The U.S. Navy would not accept the SB2C until 880 modifications to the design and the changes on the production line had been made, delaying the Curtiss Helldiver's combat debut until 11 November 1943 with squadron VB-17 on Bunker Hill, when they attacked the Japanese-held port of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, north of Papua New Guinea. The first version of the SB2C-1 was kept stateside for training, its various development problems leading to only 200 being built. The first deployment model was the SB2C-1C. The SB2C-1 could deploy slats mechanically linked with landing gear actuators, that extended from the outer third of the wing leading edge to aid lateral control at low speeds. The early prognosis of the "Beast" was unfavourable; it was strongly disliked by aircrews due to its size, weight, and reduced range compared to the SBD it replaced.
In the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 45 Helldivers were lost because they ran out of fuel returning to their carriers.
The litany of faults that the Helldiver bore included the fact that it was underpowered, had a shorter range than the SBD, was equipped with an unreliable electrical system and was often poorly manufactured. The Curtiss-Electric propeller and the complex hydraulic system had frequent maintenance problems. One of the faults remaining with the aircraft through its operational life was poor longitudinal stability, resulting from a fuselage that was too short due to the necessity of fitting on to aircraft carrier elevators. The Helldiver's aileron response was also poor and handling suffered greatly under 90 kn (100 mph; 170 km/h) airspeed; since the speed of approach to land on a carrier was supposed to be 85 kn (98 mph; 157 km/h), this proved problematic. The 880 changes demanded by the Navy and modification of the aircraft to its combat role resulted in a 42% weight increase, explaining much of the problem.
The solution to these problems began with the introduction of the SB2C-3 beginning in 1944, which used the R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone engine with 1,900 hp (1,400 kW) and Curtiss' four-bladed propeller. This substantially solved the chronic lack of power that had plagued the aircraft. The Helldivers would participate in battles over the Marianas, Philippines (partly responsible for sinking the battleship Musashi), Taiwan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa (in the sinking of the battleship Yamato). They were also used in the 1945 attacks on the Ryuku Islands and the Japanese home island of Honshu in tactical attacks on airfields, communications and shipping. They were also used extensively in patrols during the period between the dropping of the atomic bombs and the official Japanese surrender, and in the immediate pre-occupation period.
An oddity of the SB2Cs with 1942 to 1943-style tricolor camouflage was that the undersides of the outer wing panels carried dark topside camouflage because the undersurfaces were visible from above when the wings were folded.
In operational experience, it was found that the U.S. Navy's Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair fighters were able to carry an equally heavy bomb load against ground targets and were vastly more capable of defending themselves against enemy fighters. The Helldiver, however, could still deliver ordnance with more precision against specific targets and its two-seat configuration permitted a second set of eyes. A Helldiver also has a significant advantage in range over a fighter while carrying a bombload, which is extremely important in naval operations.
The advent of air-to-ground rockets ensured that the SB2C was the last purpose-built dive bomber produced. Rockets allowed precision attack against surface naval and land targets, while avoiding the stresses of near-vertical dives and the demanding performance requirements that they placed on dive bombers
The SB2C remained in active postwar service in the US Navy until 1947 and Naval Reserve aviation units until 1950. Surplus aircraft were sold to the naval air forces of France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Thailand. Greek SB2Cs served in combat in the Greek Civil War with additional machine guns mounted in wing pods. French SB2Cs flew in the First Indochina War from 1951-1954.
Built at Curtiss' St. Louis plant, 900 aircraft were ordered by the USAAF under the designation A-25A Shrike. The first ten aircraft had folding wings, while the remainder of the production order omitted this unnecessary feature. Many other changes distinguished the A-25A, including larger main wheels, a pneumatic tailwheel, ring and bead gunsight, longer exhaust stubs, and other Army-specified radio equipment. By late 1943, when the A-25A was being introduced, the USAAF no longer had a role for the dive bomber, as fighter aircraft such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt had shown their ability to carry out tactical air support missions with great success.
After offering the Shrike to Australia, only ten were accepted before the Royal Australian Air Force rejected the remainder of the order, forcing the USAAF to send 410 to the U.S. Marines. The A-25As were converted to the SB2C-1 standard, but the Marine SB2C-1 variant never saw combat, being used primarily as trainers. The remaining A-25As were similarly employed as trainers and target tugs.
A comparable scenario accompanied the Helldiver's service with the British. A total of 26 aircraft, out of 450 ordered, were delivered to the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, where they were known as the Helldiver I. After unsatisfactory tests that pinpointed "appalling handling", none of the British Helldivers were used in action.
American aid provided the Royal Hellenic Air Force with 42 Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers from surplus U.S. Navy stocks. In the spring of 1949, the aircraft were given to 336th Fighter Squadron (336 ????a ????e??) to replace Supermarine Spitfires and the squadron's name was changed to 336th Bomber Squadron (336 ????a ??µßa?d?sµ??).
Greek SB2C-5 Helldivers had minor changes for their COIN operations:
The hard rubber tailwheel (for carrier use) was replaced by a bigger pneumatic tire for use on landing strips.
The rear gunner station and its twin MGs were deleted, as no aerial opposition existed and weight reduction was used for bombs and extra machine guns.
Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers, Supermarine Spitfires and North American T-6D/Gs were used in ground-attack missions against Communist ground forces, camps and transports during the last stages of the Greek Civil War.
Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers saw a relatively brief combat service and were gradually phased out by 1953. A few were in use until 1957 as photographic aircraft. One Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver was restored in 1997 and is displayed in the Hellenic Air Force Museum.
Between 1949 and 1954, France bought 110 SB2C-5 Helldiver aircraft to replace their aging SBD-5 Dauntless that had been flying in combat in Vietnam. The French Aeronavale flew the Helldiver from 1951 to 1958.
Some of these aircraft were allotted to Escadrille 9F stationed on board the carriers Arromanches, Bois-Belleau and Lafayette, during the First Indochina War. The Helldivers were used to support French troops on the ground during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.