Douglass SBD-3 Dauntless

The US Navy’s famous workhorse of the early War period was just entering service as a combat ready type the summer before the US got into the War.

Let’s take a look at one from the transition period just before the start.

The origins of the Dauntless go back to 1935. Ed Heinemann ran a semi-independent team of designers attached to Northrup Corporation. When the Navy went looking for a new dive bomber, Heinemann came up with a modern aluminum mono-plane with retractable landing gear and perforated dive flaps. It was powered by a Pratt and Whitney R-1535 engine.
The type entered production as the BT-1. The wings and central fuselage showed much of the later Dauntless form already taking shape. But it was underpowered, the tail offered insufficient yaw control, and the first generation retractable landing gear was plainly not a mature design.

Northrup BT-1s in flight, 10/1939. The small engine, different tail, and cumbersome landing gear are all apparent at this angle![U.S. Navy dive bombers : Miami, Florida]

Ed Heinemann started an extensive redesign to fix the type’s shortcomings. It flew as the XBT-2. He switched to an R-1830 engine, better tail design, and much improved landing gear. The Navy liked the redesign a lot, and ordered it into production with mostly administrative changes. First, scouting was added to the job description; secondly, Ed Heinemann’s design section had been purchased by Douglass. So the XBT-2 was ordered into production as the SBD-1.
I’ve seen a couple versions of how that corporate transfer came about, the short answer would seem to involve a spat between Ed Heineman and Jack Northrup. So basically Heinemann’s whole section jumped ship to Douglass. But one of my sources suggests Douglass actually bought the entirety of a struggling Northrup, and Jack Northrup is the one who parted ways. But there was an active Northrup Corporation until 1994. So I’m not sure if it was an all new entity after 1939, or a reformed something or other. Suffice to say, it was messy, and is outside my area of expertise!

The first production variant of the new SBD, of course the “-1”, was built wholly for the Marine Corps. Like many pre-War types it did not include pilot armor or self-sealing fuel tanks. It was also fairly short range. After 57 were built for the Marines, 87 SBD-2 were built for the Navy. The main improvement the -2 offered was extra fuel tanks in the wings for improved range. The air intake above the engine was also smaller, I believe this is the only visual clue of the new model.
The new Dauntless was immediately popular with aircrew. It was mechanically reliable, stable in flight, an excellent dive bombing platform and fully aerobatic (that mostly means stressed for negative g).

The SBD entered service in 1940, at which time combat reports were coming in from Europe. It was quickly obvious a modern combat type would require crew armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. An SBD-3 was ordered to include those features. It began entering fleet service from mid-1941. As an aside, I’ll mention that those SBD-2 still in combat service after Pearl Harbor had crew armor added, but the fuel system was harder to fix and as late as the Battle of Midway several went down in flames because of that shortcoming.

Another big change came at the same time the SBD entered service. The inter-war yellow wings paint scheme came to an end. As the US Navy took on responsibilities for protecting all shipping in US waters (during the period of US Neutrality, the exact area of responsibility was enlarged several times) planes were repainted in Neutrality Patrol markings. This involved an overall Non-Specular Light Gray and enlarged US Insignia.

The colorful, pre-War yellow wings markings were a very elaborate heraldry. The colors would identify a plane by group, squadron, section, and position in section. In short, every plane in the fleet could be identified by exactly where it belonged on an individual basis. But hey, “2-S-9” actually contains all the same data; plus its easier to redo when the plane inevitably gets reassigned.

The Navy also conducted experiments to find more effective camouflage. Most famous were the Barclay experiments of 1940, a number of types in different schemes involving mostly blues and grays were tested in various disruptive patterns. This was the idea if a Navy Lieutenant, McClelland Barclay, a successful painter, illustrator, sculptor and jewelry designer who had entered the Navy in 1938. He was a 47 year old rookie, brought in to help with recruitment materials. Once the War started, he wanted to serve in combat; he did so in both Atlantic and Pacific, and lost his life in July 1943 aboard an LST transporting ammunition in the Solomon Islands. But in 1940 he was actively involved in research to either hide, or make aircraft harder to identify and track. Overall his camouflage schemes were found to be not very effective and difficult to maintain and were not adopted.
Many units took it upon themselves to experiment too. This involved mostly different blues, but several greens also were used. In particular, Scouting Two off the USS Lexington used a non-specular grey-green in September – October 1941 on at least one Dauntless that posed for pictures. Black and White pictures, but that is the inspiration for this build. This plane was not unique, several green machines in Navy use were seen along the West Coast during that year.
Of course the experimenting came to an end in November 1941 with a new directive of blue-grey over grey for all combat units. Several Navy and Marine aircraft had not been switched over yet at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, but that was remedied quickly and blue-grey would stay in use for almost a year and a half.

A Northrup BT-1 in a Barclay camouflage scheme. This is actually shockingly simple as Barclay schemes go! But it had the Dauntless connection… [photo via]
Camouflage experiments ended when the Navy adopted blue-grey over grey in November 1941.

This aircraft would have been a new SBD-3 in late 1941 so I kept weathering to a minimum. Now I need to confess, this was sort of a “left overs” project. Enough that we might call it a “hypothetical”. The kit is the Accurate Miniatures Dauntless, but its an SBD-2 I had no particular plans for. The only visual “tell” I know of between the -2 and -3 would be the defensive machine gun switched from a magazine to belt-fed on the -3. So I left the gun out, as often it was during peace-time. But I noticed the sprues between the -2 and -3 kits were numbered differently, so I’m presumably missing something. I *think* some of the panel lines were cut differently around the nose. But honestly I don’t know.
Of course during the War many aircraft lost the spinner caps off the propeller (I think maintenance crews quickly viewed such things as pointless), but 2-S-9 was photographed with all its pieces intact! Also by May, 1942 all SBDs in service were switching out the single defensive .30 for a twin mount; but of course that doesn’t apply here.
I suppose my color choice is also questionable. There were no color chips, or color photos that I’ve seen. VS-2 described the color as “grey-green”. But aviation photographer Peter Bowers (who took the photo) described it as a “dark green”, and no doubt his photo would tend to support that. But hey, I’m pretty sure it should match that 1943 spec “Sea Green” I had left over from my PT Boat build a couple years ago…
Like I said, left overs.

The green SBD photographed by Peter Bowers in 1941. There should be a “White 9” on the forward cowling, I’m assuming it was added after this photo was taken! But notice the defensive gun is not mounted. Also visible under the wing is a practice bomb dispenser; which I didn’t have (!), so I mounted pre-War yellow Ordnance. Looks good with the Green…
My model is determined to act just like a real SBD and loose its spinner cap.

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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6 Responses to Douglass SBD-3 Dauntless

  1. a gray says:

    Thank you for the interesting commentary and photographs of beautiful models.

  2. jfwknifton says:

    As always, a beautifully made example of a real workhorse of the Pacific War. I think that this was the type flown by George Bush, and I’m sure I’ve seen a video of him being rescued from a watery grave after he was shot down far from the carrier. That rescue might well have changed history enormously!!

    • atcDave says:

      No doubt about that! Although he was in an Avenger. I will concede the Navy bombers are hard to keep straight.

      Thank you as always for the kind words!

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