The Douglas SBD Dauntless was 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 U.S. Navy's main carrier-borne scout plane and dive bomber from mid-1940 through mid-1944. The SBD was also flown by the U.S. 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.
During its combat service, the SBD was an excellent naval scout plane and dive bomber. It possessed long range, good handling characteristics, maneuverability, potent bomb load capacity, great diving characteristics, defensive armament and ruggedness. One land-based variant of the SBD — in omitting the arrestor hook — was purpose-built for the U.S. Army Air Forces, as the A-24 Banshee.
U.S. Navy and Marine Corps SBDs saw their first action at Pearl Harbor, when most of the Marine Corps SBDs of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 232 (VMSB-232) were destroyed on the ground at Ewa Mooring Mast Field. Most U.S. Navy SBDs were operating with their carriers, which did not operate in close cooperation with the rest of the fleet. Most Navy SBDs at Pearl Harbor, like their Marine Corps counterparts, were destroyed on the ground. On 10 December 1941, SBDs from the Enterprise sank the Japanese submarine I-70.
In February–March 1942, SBDs from the carriers USS Lexington, USS Yorktown, and USS Enterprise took part in various raids on Japanese installations in the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall Islands, New Guinea, Rabaul, Wake Island, and Marcus Island. Later, SBDs painted to resemble Japanese aircraft appeared in the John Ford film December 7th (1943). A pair of SBDs fly over Enterprise. Saratoga and her plane guard destroyer are in the background, along with another flight of three aircraft.
The first major use of the SBD in combat was at the Battle of the Coral Sea where SBDs and TBD Devastators sank the Japanese light aircraft carrier (CVL) Shōhō and damaged the Japanese fleet carrier Shōkaku. SBDs were also used for antitorpedo combat air patrols (CAP) and these scored several victories against Japanese aircraft trying to attack the Lexington and the Yorktown.
Their relatively heavy gun armament—with two forward-firing .50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns and either one or two rear flexible-mount .30 in (7.62 mm) AN/M2 machine guns—was effective against the lightly-built Japanese fighters, and many pilots and gunners took aggressive attitudes to the fighters that attacked them. One pilot—Stanley "Swede" Vejtasa—was attacked by three A6M2 Zero fighters; he shot two of them down and cut off the wing of the third in a head-on pass with his wingtip.
The SBD's most important contribution to the American war effort, doubtless, came during the Battle of Midway in early June 1942. Four squadrons of Navy SBD dive bombers attacked and sank or fatally damaged all four Japanese fleet carriers present—three of them in the span of just six minutes (Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū and, later in the day, Hiryū). They also caught two straggling heavy cruisers of the Midway bombardment group of four, heavily damaging them, with the Mikuma eventually sinking.
At the Battle of Midway, Marine Corps SBDs were not as effective. One squadron, VMSB-241, flying from Midway Atoll, was not trained in the techniques of dive-bombing with their new Dauntlesses (having just partially converted from the SB2U Vindicator. Instead, its pilots resorted to the slower but easier glide bombing technique. This led to many of the SBDs being shot down, although one survivor from these attacks is now on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum and is the last surviving aircraft to fly in the battle. On the other hand, the carrier-borne squadrons were effective, especially when they were escorted by their Grumman F4F Wildcat teammates. The success of dive bombing was due to two important circumstances:
First, unlike American squadrons that attacked shortly before one at a time, allowing defending Japanese Zero fighters to concentrate on each squadron to shoot them down or drive them away from the carriers, three squadrons totaling 47 SBDs (VS-6, VB-6, and VB-3), one squadron of 12 TBD torpedo aircraft (VT-3), and six F4F fighters (from VF-3) all arrived simultaneously, with two of the SBD squadrons (VS-6 and VB-6) arriving from a different direction from the other squadrons. Without central fighter direction, the approximately 40 Zeros concentrated on the TBDs, with some fighting the F4Fs covering the TBDs, leaving the SBDs unhindered by fighter opposition in their approach and attack (although most of the TBDs were shot down).
Second, the Japanese carriers were at their most vulnerable, readying bombers for battle, with full fuel hoses and armed ordnance strewn across their hangar decks. This meant that even a single hit ignited uncontrollable fires.
SBDs played a major role in the Guadalcanal Campaign, operating off both American carriers and from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. SBDs attacked Japanese shipping throughout the campaign, and proved lethal to Japanese shipping that failed to clear the slot by daylight. Losses inflicted included the carrier Ryūjō, sunk near the Solomon Islands on 24 August. Three other Japanese carriers were damaged during the six-month campaign. SBDs sank a cruiser and nine transports during the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.