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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.