Does the Douglas TBD-1 Devastator Deserve Its Bad Rap?


What’s in a reputation? In June 1941 the U.S. Navy proposed a listing of fashionable names for its plane. Nearly none have been accepted, and a ultimate listing was issued in October. In these 4 months Grum­man’s F4F went from Comet to Wildcat, the Doug­las SBD from Mohave to Dauntless and Consolidated’s PBY from Clemente to Catalina. 

In the meantime, the Douglas TBD entered historical past and legend not because the Scorpion however because the Devas­tator. It turned one of the crucial ironic names in aviation historical past.

Within the Thirties U.S. naval aviation acknowledged that technological progress was accelerating. Torpedo squadrons flew Nice Lakes and Martin biplanes with prime speeds below 125 mph. Consequently, in June 1934 the Bureau of Aeronautics sought torpedo bomber proposals from three firms: Nice Lakes, Corridor and Douglas. Nice Lakes and Corridor took themselves out of rivalry with out of date ideas, leaving the sphere to Douglas.

In Santa Monica, Donald Douglas’ design staff set to work. The outcome was the XTBD-1 (Experi­psychological Torpedo Bomber, Douglas), a three-seat, all-metal monoplane with hydraulic folding wings and semi-retractable touchdown gear behind an 800-hp Pratt & Whitney radial engine.

Douglas delivered the prototype in lower than 11 months, with the primary flight in April 1935. Navy testing proceeded at Naval Air Station Anacostia in Washington, D.C., and at Norfolk, Va. Following ordnance compatibility exams, the large Douglas returned to the West Coast for provider suitability trials aboard USS Lexington by yr finish. Three pilots logged 13 launches and landings with out vital issues. The TBD’s large 420-square-foot wing space yielded a strong, steady platform in touchdown configuration.

The XTBD-1 prototype, the Navy’s first carrier-based monoplane, was launched in 1935. (San Diego Air and Area Museum)

The manufacturing TBD-1’s engine was upgraded to 900 hp, yielding a said prime pace of 205 mph. Seen modifications have been comparatively minor, principally to cover and engine cowling.

The 129 fleet plane started arriving in 1937, equipping “TorpRons” on Lexington and Saratoga, adopted by Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet by 1941. Ranger, commissioned in 1934, and Wasp, in 1940, had been constructed with out torpedo storage however acquired some functionality in 1941.

Together with Vought’s SB2U scout bomber (later dubbed Vindicator), the TBD introduced the monoplane period to U.S. provider aviation. The TBD was a generational bounce for naval aviation, and squadrons usually struggled to grasp “all these new devices” that have been beforehand unknown. Retractable wheels and power-folding wings have been significantly noteworthy. In line with legend, when the primary TBD landed aboard a Pacific Fleet provider, folding its wings whereas taxiing, a nervous sailor hit the crash alarm.

The Devastator’s hydraulic folding wings have been innovative for his or her time. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

The brand new Douglas torpedo bomber was spectacular with its streamlined profile, polished aluminum fuselage emblazoned with tail and unit markings plus chrome-yellow wings. A noncommissioned aviator, Aviation Pilot Wilhelm “Invoice” Esders, recalled upon reporting to Saratoga at San Diego in 1938: “I noticed a number of lovely shiny monoplanes touchdown and I assumed, ‘That’s the most lovely plane I’ve ever seen.’ I simply wished that sometime I’d have the chance to fly it, not conscious that they belonged to the squadron to which I used to be ordered. I used to be overwhelmed upon reporting to be taught that the planes I noticed have been VT-3 plane. Such beauties!”

Even with trendy plane arriving, the Navy confirmed a technological deficit when Europe went to basic quarters once more in 1939. That yr 55 p.c of U.S. provider plane have been biplanes, with full monoplane substitute extending into the subsequent yr. 

Devastators of VT-5 park on USS Yorktown’s after flight deck at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, in June 1940, taking full benefit of their folding wings. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

In the meantime, far past the Worldwide Date Line, in 1937 the Imperial Japanese Navy fielded the Nakajima B5N, the Kind 97 provider assault bomber later dubbed Kate by the Allies. The wartime B5N2 was able to 230 mph at 12,000 ft and routinely flew 300-mile-radius missions. Thus, it was 25 mph sooner than the TBD and longer ranged. However, extra vital, whereas U.S. torpedoes have been woefully erratic, Japanese “fish” labored simply fantastic.

Earlier than the conflict, financial measures restricted reasonable coaching. Torpedo pilots have been purported to make one dwell drop yearly however that aim was seldom achieved. The curiosity on that debt could be paid in fight throughout 1942, a yr earlier than the ordnance paperwork lastly admitted to a protracted, dolorous listing of defects in torpedoes for ships, submarines and plane. All through the conflict, practically all of the advances in torpedo know-how got here from trade moderately than the Navy.

Machinist Mate Thomas F. Cheek, an skilled enlisted aviator with Torpedo Squadron 2 (VT-2) on Lexington, recalled: “The torpedo models spent a negligible time on gunnery coaching—horizontal bombing was the most important apply, with the NAP [naval aviation pilot] copilot performing the position of bombardier within the second seat. Lack of gunnery coaching by all rear-seat males was very evident.

“As demonstrated by the Military Air Forces at Mid­method, horizontal bombing was a misplaced trigger from the start. Hits have been pretty straightforward if the goal was unmoving on land, or a towed sled or vessel that maintained a hard and fast course and pace. We tried quite a lot of formations and patterns, with sorry outcomes, however the powers that be stored us making an attempt.

A TBD of VT-6 drops a notoriously unreliable Mark 13 torpedo throughout a coaching train in October 1941. (Nationwide Archives)

“Simulated torpedo runs have been seldom carried out, apart from throughout fleet issues or native maneuvers. Annually every pilot was to make a dwell drop with a dummy head on an actual torpedo. We made no drops in 1939. In 1940 we made two dry runs on a goal towed by a minesweeper or tug. Then the large day, taking off from North Lands, San Diego, with a Mark 13 hanging out of the bomb bay!”

Describing his first dwell drop, flying with A.C. Weddel, Cheek mentioned the Mark 13 launched inside limits of 90 knots at 100 ft. (In fight most squadrons noticed drop parameters of 110 knots at 50 ft or much less.) “It ran true for the primary 100-150 yards,” Cheek recalled, including that the torpedo “then veered 60 levels to port and took off over the floor like a cheerful trout.

“My drop emulated Weddel’s in the beginning, then veered barely starboard with a lifeless bead on the minesweeper. Fortunately, as a substitute of frolicking over the floor, it ran true to depth and handed below the tug.

“From the scuttlebutt going round at Pearl, ours was not an remoted incident.”

Regardless of these torpedo issues, the Navy developed optimistic ways for provider air teams. The best situation was a coordinated assault on an enemy fleet, with scout bombers laying smoke screens to cowl the torpedo bombers’ low and sluggish strategy whereas dive bombers rolled in from overhead and fighters engaged defending interceptors. It by no means occurred in fight, and a few realists acknowledged the details. “Our peacetime torpedo coaching process was much more theatrical than sensible,” wrote Torpedo 3’s chief, Lt. Cmdr. Lance E. Massey. He predicted with chilling prescience that an unescorted torpedo assault towards an alerted job power would show disastrous.

In all, 12 Navy squadrons flew TBDs, together with a handful in Atlantic Fleet bombing and scouting models. Within the 3½ years earlier than Pearl Harbor, the Navy misplaced 30 TBDs to accidents and two extra in January 1942. Thus the fleet entered the conflict with 97 torpedo planes in deployable squadrons and a small fleet substitute pool. 

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Enterprise job group was returning to Hawaii after delivering plane to Wake Island. Working on a conflict footing, Vice Adm. William F. Halsey despatched 17 SBDs to scout forward of the power as a precaution. They have been caught by planes from six Japanese carriers, sustaining seven losses. America was at conflict.

With tentative info, the “Massive E” launched a mixed strike group, together with all 18 of Torpedo 6’s TBDs. Discovering nothing, the bombers returned to the ship whereas the fighters diverted to Pearl, the place 4 of six have been shot down.

Thus started the early part of the Pacific Warfare, a collection of hit-and-run raids on far-flung Japanese bases. On February 1, 1942, Enterprise raided the Marshall Islands, sinking three Japanese ships. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Lindsey’s VT-6 lofted 9 bombers towards Wotje Atoll and 9 extra towards Kwajalein within the first aerial torpedo assault in U.S. historical past. Missing fighter opposition, the Devastators escaped nearly untouched, however
the squadron report famous, “Fighter safety for VT is necessary.”

A TBD from Enterprise joins within the assault on Japanese-held Wake Island on February 1, 1942. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

That very same day Yorktown struck the Gilberts with marginal outcomes and critical losses. Depressing climate apparently price VT-5 six planes and several other aircrews in change for 2 Japanese vessels broken by the air group.

On February 24 Enterprise returned to Wake Island, the place it had delivered Marine fighters in late November. The TBDs bombed from 12,000 ft, inflicting little harm however sustaining no losses. Barely every week later the Massive E struck Marcus Island, 1,150 miles from Tokyo, with out launching torpedo planes. 

Actually probably the most formidable Devastator operation was the joint LexingtonYorktown strike in New Guinea. On March 10 Vice Adm. Wilson Brown’s two air teams coordinated simultaneous assaults on Lae and Salamua on the east coast. Each ships put up 52 plane, together with 13 of “Lex’s” Torpedo 2 and 12 from “Yorky’s” Torpedo 5.

Lieutenant Commander James Brett’s VT-2 carried Mark 13 torpedoes whereas Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Taylor’s VT-5 packed 500-pound bombs. The Owen Stanley Mountains’ craggy verdancy posed an issue for the closely laden Lexington plane toting the one-ton Mark 13s, however Brett shrewdly learn the geography and used rising thermals to clear the 7,500-foot move. He discovered 14 Japanese ships offshore and attacked with the dive bombers, torpedoing a transport in shallow water. Nonetheless, different fish malfunctioned.

Shortly thereafter, Taylor led his squadron overhead at 13,000 ft for a traditional bombing run. Not less than one of many 24 bombs struck a seaplane tender, flooding the engine room. Because the TBDs pulled off, a Nakajima E8N2 floatplane made a gunnery move, assembly a hail of return fireplace. Submit­conflict analysis confirmed the Japanese biplane landed and sank.

Mixed with U.S. Military and Australian efforts, the Lae-Salamua strike garnered headlines within the U.S. The Pacific command claimed 10 ships sunk, together with three cruisers (really three transport ships), for the lack of an SBD-2.

The Devastator seemed to be incomes its identify, however the first week in Might set the TBD on its approach to retirement. Dev­astators from Yorktown participated in two strikes towards the brand new Japanese base at Tulagi close to Guadalcanal. Neither mission achieved a lot. The primary scored one hit on a destroyer from 11 torpedo drops whereas one other did not launch. On the subsequent mission one other destroyer dodged all 11 fish, and although some floatplanes intercepted, they did no hurt. Nonetheless, a VT-5 crew ditched offshore after getting misplaced in climate and skilled a two-month odyssey returning to security.

Then, on Might 7, millennia of naval warfare abruptly ended on the Battle of the Coral Sea. U.S. intelligence had discovered of Japan’s plan to grab Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south coast, and the Pacific Fleet positioned Lexington and Yorktown job forces to repel the enemy invasion power. On the opening day the People had issues completely their method. Lex and Yorky launched 93 planes towards the Japanese protecting power constructed across the mild provider Shōhō. It was an enormous overmatch: The 22 “torpeckers” added their weight to 71 scout bombers and fighters. 

Arriving first, Jimmy Brett’s TBDs skirted the display screen of 4 Japanese cruisers and executed a peacetime coordinated assault with the SBDs. In a textbook “anvil” tactic, Lex’s Devastators hemmed in Shōhō from each bows, claiming 9 hits; they in all probability received not less than 5.

The sunshine provider Shōhō burns on the morning of Might 7, 1942, throughout the Coral Sea battle. Observe the TBD making a torpedo run at decrease proper.

Japanese fighters have been largely tied up by Wild­cats, leaving the strikers to complete the job. Minutes behind got here Joe Taylor’s 10 Yorktowners, who pressed in shut, as they reported, “to make it nearly unattainable to overlook.” The squadron claimed 100% hits and certain gained two. Little Shōhō succumbed to maybe 20 bombs and 7 tor­pedoes at a price of three F4F-3s. 

Aboard the U.S. carriers, prepared rooms have been stuffed with jubilant aircrews celebrating the information of the historic victory.

The following day, as earlier than, scouting decided the course of the battle. Either side discovered the opposite at about the identical time, however the Japanese heavy-weights have been sooner into motion: Shōkaku and Zuikaku lofted 69 planes, inflicting mortal wounds on Lexington and damaging Yorktown.

The U.S. air teams have been airborne on the time with 75 planes, together with 21 torpeckers. Like yesterday, the outbound leg was about 170 miles—a little bit of a stretch for TBDs.

When Yorktown’s SBDs sighted the Japanese flattops, the strike chief orbited to permit the TBDs to catch up, hoping for a coordinated assault. The supposed sufferer was Shōkaku, seen below clear skies, and the Japanese provider absorbed two bombs. Torpedo 5’s fish all missed however the Devastators received away clear.

Half an hour later Lexington’s squadrons piled on. Dauntlesses hit Shōkaku once more—nonfatally—whereas Zuikaku evaded harm. Torpedo 2’s 11 Mark 13s all missed or malfunctioned—as a Japa­nese report summarized, “sluggish torpedoes and lengthy vary.” One airplane ditched out of gasoline with the crew misplaced. When Girl Lex succumbed to gasoline fires that night, nevertheless, she took all of VT-2’s remaining plane to the underside.

Tactically the Battle of the Coral Sea was a Japanese victory, as Lexington was much more worthwhile than Shōhō. However strategically a serious Japa­nese operation was annoyed, and Port Morseby remained in Allied palms.

Coral Sea was the primary naval battle through which neither fleet noticed the opposite. It set the sample for provider warfare all through the remainder of the battle.

In late Might U.S. intelligence supplied Admiral Chester Nimitz with a priceless benefit: detailed info on the Japanese plan to grab Halfway Atoll. He dispatched his three carriers to spring one in all historical past’s nice ambushes: Enterprise and Hornet in Process Pressure 16 and Yorktown, nonetheless bearing Coral Sea harm, with Process Pressure 17. They have been opposed by 4 veteran Imperial navy flattops.

On Might 30 Torpedo 6’s CO, Lt. Cmdr. Eugene Lindsey, spun in whereas touchdown aboard Enterprise. He was recovered with a badly sprained again however pronounced himself match for obligation.

At daybreak on June 4, the three Pacific Fleet carriers steamed northeast of Halfway, opposing a Japanese effort to grab the atoll. Round 0700 they started launching 41 TBDs. Three hours later 4 Devastators had returned.

In 5 months of fight by Coral Sea, TBDs had suffered no inflight losses to enemy motion. Escorting fighters have been assigned to every TorpRon, which elevated the torpedo bombers’ odds of survival. However at Halfway nearly nothing went in accordance with plan.

Deck crews put together VT-6 TBDs for launch from Enterprise on the outset of the pivotal Battle of Halfway on June 4, 1942. Ten of 14 VT-6 Devastators could be downed within the assault on the provider Kaga about two hours later. (Nationwide Archives)

Outbound from TF-16, Hornet’s martinet air group commander, Stanhope C. Ring, led the “mission to nowhere” due west, operating 10 Wild-cats out of gasoline with a few SBD-3s. Torpedo 8’s independent-minded CO, Lt. Cmdr. John Waldron, had a way of the battle’s geometry and broke off, main his 15 planes southwest. He had advised his males, “If solely one in all us is left to make a run, I would like that man to go in and get a success.”

Fourteen TBDs splashed from heavy flak and fighters, leaving Ensign George Homosexual to meet the skipper’s order. Homosexual dropped his torpedo towards Sōryū, missed and nearly instantly went into the water. His gunner went down with the airplane however Homosexual was rescued to inform totally different variations of his survival for 50 years.

Subsequent up was the injured Gene Lindsey with 14 Devastators from VT-6. He was purported to have escorts however the VF-6 Wildcats at first apparently mistook VT-8’s TBDs for their very own and missed the rendezvous. Attacking Kaga, Torpedo 6 met a wall of flak and a sky filled with slashing Zeros. 4 returned to the Massive E.

Lastly, about an hour after VT-8, the York-towners arrived. Most have been replacements from Saratoga’s air group, beached whereas “Sara” was repaired. Benefitting from current fight reviews, Yorktown’s employees did it proper—a gas-saving “operating rendezvous” moderately than circling to hitch up over the duty power. 

A VT-8 TBD taxis up on Hornet’s flight deck. This Devastator and its crew, pilot Lt.(jg) Jeff Davis Woodson and gunner Otway David Creasy, Jr., have been misplaced at Halfway. (Nationwide Archives)

With Lt. Cmdr. Lance Massey navigating, Yorktown’s fliers discovered their goal and targeting Hiryū. Lieutenant Commander John Thach’s six Wildcats have been far too few to oppose some 40 Zeros, and Massey’s squadron was shredded. He died with 9 of his crews whereas two ditched close to the duty power. One was flown by Invoice Esders, who pulled his fatally wounded gunner, Radioman Robert B. Brazier, into their raft. “He bled to dying,” Esders mentioned. “But this younger man was nonetheless in a position to speak, expressing how badly he felt that he wasn’t in a position to carry out higher or longer.

“That was the type of males we had in Tor­pedo Three.”

Whereas the TBDs have been slaughtered, the Japanese fighters have been drawn down close to sea degree. That left the strategy clear for 3 squadrons of SBDs, and the sky rained Dauntlesses. In minutes Akagi, Kaga and Sōryū have been fatally stricken. That afternoon the SBDs returned, slaying Hiryū. The battle ended early on June 7 with Yorktown, weakened by bomb and torpedo harm, completed off by submarine I-168

The Devastator’s fight log ended that day with a complete of 176 sorties leading to motion towards enemy forces. In these six months TBDs averaged just below two missions per wartime airframe: 131 with torpedoes and 45 with bombs or depth expenses.

After Halfway the remaining 39 Devastators have been withdrawn from fleet service, shortly changed by TBF-1 Avengers. The TBDs went to coaching and utility models or turned educational platforms. The final have been scrapped in 1944.

The notion that TBDs have been “suicide coffins” loses some credibility when the airplane is in contrast with its contemporaries. Within the first motion by a TBF squadron, VT-8 flew six Avengers from Halfway and just one returned.

At Coral Sea and Halfway, Devastators sustained 42 p.c inflight losses to enemy motion. The TBD’s rival, the B5N Kate—clearly superior with glorious torpedoes—was shut behind with 37 p.c. Devastators definitely devastated little Shōhō at Coral Sea however scored no hits within the subsequent 5 assaults in each battles. Kates, nevertheless, contributed to Lexington’s demise at Coral Sea and Yorktown’s at Halfway.

And so the TBD Devastator handed into historical past. The U.S. Navy cared too little to maintain or retrieve one.  

Frequent contributor Barrett Tillman is the writer of practically 900 articles and greater than 40 books, together with TBD Devastator Items of the US Navy, which is beneficial for additional studying. Additionally see Douglas TBD Devastator: America’s First World Warfare II Torpedo Bomber, by David Doyle; and Douglas TBD-1 Devastator, by Steve Ginter.

This function initially appeared within the March 2022 problem of Aviation Historical past. Don’t miss a difficulty, Subscribe!

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