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Helldivers at Twilight

A Mid-1944 SB2C-1C in 1:48

by Joe Lyons


The SB2C and the
“Mission Into Darkness”

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Few aircraft of the Second World War have engendered such strong opinions intertwined in controversy as the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver.  The ‘Diver was a product of various factors, the most prominent of which were haste, conflicting and changing user requirements and the manufacturer’s inexperience at integrating many complex systems in one airframe. This story has been told often, along with many accounts of the one mission that forevermore established its reputation. This was the air strike by Task Force 58 on June 20, 1994 aimed at the retreating Japanese carriers as part of what would be known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Few Helldivers made it back. 

This project looks at the SB2C-1C that equipped four VB squadrons participating in the Mission, the Mission itself and, most important, profiles the aircrews as typical products of the navy’s mid-war training program. The model remembers plane #48 in VB-2.


The Mission


TF 58 Helldiver Squadrons

VB-1   Yorktown

VB-2   Hornet

VB-8   Bunker Hill

VB-14 Wasp

All equipped with SB2C-1C. Morison (1975) says incorrectly that VB-8 had the SB2C-1. VB-17, the only squadron to use this model, had left the theater by this time.

VB-15 Essex                          Did not participate in the Mission



Summarized, the Mission was decided upon late in the afternoon of June 20th  (the day after the “Turkey Shoot”), and at extreme range for US aircraft. Admiral Mitscher observed to his boss Admiral Spruance, “We will probably have to recover at night.” Two strikes were planned; only one was launched beginning at 1624.  The carriers had gotten really good at this business: 240 airplanes in the air in 10 minutes. Compare Enterprise’s performance at Midway. 250 miles was the rule of thumb maximum strike range (as opposed to search range) for USN tactical carrier aircraft of the day. The bombers set this limit; the F6F had longer legs, and many carried bombs on the Mission. Recall that it was not until all strike aircraft were in the air that it was discovered the target lay 60 miles further away (about 300 miles total) than was thought at launch: 

            All around him the other pilots were also furiously figuring. The intercom chatter, today quite subdued, died away to almost nothing as the pilots realized the import of the new position report. It was emotional moment in this dramatic flight.

                        In the cockpits of the droning planes the pilots and crewmen (some not yet out of their teens) silently figure their chances. They still had a long way to go, and it would be a long way back – to a night landing. (Y’Blood, 1981)






The Japanese fleet was sighted and the attack began about 1830. Darkness had largely fallen as the strike aircraft began their long trip home. By 2250 or so, every TF 58 airplane had either recovered or ditched. 10 SB2Cs were lost in combat; 35 more were lost due to deck crashes or ditching, out of 51 launched. See the table of aircraft losses by type on the Mission. Prior to recovery, Admiral Mitscher issued the famous “Turn on the Lights” order whereby normal wartime darken ship policy was ignored in favor of giving the returning aviators a better chance of finding a flight deck.



The Pilots


Most modelers, caught up in their fascination with the historical record of the prototypical aircraft reproduced as models, tend to overlook the occupant of the pilot’s seat. The Mission Into Darkness provides some insight into the human factor of air combat. In this case and in my opinion it is instructive to look at training and experience. The performance that day of the young Helldiver pilots, products of the USN training establishment that had just been fed into the operational units out there on “the sharp end,” can only be fully understood in this context.  

Brown, (1975) describes fighter pilots on carriers, but Brown’s commentary on the training the USN gave its naval aviators is instructive for all carrier aircrew: 

            After “Carquals” the pilot was considered qualified and was appointed to a fighter squadron. With between 360 and 450 hours in his log-book, he was by far the most extensively and thoroughly trained ‘new boy’ of his day.  

There is a good description on how the training was phased, culminating in an intense work up at the squadron/air group level before joining a carrier in the forward areas. But recognize almost all the first tour aviators were arriving on their carriers with about 30 arrested landings and very little operational flying experience at night, and probably no night carrier landings. And the fates were sometimes less than kind: 

And we were about to meet the Beast. 

The disadvantage of the Helldiver far outweighed the pluses for most of the squadron pilots, especially the least-experienced ones, who were already having trouble in an SBD. It is one thing to fly around operationally without killing oneself on routine assignments—it is quite another to handle a plane on a combat mission, fully loaded with bombs and ammo, while getting shot at. To take the majority of VB-2 pilots out of the only combat aircraft they had flown, and were just starting to able to use as a weapon, put them into the Beast, and then launch them on a combat mission was imprudent. (Buell, 1991)   

The navy was expanding almost exponentially in mid-1944. New carriers, big and small were commissioning every month, and to use them to prosecute the war meant equipping them with squadrons and air groups that were combat–ready. 

The U.S. Navy had formed 45 such organizations [CVGs] over the previous two years to meet the constantly-growing demands of Pacific combat. Wartime experience had shown that three or more CVGs were required for every fast carrier in commission… while ships could operate almost indefinitely, the useful life of a combat air group was far less. Eight months was near-maximum; six was closer to the mark. (Jacobs, J. and Tillman, B., 1990) 

Hence the rotation scheme used to the end of the war, and in place by that time. Carriers stayed in the operating task forces until major damage sent them to the rear; sometimes they were rotated to the rear if force levels permitted. An air group arriving on a carrier replaced one being relieved. Each new squadron usually had a leavening of 2nd and 3rd tour pilots at the CO, XO and division leader level. - The rest were “nuggets.” Well trained perhaps, but most without serious operational experience. The air groups remained in the war zone on the parent carriers six-eight months before the cycle repeated. Survivors rotated back to start forming new squadrons where the former surviving nuggets now became the seasoned veterans who mentored the new nuggets. And so it went.


VB-2 received its first Helldivers on February 6, reported to Hornet in March 1944 and flew its first combat mission on April 1. (Tillman, 1997 and Buell). Dates for beginning combat operations for VB-1, VB-8 and VB-14 were May, March and May of 1944, respectively. The SB2C was new equipment for all of these squadrons. About six weeks – that’s the most operational experience most of these dive-bomber pilots had with the SB2C before the Mission, some of them a lot less. By contrast VB-10 and VB-16, the SBD outfits on Lexington and Enterprise, were near the end of their combat tours. And VB-10, unusually, was night-trained. (Cawley, D and Ramage, J.D., 1990). One lesson taught by the Mission was that night operational training should be done as a matter of course, and by the spring of 1945 all new CVGs were getting it.



The Aircraft


Several of the references provide rather detailed development accounts on the SB2C. In June 1944 all first line VB squadrons with this aircraft were flying the –1C model, the least combat-ready version of any Helldiver fielded in large numbers. The –1C’s biggest problem appears to have been lack of horsepower. Only the additional 200 hp in the –3’s R-2600-20 engine and some other improvements kept the SB2C on the carrier decks:

“When we joined Lexington it was clear that Vice Adm Mitscher had a low opinion of the SB2C. It was big, difficult to fit into corners, took more maintenance, and in his view had not acquitted itself well in combat…..At first he just tolerated us. But the SB2C-3 was entirely different aeroplane than the –1s/-1Cs that we had flown earlier. The bigger engine, and the electric-governed four-bladed propeller, gave it much more power. The nightmarish hydraulic system with its four separate garden-faucet style valves on the cockpit floor was improved. It still ‘weeped’ a little hydraulic here and there, but it was actually a pleasant aeroplane to fly and honest in the aerodynamic sense.” (Vice Adm Donald Engen, quoted in Tillman, 1997) 

Clearly, the –1C deserved both its reputation and “Beast” nickname, but just as clearly the navy believed a mature Helldiver was worth the effort, given the payoff in load carrying capability, speed and range over the SBD. Often leaking hydraulic oil from every fitting, underpowered and with those buffeting unpierced dive flaps, it had nonetheless been delivering the ordnance for some months prior to the Mission, and would get hits during the Mission. All sources agree on the Mission bomb load, one 1000 lb bomb internally and two 250 lb bombs on the wing racks. There are two sources that talk about “belly tanks” and “drop tanks,” but there is no photographic evidence of the latter and I would guess bomb bay tanks and bombs were mutually exclusive in the Helldiver.





VB-2’s #48 was hit by what was probably a 126mm projectile while in a dive on Zuikaku and suffered substantial damage (as did the pilot). The damage clearly made #48 difficult to fly and we may infer, a lot less aerodynamically efficient than it was before the dive. Nevertheless #48 made it all the way back to a TF 38 flight deck, albeit not the one from which it was launched; four other VB-2 Beasts were in company back to TF 38.  (Buell). Experienced pilots were capable of flying the Helldiver on the Mission and getting damaged ones home again.


[NOTE: For the frustrated gunners among you, #48 was undoubtedly the target of a Type 94 gun director on either Zuikaku or a ship in the screen. This system demonstrably could track dive-bombers in their dives and generate gun-aiming and fuze-setting orders in time to hit the target on the way down. It was certainly the equal of the vaunted USN Mk 37 system.]


Other seasoned Mission dive-bomber pilots such as then-Lt. Cdr. Ramage questioned removing the SBD from the carriers. But he inadvertently gives away one reason:  

As I gave the hand signal indicating we were squared away on our return course, I began to pick up all sorts of stragglers. As soon as they picked up my heading they added throttle and left us. They weren’t going to get stuck with the SBD’s 150-kt max cruise speed!

                                              (Cawley, D and Ramage, J.D) 

The SBD could no longer keep up with the big boys. And, it had a 50-75 nm less combat radius than the SB2C, all other things being equal. In my opinion, the good showing of the SBD squadrons re fuel consumption, and the poor showing of the SB2C squadrons has less to do with airplanes and more to do with the experience of their pilots. And note the Avenger did not do all that well, either.



Mission Losses (Reference k)












                                     # Launched:





Combat [% total launched]

10 [20]

1 (4)

6 (10)

6 (6)

Ditching/Deck Crash [% total launched]

35 [69]

4 (15)

23 (40)

17 (18)

TOTAL LOSSES [% total launched]

45 [88]

5 (19)

29 (53)

23 (24)


Task Force 38 used up 97 Helldivers (81 combat, the rest operational losses) in June of 1944, the worst monthly loss of this type during the entire war. The US war machine was truly up and running by then, these losses representing about five days production. 104 aircrew were in the SB2Cs lost on May 20. Eight pilots and ten gunners were not recovered.



The Model


The specific aircraft is Hal Buell’s plane #48 from VB-2, that number in the usual places and the CVG-2 white circle on the stabilizer being the only non-factory markings on it. 



I seem to have a fascination with the Helldiver dating back to my early teens. I remember at first how exciting it was to get my hands on that Monogram kit that came out about 1962. But even with the limited references available then, it soon became obvious it didn’t much resemble the real thing in several important areas. 

R-M made it all better with the release of the P-M kit a few years ago. I have already built two of and with Reference f in hand, planned a conversion of the –4 in the box to the –1C. 


Basic Modifications required to turn the SB2C-4 Kit it into an SB2C-1C


1.                  Insertion of the windows behind the pilot’s cockpit.

2.                  Scratch building of the turnover pylon now visible in the windows.

3.                  Modification of the gunner’s sliding canopy back to the –1/3 version, and deletion of the external canopy rail below the cockpit sill.

4.                  Replacement of the kit prop with 3-bladed version and spinner

5.                  Replacement of those marvelous kit perforated P/E dive flaps with the solid type found on the –1C.

6.                  Filling in the recesses for the underwing rocket stub mounts.


I elected to do the model with the gunner’s canopy open and the .30 cal tail guns deployed with the turtleback in the ‘up’ position. Also, bomb bay doors closed, lower flaps in the take off position and 250 lb. bombs on the wing racks. Given the different opinions on whether Beasts were carrying drop tanks, it was tempting to add them to this model. But, although confessing not to possess the definitive Beast photo collection, I have not encountered so much as one photo of an operational SB2C-1C carrying drop tanks on the wing stations – not one.






  •  Substituted an Ultracast pilot’s seat for the kit part.

  • Cut away the fuselage in the way of the windows immediately aft of the cockpit, using 15 thou clear sheet to make the windows

  • Cut down kit part 37 to the level of the cockpit sill.

  • Constructed a turnover pylon from plastic rod and installed behind part 37 and abreast the new windows.

  • Added seat and head armor from plastic sheet and installed behind the forward legs of the turnover pylon.

  • Created a new headrest out of scrap and mounted behind the seat armor

  • Replicated the now-visible forward end of the fuselage fuel tank with a piece of wood dowel. Installed on the rear of part 37.

  • Installed the bomb doors closed. I may have cut the extraneous parts off of these in the wrong place because there was a significant centerline gap that had to be filled.

  • Created a lift raft out of tissue and installed in the life raft container. I don’t know if these rafts were actually yellow, but MINE is.

  • As on both of these kits I have built previously, there is not enough room to install the raft container under the fixed cabin window. So, the radio gear and the display for the ASB radar are now a tad smaller than R-M and perhaps Curtiss intended. Even with this artistic license I still had cut a ledge in the raft container to make it all work.

  • Cannibalized gunner’s chest armor from an AM SBD-1 and added to the gunner’s mount. I elected not to use the companion gunner’s seat from the Ultracast set. There is much fiddling necessary to finish the mount and I didn’t want yet another glue joint to fail, and then fail again. The seat will go into a Wings BT-1

  • Substituted the gun mount armor from the Tom’s Model Works set, in place of the kit parts. And then I added some of Tom’s .30 cal. gun belts leading from the magazine openings to the guns.

  • Remove the fairing over the gunner’s canopy track roller and the molded track itself.

  • Fast Frames for the canopies.



  • The kit comes with the rocket stubs appropriate for a –4, but not for a –1C. The insets in the lower wings to accommodate the kit stubs were filled in with plastic sheet and faired in with putty. The stubs themselves had been previously installed on a Canadian AM Avenger conversion.

  • Unpierced flaps made from plastic sheet replaced the kit flaps. The lower flaps were installed in my guess, gleaned from photos, of what the take off position would have been. The kit internal flap structure is apparently wrong for the earlier flaps, so new ones had to be constructed with their lightening holes.

  • Mounted True Detail 250 lb. GP bombs on the wing racks, with P-M ordnance decal markings.

  • Replaced kit pitot tube with one fashioned from steel wire.



Colours and Markings


All the Mission aircraft were in the mid-war Tri-color scheme of semi-gloss/nonspecular Sea Blue, Intermediate Blue and nonspecular Insignia White.

I used Polly Scale paint for the blues and MM for the white. Cotemporary photos don’t show that much weathering, at least to my eye. The delivery pipeline for new aircraft to carriers at sea was in operation by this time (#48 had just been delivered by CVE to Hornet a week before), and the wastage as we have seen was substantial. Probably even that pacific sun had little time to do much. I elected not to get very precise about the gloss of the blue colors for this reason, and to keep weathering to a minimum. I enhanced the panel lines on removable panels and added some evidence of oil leaks here and there. As the saying goes, “What does it mean when a radial engine is not leaking oil? Why it’s out of oil, of course.” 

All interior spaces and parts, to include wheel wells and all landing gear part: Tamiya Interior Green. The interior of the open flaps was painted with Gunze Red. The fit on the assembled wings and horizontal tail are tight enough to require little or no filler in the joints, so I painted all of these components prior to assembly.



When Night Had Fallen...


The last Helldiver had pushed over into its dive and the last bomb fired. The homeward journey lay ahead.



What had been accomplished? Few things are more ephemeral than evaluating hit claims by bomber pilots, and how does one separate out SB2C hits from the other aircraft present? The bombers of course had extra sets of eyes along for BDA, but we will never know the story in its entirety. What we do know is that in two days in late June of 1944, Task Force 38 and Pacific Fleet submarines destroyed beyond hope of redemption the Imperial Japanese Navy’s carrier striking force – ships, aircraft, aircrew.





  1. Belote, J. H. and Belote, W. M. (1975).  Titans of the seas. New York: Harper & Row.

  2. Buell, H.L. (1991). Dauntless helldivers a dive-bomber pilot’s epic story of the carrier battles. New York: Orion Books.

  3. Brown, D. (1975). Carrier Fighters. London: McDonald & Co.

  4. Cawley, D. and Ramage, J.D. (August, 1990).  “A review of the Philippine Sea Battle 20 June 1944.” The Hook. Journal of Carrier Aviation, 18 Special Issue, 56-61.

  5. Jacobs, J and Tillman, B. (August, 1990). “The Wolf Gang: a history of carrier air Group 84.” The Hook. Journal of Carrier Aviation, 18 Special Issue, 78-87.

  6. Kinsey, B. (1997). SB2C Helldiver in detail and scale. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications.

  7. Morison, S.E. (1975). History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Volume III (New Guinea and the Marianas March 1944-August 1944). Boston: Little, Brown.

  8. Smith, P.C. (1998). Curtiss SB2C helldiver. Ramsbury, Marlborough Wiltshire, England: The Crowood Press.

  9. Stern, R. (1982). SB2C Helldiver in action. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications.

  10. Tillman, B. (1997). Helldiver units of World War 2. London: Osprey.

  11. Y’Blood, W. T. (1981). Red Sun Setting the battle of the Philippine Sea. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press.



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Model, Text and Images Copyright © 2003 by Joe Lyons
Page Created 16 October, 2003
Last Updated 17 March, 2004

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