” at Midway. The “training and perseverance” of U.S. pilots contributed significantly, she says, as did “individual initiative,” according to Blazich. Ultimately, the Americans’ intelligence coup, the intrinsic doctrinal and philosophical weaknesses of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and factors from spur-of-the-moment decision-making to circumstance and skill all contributed to the battle’s outcome.

Orr says she hopes Midway the movie reveals the “personal side” of the battle. “History is written from the top down,” she explains, “and so you see the stories of Admiral Nimitz, [Frank Jack] Fletcher and Spruance, but you don’t always see the stories of the men themselves, the pilots and the rear seat gunners who are doing the work.”

Take, for instance, aviation machinist mate Bruno Gaido, portrayed by Nick Jonas: In February 1942, the rear gunner was promoted from third to first class after he singlehandedly saved the Enterprise from a Japanese bomber by jumping into a parked Dauntless dive bomber and aiming its machine gun at the enemy plane. During the Battle of Midway, Gaido served as a rear gunner in Scouting Squadron 6, working with pilot Frank O’Flaherty to attack the Japanese carriers. But the pair’s plane ran out of fuel, leaving Gaido and O’Flaherty stranded in the Pacific. Japanese troops later drowned both men after interrogating them for information on the U.S. fleet.

Blazich cherishes the fact that the museum has George Gay’s khaki flying jacket on display. He identifies it as one of his favorite artifacts in the collection, saying, “To the uninformed you ignore it, and to the informed, you almost venerate it [as] the amazing witness to history it is.”


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