The Dauntless played a starring role in the war in the Pacific. The SBD (“Scout Bomber Douglas”) was the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps scout plane and dive-bomber from 1940 to 1944. They first saw action at Pearl Harbor flying off the USS Enterprise, but are best remembered as the bomber that delivered the fatal blows to Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. In total, the Dauntless sank more enemy shipping than any other Allied bomber.
From Pearl Harbor through April 1944, SBDs flew 1,189,473 operational hours, with 25 percent flown off aircraft carriers. SBDs sank six Japanese carriers, 14 enemy cruisers, six destroyers, 15 transports or cargo ships and scores of lesser craft.
The SBD had long range, good handling characteristics, maneuverability, potent bomb load capacity, great diving characteristics, defensive armament and ruggedness. Their two forward-firing machine guns and one or two rear flexible-mount machine guns were effective against the lightly-built Japanese fighters.
The SBD’s most important contribution to the American war effort 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 the Midway bombardment group of four heavy cruisers, heavily damaging two of them, the Mikuma so badly that she had to be scuttled.
The USMC carrier-borne squadrons were also effective, especially when escorted by their Grumman F4F Wildcat teammates. The success of dive-bombing was due to two important circumstances:
The Japanese carriers were vulnerable, readying bombers for battle, with full fuel hoses and armed ordnance strewn across the hangar decks.
The torpedo aircraft squadrons from American carriers and Midway Atoll drew the Japanese fighter cover away, allowing the SBDs to attack freely.
SBDs played a major role in the six-months long Guadalcanal campaign, operating off carriers and from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. They were lethal to Japanese ships that failed to clear the slot by daylight. Losses inflicted included the carrier Ryūjō, sunk near the Solomon Islands, and three other carriers badly damaged. SBDs sank a cruiser and nine transports during the decisive naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
During the war in the Pacific, the SBD’s strengths and weaknesses became evident. While the American strength was dive bombing, the Japanese relied on their Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bombers, which were so destructive at Pearl Harbor.
In the Atlantic Ocean the SBD saw action in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. SBDs flew from the USS Ranger and escort carriers. Eleven months later, in Operation Leader, the SBDs made their European debut flying from the Ranger to attack Nazi German shipping around Bodo, Norway.
By 1944 the U.S. Navy began replacing the SBD with the more powerful SB2C Helldiver. The Battle of the Philippine Sea was the last major engagement for the SBDs. Marine squadrons continued to fly SBDs until the end of the war. Although the Curtiss Helldiver had a more powerful engine, a higher maximum speed and could carry nearly a thousand pounds more in bomb load, many of the dive bomber pilots preferred the SBD, which was lighter and had better low-speed handling characteristics, which were critical for carrier landings.