Ben Case and the SB2C Helldiver.
We were launched while our fleet was 180 to 200 miles northeast of Manila. My group was assigned to hit Japanese ships in Manila Harbor. As we approached our dive area at 10,000 feet, big, black puffs of smoke from anti-aircraft fire began popping all around us.”
Leslie Bennett Case, known as Ben, is describing the first combat by Air Group Eighty aboard USS Ticonderoga (CV 14) on November 5, 1944. Case was a dive-bomber pilot flying Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldivers in Bombing Squadron Eighty, or VB-80. Case was the shortest guy in the squadron, a New Orleans boy who tipped the scales at 140 pounds, sat on a telephone book to fly, and understood too well why some said the SB2C designation meant “son of a bitch second class.”
The Helldiver was a product of a Curtiss factory in Columbus, Ohio, rife with quality control issues and manufacturing flaws. Now on his first combat mission, Case had already spent almost a hundred air hours trying to master the airplane. And now Japanese anti-aircraft gunners around Manila were trying to kill him while Nakajima Ki-43 Hayate, or Oscar, fighters lurked in the distance, awaiting their chance. It was hotter than blazes in the cockpit. “When they send us up north where it’s colder, I’ll know we’re winning the war,” a squadron mate had said.
Case and his fellow ensigns in VB-80 were young, all under 21. Their leaders were senior lieutenants with fewer logbook hours and lesser cockpit skills. Often, Case and his buddies were coping with mediocre leadership “while struggling to tame the beast” — because “Beast” was another term critics bestowed on the SB2C.
Case’s target was a Japanese merchantman, the equivalent of a Liberty Ship, moored beneath black bursts of anti-aircraft fire and white puffs of cumulus. On the approach with radioman-gunner Bill Jorgensen alert behind him, Case drilled himself on the routine that had been pumped into his head: “You let the target slide under the left center-section leading edge. You slow to dive-brake deployment speed of 125 knots. You perform a split-S with rudder and aileron to throw yourself into a vertical dive. You keep your nose on the target, remember your “never exceed” speed of 350 knots, and prepare to release your bombs at 1,800 feet for maximum effect.
“As we get over the target, we peel off from our formation and individually roll over into a new vertical dive, descending through a maze of orange balls (smaller caliber fire) getting the target ship in our gunsight and dropping our bombs when we’re down to 1,800 to 2,000 feet, almost graying out from the force of gravity (Gs) as we pull out and hightail it at full throttle away from a shoreline ringed with AA fire installations…”
For reasons unclear, the Oscar fighters engaged only one Helldiver over Manila, exchanging fire with inconclusive results. In that first action, Case was credited with scoring a hit on the ship he bombed, which later sank.
by Robert F. Dorr
To read the article published in the December 2014 issue of Flight Journal, click here.