The Douglas Dauntless and Other Heroes of Midway

★ SBD Dauntless ★ The Dauntless was a dive bomber whose pilots joked that the initials SBD stood not for “Scout Bomber—Douglas” but for “Slow But Deadly.” Its top speed was a mere 255 mph, and historians have noted that the pilot-gunner pairs who sat back-to-back in the SBD were the ones deserving the label “dauntless.” They destroyed more enemy ships in the war than any other pilots.

With the world’s largest carrier fleet, the Japanese navy ruled the Pacific in the first half of 1942, a time when naval tactics were changing from ships pounding away with guns to aerial battles fought by carrier-based aircraft. At Midway, the opposing fleets never came within sight of each other.

Having been tipped off to Japanese plans by U.S. cryptographers, the Navy sent Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats from Midway to search hundreds of miles of ocean. It was a Catalina crew who spotted the Japanese fleet.

★ Consolidated PBY Catalina ★ Maybe the prettiest aircraft of World War II, the Catalina flying boat was a patrol bomber best remembered for spotting the Japanese fleet in advance of the Battle of Midway, but were also effective against submarines; Catalinas sank 40 subs.
★ Grumman F4F/FM-2 Wildcat ★ The first of the great Grumman Cats, the F4F Wildcat was slower than the Japanese Zero fighters pitted against it, but it was built stronger—one of the reasons Grumman earned the nickname “Iron Works.” American pilots overcame the Wildcat’s shortcomings with tactics, such as the Thatch Weave (developed by Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Thatch), a criss-cross pattern flown by a pair of F4Fs to cover each other against attackers.
★ TBD Devastator ★ Torpedo bombers were built to sink ships, and the Douglas TBD Devastator sank a few in the early rounds of the Pacific war. In the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, Devastators teamed up with Dauntless dive bombers to sink a Japanese carrier, but Devastators dropped their torpedoes at an altitude under 1,000 feet, and the slow bombers were vulnerable to Japanese fighters. After six months of combat, the Devastator was withdrawn from service. Not a single Devastator is on display today, though several have been located on the ocean floor, one off the coast of San Diego.

From three U.S. carriers, Grumman F4F Wildcats flew escort for the slower Douglas Devastator torpedo bombers and Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers, which would attack the Japanese ships. But timing the departures of these airplanes, with their different speeds and cruising altitudes, proved difficult. Whole squadrons of Wildcats wasted most of their fuel waiting for the slower airplanes to take off. Others got lost and had to return to the carrier without even sighting the enemy.

The Devastators were particularly easy prey, since they dropped their torpedoes while skimming as low as 100 feet over the water. The Wildcats did what they could against Japanese Zeros, but they were outnumbered, and their opponents’ climb rate was three times greater.  Of 41 Devastators launched, four made it back to their ships.

In the first three hours of the battle, not a single U.S. bomb or torpedo had hit a Japanese ship, despite eight separate attacks by a total of 94 airplanes. Then the tide turned. In an oral history recorded years later, Wildcat pilot Jimmy Thach recalled trying, with five other pilots, to hold off the Zeros: “The air was just like a beehive.... I was utterly convinced that we weren’t any of us coming back because there were still so many Zeros.... And then I saw a glint in the sun that looked like a beautiful silver waterfall. It was the dive-bombers coming in.” While Wildcats and Devastators had kept the Zeros busy, Dauntlesses from the Yorktown and Enterprise had gotten through.

In the space of eight minutes, Dauntless pilots dropped bombs that fatally damaged three of the four Japanese carriers. Japan’s navy never regained the upper hand.

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