During World War II, U.S. Navy bombing squadrons flew Helldiver dive-bombers against Japan from November 1943 to the war’s end in September 1945. After a prolonged development, about 30 Navy squadrons operated Helldivers aboard 13 carriers. Changes in carrier tactics, technology, and weapons made dive-bombing—delivering a bomb at a steep angle to increase accuracy—obsolete as the war progressed. The Helldiver was the last dive-bomber operated by the Navy and the last significant combat aircraft produced by Curtiss-Wright.
This Helldiver was completed in May 1945, but the war ended a few months later, and it never saw combat. From September through December 1945, Bombing Squadron (VB) 92 aboard the USS Lexington flew it in the western Pacific and occupied Japan. It served with various other Navy units until 1948 and entered the Museum collection in 1960.
A key component of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps doctrine from the interwar period to the end of World War II was dive bombing, which was the use of an aircraft to deliver a bomb at a steep angle to increase accuracy. U.S. Navy dive bomber squadrons flew Curtiss SB2C Helldivers against Imperial Japan beginning in November 1943 until the end of the war. Changes in carrier tactics, technology, and weapons made the dive bomber obsolescent as the war progressed making the Helldiver the last of the type operated by the U.S. Navy. The Helldiver is also the last significant combat aircraft produced by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.
The SB2C was the third carrier-based dive bomber called “Helldiver” and produced by Curtiss. “Hell diver” was a heroic and death-defying name for both pilots and aircraft in the popular American imagination beginning in the 1920s. The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production Hell Divers (1932), starring Clark Gable and Wallace Beery as rival aerial gunners, featured the first Helldiver, the F8C-4, which first served aboard USS Saratoga. Naval and Marine aviators flew F8C-4 and -5 and O2C-1 and -2 biplanes in both active and reserve squadrons through the 1930s. Curtiss reused the name for the SBC series, which entered service with scouting squadrons aboard the carriers Yorktown, Saratoga, and Enterprise in late 1937. Designed by Raymond C. Blaylock, the Navy and Marine Corps’ SBC-3 and -4s were the last American combat biplanes. The Navy and Marine Corps did not recognize these aircraft officially as “Helldivers.” What the Navy did recognize was the bombing and reconnaissance capability of dive bombers with the official designation SB (Scout Bomber).
The Navy placed a May 1939 order with Curtiss for a new scout bomber, designated the SB2C (Scout Bomber, Design Number 2, Manufacturer Curtiss), to replace the Vought SB2U Vindicator, the Douglas SBD Dauntless, and the Curtiss SBC. Blaylock and his team designed a two-seat, single-engine monoplane with an internal bay capable of carrying 1,000 pounds of bombs and folding wings to facilitate storage aboard an aircraft carrier. Curtiss constructed a new factory for the Helldiver at Columbus, Ohio. Women and African-Americans trained for the war effort made up a considerable portion of the factory’s workforce. The first Helldiver prototype appeared in December 1940. Numerous design problems, accidents, and the required corrections pushed delivery of the first production Helldiver back to June 1942 with initial fleet delivery to Scouting Squadron (VS) 9 the following December.
The near-disastrous carrier trials in early 1943 were a continuation of the Helldiver’s problems. Landing gear failures and a characteristic bounce that prevented the tail hook from engaging with the cross-deck cable resulted in Helldivers being caught in flight deck barriers. Some SB2Cs experienced structural failures that included the loss of wings in steep dives or tails breaking off mid-air or at landing. Veteran bombing squadron crews and carrier air group officers also had a strong attachment to the easier-to-fly and highly successful Douglas SBD Dauntless. As a result, crews came up with new names for the Helldiver. They nicknamed it the “Beast” due to its size and handling qualities. Irreverent naval aviators and air crewman also called it an “S.O.B. 2nd Class,” which was a profane play on the official Navy designation “SB2C” and the Navy’s enlisted personnel ratings. The Helldiver was faster and carried more ordnance than the Dauntless and intensive training alleviated the handling problems over time.
Bombing Squadron (VB) 17 assigned to Bunker Hill flew the first operational Helldiver sorties on November 11, 1943, when they attacked the Japanese fortress at Rabaul. As the American naval offensives across the Pacific intensified, including the Marianas campaign, the battles of Leyte Gulf and Okinawa, and the attacks against Japan itself, Helldivers became an integral part of the carrier air group. The scout and dive bomber role, however, waned over the course of the war when the carrier air groups utilized faster and more capable Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair fighters in the fighter-bomber role and air-to-ground rockets offered increased accuracy. Moreover, the Grumman TBF Avenger was as capable as a level bomber as it was a torpedo bomber. Nevertheless, bombing squadrons aboard Essex, Shangri-La, Wasp, Ticonderoga, Yorktown, and Lexington filled a niche as they flew some of the last combat missions of the war during the summer of 1945. Approximately thirty Navy squadrons operated Helldivers aboard thirteen different carriers during World War II. The U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve continued to operate Helldivers into the early Cold War era with the final aircraft stricken from the active inventory by June 1949. The navies of France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Thailand operated surplus SB2Cs well into the 1950s.
The design of the SB2C evolved over time. The SB2C-1C featured a 1,500 horsepower Wright Twin Cyclone R-2600-8, three-blade Curtiss Electric propeller, and a 20 mm cannon in each wing. SB2C-3s appeared with a new 1,900 horsepower R-2600-20, four-blade Curtiss Electric propeller, perforated dive brakes to decrease buffeting, four rocket rails under each wing, and the capability to operate an APS-4 airborne radar system. The -3 and the improved SB2C-4 were the Helldivers that equipped the majority of U.S. Navy squadrons during the war in the Pacific with production numbering 3,157 aircraft combined. The SB2C-5 was the last variant in the series. It was an improved version of the SB2C-4 with increased fuel capacity by thirty-five gallons, a frameless pilot’s canopy, tail hook fixed in the extended position, and deletion of the propeller spinner. Most carried the APS-4 system as standard equipment. SB2C-5s entered production in February 1945, which was too late to see widespread service before the end of World War II, with final delivery in October. Total deliveries of SB2C-5s numbered 970 Helldivers.
Total SB2C production at Columbus numbered 5,516 while Canadian Car and Foundry and Fairchild Aircraft, Ltd., in Canada delivered 834 SBWs and 300 SBFs respectively. Curtiss manufactured 900 fixed-wing A-25 dive bombers at its St. Louis, Missouri, factory under contract to the Army Air Forces with final delivery to the Marine Corps.
The U.S. Navy accepted NASM’s Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver (BuNo 83479 and Cat# A19610118000) on May 19, 1945, at the Curtiss factory in Columbus, Ohio. The aircraft went to Naval Air Station (NAS) Port Columbus, located on the same airfield, three days later. In June, it was at San Diego where it was prepared for transfer to Guam in the Pacific Theater for assignment to a Carrier Air Service Unit, arriving there in July. The war ended before the Helldiver saw combat, but for the three months that followed, September through December 1945, the artifact was assigned to Bombing Squadron (VB) 92, the “Battling Beasts,” aboard the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16) in the Pacific, which included service in the western Pacific and occupied Japan.
By January 1946, the Helldiver was with a detachment of Bombing Squadron (VB) 11 at Santa Rosa, California, where it stayed until February 7, 1946. The aircraft had little activity in the months that followed until it was assigned to Attack Squadron (VA) 3A at San Diego for most of the month of November. Activity again lessened; and after its first and only major overhaul on February 13, 1947, the airplane was again active with Aviation Training Unit (VA-ATU) #4 from April 1947 through March 1948 at NAS Jacksonville. It later moved to Norfolk and later to Weeksville Naval Auxiliary Field near Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for preservative treatment and storage. On May 31, 1948, the airplane was dropped from the Navy inventory and set aside for the National Air Museum. It was flown to Norfolk on March 2, 1949, given preservative treatment, and placed in a metal storage container. At that time, the Navy used the Helldiver for a local display and painted in the three- tone camouflage scheme, a pattern which was already outdated prior to the date the aircraft was manufactured. The log book shows an ill-defined thirty minute flight on January 7, 1952, but in all probability, its last flight was on February 3, 1949, having accumulated approximately 630 flying hours.
The Helldiver entered the National Collection in September 1960. At this time, it was probably given another preservative treatment, all of the openings were covered, and it was parked outdoors on the grounds at Suitland, Maryland. In 1975, the aircraft traveled to the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) where it underwent restoration before exhibition in their museum. The NNAM completed the restoration before 1982 and put the artifact on indoor display. The Helldiver returned from NNAM to the Garber Facility in October 2003. In 2010, the Helldiver arrived at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at NASM’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
NASM’s Helldiver is one of seven surviving SB2Cs as of 2013 that are complete and in museums or undergoing restoration. Of those seven, five are -5 variants. There are four documented SB2C wrecks in the United States and the Pacific.