How Dive-Bomber Aircraft Won the War in the Pacific

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When Japanese aircraft swooped over Pearl Harbor, dive-bombers were among the primary planes that devastated the harbor. These were planes that could dive toward and take out land and naval targets at lower altitudes than more standard aircraft. At a time when the accuracy of aircraft bombs was somewhat short of the 100% mark, they were an invaluable plane to have for the carrier fleets in the Pacific. Fortunately for the Allies they retained the U.S. Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor, and their own dive-bombers would be vital to eventual victory.

The primary Allied dive-bomber of the U.S. Pacific Fleet up until 1944 was the SBD Dauntless. This had more impact in the Pacific War than any other Allied or Japanese dive-bomber. Almost six thousand of these planes were built during the period as they were fairly vital to the Allied victories in the Pacific.

Among the early naval encounters that the SBD Dauntless provided air support for was the Battle of Coral Sea. Whilst this battle was not exactly a big victory for the Allies, it was here that the first Japanese carriers were lost in combat. During the battle the Dauntless wiped out the Japanese Shoho aircraft carrier.

A U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber of bombing squadron VB-5 from the USS Yorktown (CV-10) over Wake Island, 5 or 6 October 1943. Photographed by LT Charles Kerlee of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit commanded by LCDR Edward Steichen.

A U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber of bombing squadron VB-5 from the USS Yorktown (CV-10) over Wake Island, 5 or 6 October 1943. Photographed by LT Charles Kerlee of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit commanded by LCDR Edward Steichen.

U.S. Navy aircraft from Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12) landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3). A Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless is in the foreground, Grumman F6F-3 Hellcats are landing.

U.S. Navy aircraft from Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12) landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3). A Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless is in the foreground, Grumman F6F-3 Hellcats are landing.

It was at Midway where the SBD Dauntless dive-bomber won a much more vital victory for the U.S. Navy. As the Japanese armada approached Midway Island, three U.S. aircraft carriers, loaded with SBD aircraft, intercepted it. Four Japanese aircraft carriers came within range of a handful of SBD planes that swooped from the clouds, setting three of them ablaze. The Japanese carriers could not be salvaged, and their crews abandoned ship. Only one remained, but this too would be lost during the battle as further dive-bombers bombarded the aircraft carrier.

In just a single day the dive-bomber had devastated the IJN’s carrier fleet. Aside from the loss of the four carriers, they had lost most of the planes that were aboard their decks. Midway Island itself was also held as the Japanese invasion fleet withdrew.

What was left of the Japanese carrier fleet would be called up for further naval support at Guadalcanal and the Solomons. However, U.S. aircraft carriers and the SBD Dauntless were also sent, and they wiped out plenty of Japanese shipping in the region. Without adequate reinforcements and resupply the Japanese army eventually withdrew from Guadalcanal in 1943.

Two Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers in flight in 1943.

Two Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers in flight in 1943.

When the SB2C replaced the SBD Dauntless, the Allies had a more precise dive-bomber. Unlike the SBD the SB2C was equipped with air-to-ground rockets that ensured more precise strikes at naval and land targets. The aircraft could also reach greater maximum speeds than the SBD.

The SB2C played its parts in further Allied naval victories at the Philippine Sea and then Leyte Gulf in 1944. The IJN sent the Yamato-class battleships to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which certainly eclipsed alternative Allied surface fleet ships. However, SB2C dive-bombers, alongside torpedo-bomb planes, wiped out both the Musashi and later the Yamato as it sailed toward Okinawa.

Dive-bomber aircraft also provided support for airstrikes over land targets. The Truk Raid, which wiped out the Japanese naval base located there, included an assortment of dive-bomber planes. These planes were also sent for tactical airstrikes at Japanese airfields around the home islands.

After the Pacific War dive-bomber aircraft became increasingly outmoded. They quickly disappeared from U.S. carrier decks in the postwar period as more precise strike aircraft were constructed. They were essential to the Allies in the Pacific as aircraft such as the SBD Dauntless wiped out more Japanese shipping than any other.

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About Author

Matthew is the author of the book Battles of the Pacific War 1941 - 1945. This is a book that covers nine of the largest land and naval battles in the Pacific Theater.

1 Comment

  1. I’m told pilots were not enamored by the SB2C and lobbied hard to keep the SBD Dauntless. This article is interesting but not superior writing quality.

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