Douglass SBD-5 Dauntless

Even after retirement from fleet carriers the SBD continued to provide service to the end of the War.

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Let’s take a look at an example in Marine service in the later phase of the type’s career.

Externally the Dauntless changed little from SBD-1 to SBD-6.  Every sub-type used an engine of the R-1820 family.  Later versions had more power, going from 1000 HP to 1350 HP for the SBD-6. There were improvements in protection (armor and self-sealing tanks), electric system and accessories, and defensive gun. But apart from a change in air intakes and propeller there was little to tell them apart.

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The type was well loved by pilots.  Pilot Richard Best of VB-6 said his only complaint was he disliked the sound of the Cyclone engine (Wasp engines sounded smoother!).  The Navy however, considered the type obsolete at the start of the War.  Bigger, more powerful types (mainly the Helldiver, but the post-War Skyraider was in planning too) with higher speed and heavier payloads were on the way.  Perhaps the biggest knock against the SBD was just that it lacked folding wings, therefore taking too much deck and hanger space on an aircraft carrier.
But Curtiss’ SB2C proved troublesome and had a lengthy development process.  That meant the venerable Dauntless remained in fleet service into 1944, with the Battle of the Philippine Sea (6/1944) being its last carrier battle.  It accounted for more Japanese shipping than any other aircraft type by a wide margin.  As a dive bomber it was also fully aerobatic which led to a number of air-to-air kills as well.

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SBD-3 and SBD-5 Dauntless.  Propeller and cowling are the most noticeable differences.  The -3 had a Hamilton Standard variable pitch, they switched to a Hamilton Standard constant speed in the -4.  On the -5, the external air intake on top of the cowling was integrated into the cowling.  Shame, I think it looked better with the scoop!  On other difference, the -3 here has a single .30 for the rear gunner; they switched to a twin .30 during -3 production and that’s what is seen here on the -5.

The Marine Corps had a number of Dauntless squadrons throughout, in fact the SBD-1 was a wholly Marine variant.  And when the Navy was done with the type it continued on as a Marine.  Through 1944 they continued to pound bypassed Japanese positions in the Solomons and Marshalls.  They also provided close support through the Marianas campaign.  At the end of 1944 seven Marine Dauntless squadrons found themselves shipped to the Philippines to provide close support in MacArthur’s on going campaign.  Supposedly Army troops had concerns about getting close support from Marines, but the concerns didn’t last long.  The Marine Dauntlesses routinely took targets within 300 yds of Army positions, occasionally much closer.  Even taking the responsibility for covering the Army’s flanks on occasion.  The Marines claimed this as a first, and it was in the Pacific, but 9th Air Force routinely provided this service in Europe as well.
As far as I can tell, the local Army Air Force (5th Air Force) was mostly concerned with anti-shipping and airfield suppression.  In New Guinea, I believe, most close support was provided by the Australians.  So in the Philippines it quickly became clear something was missing which led to the Marines being called.  Given how jealous MacArthur was of the Marines and any publicity they got it makes me wonder just how this ever came to be.  Likely some wrangling and horse trading at levels beneath his notice.
But it was as tactical support in the Philippines that had the Dauntless still flying combat missions to VJ Day.

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An SBD of VMSB-231 flying over the Marshall Islands in June 1944.  All squadron aircraft carried the “Ace of Spades” patch as shown. (photo via Wikipedia)

This particular aircraft was assigned to VMSB-231 in the Marshall Islands, late 1944.  It was flown by the squadron commander, Major Elmer Glidden.  As a Captain, he was a section leader in VMSB-241 at Midway Is in June 1942.  He won the first of two wartime Navy Crosses for his actions there.  He is considered to have the most combat dives of any American pilot with 107.
It is the Accurate Miniatures kit with Super Scale Decals.  The kit is from the 1990s.  When it first came out it was considered, by some, to be the best scale model kit ever made.  It clearly isn’t now, but its still interesting to compare state of the art 25 years apart.  Surface detail is beautiful.  It has some surprisingly advanced features, like the way the landing strut and cover self align for their distinctive complex angles.  But it has a few fails, the biggest and most maddening to me is the dive flaps.  They are attached by a simple butt join.  No doubt this is very fragile!  I think I had to (re)attach them five times!  The last time, I was consciously thinking “now don’t pick it up near that flap” and proceeded to grasp the plane by the dive flap on the other wing!  Being a stupid modeler doesn’t help the situation…
Next time I build one I’ll look at either building up a ledge to rest them on or maybe make my own pins for them.
Overall still a very nice kit, with just a few idiosyncrasies.

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Corsair would have served in Marine air groups at the end of the War.  The Corsair actually can carry a bigger bomb load, but it would drop with slightly less accuracy.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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10 Responses to Douglass SBD-5 Dauntless

  1. jfwknifton says:

    As always, very informative.

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Same comment as John…

  3. Very interesting. I had the Dauntless down as a duff aeroplane. I’m enlightened!

  4. John says:

    Barret Tilmans book on the SBD taught me about this plane. In 1942 the Dauntless sank more tonnage than any other cause, air, sea or undersea.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah that’s right. And the most effective anti-shipping aircraft all the way through.
      I had that same book open in front of me while working on this post!

  5. Ernie Davis says:

    I think it is interesting that the Navy considered almost the entire carrier fleet obsolete at the beginning of the war, with some reason, but the Dauntless remained both in service and a favorite of the pilots for a lot longer than the others. Granted the Devastator suffered from defective armament, but it was still a remarkably poor platform for that poor armament. or at the very least they were a remarkably poor fit. The Wildcat of course compensated for being outperformed with tactics and it’s rugged dependability and so never suffered the Devastator’s fate.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah that is interesting. Maybe it was just a matter of being far-sighted enough to recognize the pace of change. And with new, bigger engines (R-2600, R-2800) entering production they knew they needed planes that used them.

      I think the Dauntless was a little bit of a happy surprise. It was a development of the earlier Northrup BT-1. Initially it was even tagged “BT-2”, but when Jack Northrup let his division of Douglass revert to corporate control in favor of launching his own company, the designation was changed to reflect the corporate change. Even though head designer Ed Heinemann stayed with the project throughout. Sorry, distracted… But the original BT-1 was not loved by pilots. It had some vicious handling quirks and was badly underpowered. So the SBD was sort of a major tweak of an existing, flawed design. So often such flawed designs seem to just stay badly flawed. But the Dauntless is one of a handful of exceptions where seemingly vice was fixed. Well, except it went from severely underpowered to only slightly underpowered…

      Really good thing too. It meant there was time to iron out problems with its replacement. Unlike the Devastator where replacement was an urgency.

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