The WW2 Pacific Treasures of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham Part 20: The SBD Dauntless wrecks of Kwajalein lagoon

Aircraft wrecks, WW2, WW2 Pacific Treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos, text and research submitted by Dan Farnham, used by permission

Designed in 1938, the SBD ‘Dauntless’ became one of the best-known US naval aircraft of World War II. Considered obsolete when American entered World War II in late 1941, the SBD ended up sinking more enemy ships in the Pacific than any other Allied plane.

SBD’s being manufactured at the Douglas plant in El Segundo, California in 1943
SBD’s being manufactured at the Douglas plant in El Segundo, California in 1943

A total of 5,936 SBD’s were built by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation before the end of World War II, and the SBD would become the standard by which all other carrier-borne dive bombers would be judged.

‘SBD’ stands for ‘Scout, Bomber,’ and the ‘D’ was the letter assigned by the US Navy to all aircraft built by Douglas. In a play on the SBD designation, the Dauntless was sometimes called the “Slow But Deadly”. The SBD carried two crewmen- a pilot, and a rear-gunner who doubled as the radioman.

Bomb-laden SBD’s prepare for takeoff from the USS Enterprise (CV-6) on Feb. 1, 1942 during the first U.S. strike on Kwajalein Atoll.
Bomb-laden SBD’s prepare for takeoff from the USS Enterprise (CV-6) on Feb. 1, 1942 during the first U.S. strike on Kwajalein Atoll.

The SBD was armed with a pair of .50 caliber guns in the nose. Early versions of the SBD had a single .30 caliber rear machine gun on a flexible mount, while later versions carried twin .30’s.

The SBD could typically carry either a 500-pound or 1,000-pound bomb under the center of the fuselage, as well as a 250-pound bomb under each wing, although the underwing bomb load varied with improved versions of the plane.

Kwajalein offers a unique diving experience into WW2 wrecks!
Kwajalein offers a unique diving experience into WW2 history!

The most distinctive feature of the SBD were the perforated dive flaps which took up much of the trailing edge of the wing, with another section below the fuselage.

SBD-5 Dauntlesses have just returned to Kwajalein Island following an anti-submarine patrol in March 1944.
SBD-5 Dauntlesses have just returned to Kwajalein Island following an anti-submarine patrol in March 1944.

The flaps along the trailing edge of the wings were split into two halves, and were deployed above and below the wing to act as brakes when the plane was in its attack dive.

For takeoff and landing, the lower halves were dropped to act as conventional flaps. The perforations allowed enough air past the flaps to keep the plane stable in its 70-degree, 276 mph attack dive.

An SBD-5 returns to Roi Island following a strike on a bypassed atoll in 1944.
An SBD-5 returns to Roi Island following a strike on a bypassed atoll in 1944. Note the perforated dive flaps.

The action that would cement the SBD’s place in history took place on June 4, 1942 during the Battle of Midway.

That was when SBD’s from the USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise, and USS Hornet sank four of the largest and best aircraft carriers in the Japanese fleet, wiping out a large part of the cream of Japanese naval aviation.

It was a blow from which the Japanese Navy would never recover.

SBD_squadron_chart_Kwajalein_Atoll

The major history of the SBD throughout the rest of the war is well-documented, and I will focus the rest of this article on SBD operations at Kwajalein Atoll.

Wingless and nose down, this SBD wrote history during WW2.
Wingless and nose down, this SBD wrote history during WW2.

SBD’s took part in several attacks on Kwajalein Atoll during the war. The first one was on February 1, 1942, just under two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

SBD’s from the USS Enterprise (CV-6) attacked the airbase at Roi Island and shipping in the anchorage at Kwajalein Island.

Author Dan Farnham films one of the many SBD wrecks on the lagoon bottom at Kwajalein Atoll. Behind it is another nosed-in SBD. (photo by Jessica Holland, used by permission)
Author Dan Farnham films one of the many SBD wrecks on the lagoon bottom at Kwajalein Atoll. Behind it is another nosed-in SBD. (Photo by Jessica Holland, used by permission)

The second attack was on December 4, 1943 when a large carrier task force again struck Kwajalein Atoll, in a softening-up attack ahead of Operation Flintlock the following month. SBD’s were responsible for sinking a number of the vessels that now lie on the lagoon bottom.

Descending into the welcoming waters of Kwajalein and seeing WW2 aviation history right before your eyes!
Descending into the welcoming waters of Kwajalein and seeing WW2 aviation history right before your eyes!

During this attack, an SBD-5 from VB-16 was lost while dive-bombing a Japanese cruiser anchored in the lagoon about two miles southwest of Roi Island.

SBD wreck at the seabed of Kwajalein lagoon, offering unique photo opportunities to divers.
SBD wreck at the seabed of Kwajalein lagoon, offering unique photo opportunities to divers.

The plane was flown by Lt. William Fitch, with Aviation Radioman 1st Class John Linson as the rear-gunner. The plane was observed to pull partway out of its dive, roll over onto its back, and crash into the lagoon. Both men were subsequently listed as missing in action, and their plane is the subject of a coming search effort by the Kwajalein MIA Project.

During the December 4, 1943 strike on Kwajalein Atoll, a SBD-5 of VB-16 was lost while dive-bombing the Japanese cruiser IJN Isuzu. Lt. William Fitch (at left) and Aviation Radioman 1st Class John Linson (wearing aircrew wings in the wartime photo with his two brothers) were the crew lost when the plane crashed into the lagoon. (photos courtesy of the Fitch and Linson families, used by permission)
During the December 4, 1943 strike on Kwajalein Atoll, a SBD-5 of VB-16 was lost while dive-bombing the Japanese cruiser IJN Isuzu. Lt. William Fitch (at left) and Aviation Radioman 1st Class John Linson (wearing aircrew wings in the wartime photo with his two brothers) were the crew lost when the plane crashed into the lagoon. (Photos courtesy of the Fitch and Linson families, used by permission)

And SBD’s were present in force for Operation Flintlock, which was the invasion and seizure of the atoll the following month.

SBD’s carried out attacks on shipping, sinking more vessels in the lagoon, as well as carrying out attacks on targets located on several of the islands within the atoll.

Divers examine one of the many SBD wrecks at the seabed of the Kwajalein Atoll lagoon. This specific aircraft wreck sits nose down!
Divers examine one of the many SBD wrecks at the seabed of the Kwajalein Atoll lagoon. This specific aircraft wreck sits nose down!

Three SBD’s, two from the USS Suwanee (CVE-27) and one from the USS Chenango (CVE-28), were lost when they collided with each other while getting into position to dive bomb a target on Ennugarrett Island, just to the southeast of Namur Island.

The most SBD’s to be seen in one dive are at a site called ’13 SBDs’ or ’13 Planes’.
The most SBD’s to be seen in one dive are at a site called ’13 SBDs’ or ’13 Planes’.

All three SBD’s came down in the lagoon, and one of the rear gunners, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class Phillip Barton, was listed as missing in action following the incident. The three planes will be the focus of future search by the Kwajalein MIA Project.

Aviation Radioman 2nd Class Phillip Barton was lost when the SBD-5 he was flying in was lost on January 31, 1944 in a collision with two other SBD’s as they approached a target southwest of Namur Island.
Aviation Radioman 2nd Class Phillip Barton was lost when the SBD-5 he was flying in was lost on January 31, 1944 in a collision with two other SBD’s as they approached a target southwest of Namur Island.

Following Operation Flintlock, and until the end of the war, several squadrons operated SBD’s from both Kwajalein Island and Roi Island.

They were responsible for striking targets on several islands and atolls which had been bypassed by American forces and still held Japanese garrisons.

A diver films the SBD’s at the ’13 SBDs’ dive site
A diver films the SBD’s at the ’13 SBDs’ dive site

Some of the SBD’s operating at Kwajalein Atoll were gradually replaced by SB2C Helldivers, and a directive issued in mid-1945 stated that all models of SBD’s in service overseas were to be disposed of by local aircraft servicing units.

Some of the SBD wrecks lie upside down
Some of the SBD wrecks lie upside down

The research I’ve done shows that dozens of SBD’s were stricken in February, March, April and June of 1945 by Combat Aircraft Service Unit (Forward) #20, which was the aircraft servicing unit stationed on Roi.

Some of the SBD wrecks are missing their wings
Some of the SBD wrecks are missing their wings

Many of them were loaded onto barges and take out into the lagoon, and unceremoniously shoved into the water to take their place among other planes and war relics no longer needed.

Covered in marine growth and coral, the pilot’s seat and control stick of this nose-down SBD can still be seen.
Covered in marine growth and coral, the pilot’s seat and control stick of this nose-down SBD can still be seen.

The ‘aircraft graveyard’ near Mellu Island contains the wrecks of many SBD’s, by far the most of any aircraft type in the area.

The rear gunner’s seat and gun ring mount can still be seen on this SBD wreck
The rear gunner’s seat and gun ring mount can still be seen on this SBD wreck

The SBD’s lie on the lagoon bottom in a variety of poses- some upright, some are on their nose, and some are upside down.

Some of the SBD’s are missing their wings, and all of them I’ve seen so far are missing their engines. Several of them have propellers, engine cowling sections, and other spare parts and debris dumped in the cockpits.

Most of the instruments were removed from the panels of the SBD’s before they were dumped. A ‘Crown of Thorns’ has taken up residence on the remnants of this SBD’s instrument panel.
Most of the instruments were removed from the panels of the SBD’s before they were dumped. A ‘Crown of Thorns’ has taken up residence on the remnants of this SBD’s instrument panel.

The section of the ‘aircraft graveyard’ where you can see the most SBD’s in one dive is called ’13 Planes’. The name says it all- thirteen SBD’s can be seen in one dive.

The canopy of an SBD
The canopy of an SBD

A couple of them still have their Yagi antennas under the wings, which is interesting because no surviving SBD’s above water still have them. In other areas of the aircraft graveyard, anywhere from one to five SBD’s can be seen in a single dive, often near other aircraft types which were also dumped into the lagoon.

A rear view of a Dauntless
A rear view of a Dauntless

The fact that so many SBD’s can be seen on the lagoon bottom, mixed in with other types of U.S. naval aircraft, means that Kwajalein Atoll divers have a rare glimpse into World War II naval aviation which is not seen in any other dive location in the world.

Divers hover around a nose down Dauntless.
Divers hover around a nose down Dauntless.

Besides the US Navy and Marine Corps, SBD’s also served for a limited time in the US Army Air Force, where they carried the designation A-24 Banshee. SBD’s were also operated by Chile, France, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

A Dauntless as if ready to take off for another mission.
A Dauntless as if ready to take off for another mission.

Of the 5,936 SBD’s built, many survive as static displays in museums and airports around the United States, and one is displayed in an “as found” condition at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

Divers explore a Dauntless in Kwajalein lagoon.
Divers explore a Dauntless in Kwajalein lagoon.

At least four SBD’s have been restored to airworthy condition in the U.S., as well as two A-24’s which are painted as SBD’s. The surviving SBD’s, whether on display or in the air, serve as a lasting reminder and tribute to the crews who flew and maintained them during World War II.

Dumped in Kwajalein laggon, several SBD's landed nose down on the sandy seabed.
Dumped in Kwajalein laggon, several SBD’s landed nose down on the sandy seabed.