Hello and welcome back to “Karl’s Korner”, a historical segment written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum!
Today, I am excited to discuss Midway’s newest exhibit a very special replica unlike any other in the world…
This September, after months of restoration, the USS Midway Museum welcomed aboard a special replica torpedo aircraft, the TBD Devastator. This near full-sized TBD Devastator replica was originally built for the upcoming motion picture, Midway and will soon be incorporated into the overall presentation of our current Battle of Midway Theater complex which already contains dynamic displays of the F4F Wildcat fighter and SBD Dauntless dive bomber.
Unlike any others of its kind, this torpedo aircraft flown in the Battle of Midway is an exciting addition for us. Keep reading to learn more about this amazing WWII era aircraft!
The Douglas TBD was the Navy’s first all-metal monoplane carrier aircraft, joining the fleet in 1937. Designed as both a torpedo and level bomber, the TBD featured hydraulically-folding wings and the secret Norden bombsight. A lengthy enclosed cockpit section, commonly called a “greenhouse,” and prominent corrugated ribs on the wings and empennage, were distinctive features that set the design apart. Though a capable aircraft in the context of the late 1930s, the great strides made worldwide in military aviation made the TBD highly vulnerable by the time the Second World War began. Prime disadvantages with the design were a modest combat radius of slightly more than 200 miles with the heavy Mark XIII aerial torpedo slung underneath, and a cruising speed of 128 knots. The Mark XIII torpedo was bulky for its class and sat in the slipstream at a shallow angle when mounted. The 1,000-lb weight of the weapon, as well as its drag when carried, caused TBDs to fly at a much lower altitude than the accompanying fighters and dive bombers in a typical carrier strike, complicating coordination.
In 1941, the Navy assigned official nicknames to its aircraft, and the TBD became the “Devastator.” After war broke out towards the end of the year, Devastator squadrons participated in the earliest carrier strikes in the Pacific. Although torpedo crews eagerly expected the more advanced Grumman TBF Avenger, production delays meant that only a single squadron’s worth of the new type was available by the time of the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet would fight with their combined forty-one TBDs.
The Battle of Midway
The performance disparity between the Devastator and its accompanying Wildcat fighters and Dauntless dive bombers was catastrophic at Midway. All three torpedo squadrons, VT-8, VT-6, and VT-3, were unable to coordinate their attacks with the other aircraft to divide enemy defenses. The Hornet’s VT-8 TBDs fell behind the other Hornet aircraft, but their leader, LCDR John Waldron, took the opportunity to lead his men on another course to find the Japanese carriers. Before long, he succeeded, but could not raise the other Hornet squadrons on radio. Facing defending Japanese fighters alone, all fifteen VT-8 Devastators were destroyed, with only ENS George Gay’s aircraft able to get close enough to drop his torpedo, which missed the carrier Soryu. Gay survived the crash of his aircraft in the midst of the Japanese fleet, but the immediate attack by another TBD squadron forced the Japanese to leave him in the water and move on.
The Enterprise’s VT-6 likewise lost contact with its dive bomber cohorts, but smokescreens put up by the Japanese fleet to help defend against VT-8’s attack caught the attention of LCDR Gene Lindsay’s fliers. They turned north and soon found the Japanese carriers resuming course after dodging Waldron’s attack. The closest carrier, Kaga, sped away from them, meaning that the VT-6 TBD’s had only a 60-knot overtaking speed from several miles away. This allowed the Japanese fighter cover to intercept before the Devastators could set up their attack runs, but the recent fight with VT-8 left the Zeroes with low stocks of 20mm cannon ammunition, forcing them to employ their nose-mounted heavy machine guns. This resulted in ten Devastators being shot down, but four escaped. Ironically, a flight of Enterprise Wildcat fighters orbited high above across the elongated Japanese formation, but they could not hear VT-6’s calls for help.
The Yorktown launched its aircraft later than the Enterprise and Hornet, and they managed to keep together. As a result, when they found the Japanese fleet, VT-3’s TBDs had the support of some of LCDR Jimmy Thach’s fighters. The Devastators were spotted by the Japanese first, and their fighters attempted to attack the slow torpedo planes, but Thach’s fighters fought fiercely, introducing the innovative “Thach Weave” tactic that downed a few Zeroes. This attracted more defending fighters, and soon, the action at low altitude against the Devastators and Wildcats absorbed the Japanese attention, permitting the approach of both the Yorktown’s and Enterprise’s dive bombers high above among scattered clouds. As VT-3 attempted to press its attack against the Hiryu, nine TBDs, including that flown by LCDR Lance Massey, were shot down. The attack drove the Hiryu towards the northern horizon, away from other three carriers, which were soon walloped by successive hits from the undetected dive bombers. Three VT-3 TBDs survived to get away.
The loss of all but a handful of Devastators, and their crews led to the relegation of remaining TBDs to second-line duties, and eventually, scrapping. When the Guadalcanal campaign began in August 1942, all torpedo squadrons flew the Avenger.
Today, no Devastator is known to exist in any form on dry land. However, wartime underwater wrecks have been found, including a few in 2018 near the wreck of the carrier Lexington at the bottom of the Coral Sea. Until such aircraft may be salvaged, the replica soon to appear on the Midway’s hangar deck will be the best representation of this tragic aircraft in the world.
Through a culmination of skill and effort, our newest and most unique addition to the museum has reported for duty and will ensure our Midway Magic will continue in the years ahead!
That’s all for now, Midway Family! Please leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought of this month’s Karl’s Korner. When will you be visiting to see the TBD Devastator in action?
Launch em’… until next time,