No aircraft type played a more significant role in stemming the Japanese tide of conquest in the opening months of the Pacific war. No aircrews suffered greater proportional losses. And no airplane has gotten more of a raw deal from history than the Douglas TBD-1 “Devastator.”

When it joined the fleet in 1936, the TBD-1 heralded a new era in naval aviation. Its sleek monoplane design, all metal construction, 200 mph-plus speed, powered folding wings, and retractable landing gear stood in stark contrast to contemporaries like the British Fairey Swordfish. Strange as it may seem, the Devastator was the first American carrier-based aircraft to be equipped with wheel brakes.

  color swordfish
The British Fleet Air Arm placed an order for the new Fairey Swordfish in 1936, the same year the Douglas TBD-1 made its maiden flight. Photo courtesy Fleet Air Arm Museum.

Today the Devastator is most often remembered as the woefully obsolete torpedo bomber whose crews were slaughtered at the Battle of Midway. Of the forty-one TBDs launched that day from USS Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown, only four returned – a 90% loss rate. All of the fifteen airplanes in Hornet’s squadron (VT-8) were shot down. Not a single torpedo found its mark.

tbdWhat is usually forgotten is that the TBD’s newer, faster, more heavily-armed replacement, the Grumman TBF-1 “Avenger” fared no better that day. Of the six Avengers that participated in the battle, five were lost and the one surviving aircraft just barely returned, shot to pieces and with only two of its three crew members still alive.

The horrific losses suffered by the American torpedo bombers at Midway were not so much due to any inadequacy of the design as to the limitations imposed on the aircraft by the weapon they carried combined with a disastrous tactical situation.

The Bliss-Leavitt Mark XIII aerial torpedo was apt to break apart if dropped from an altitude greater than 100 feet and a speed higher than 110 knots. An aircraft thus engaged in a torpedo attack against a warship was extremely vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and defending fighters. The key to successful deployment of the torpedo depended upon either complete surprise or assault by several aircraft from multiple directions, covered by friendly fighters and carefully choreographed with simultaneous dive-bomber and horizontal bomber attacks to divide the enemy's defensive fire.

starsOn May 7, 1942, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, twenty-two TBDs were among ninety-three aircraft that carried out coordinated attacks on the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho, sinking her in a matter of minutes. American losses were minimal. (See “An Urgent Recommendation.”)

The confused, catch-as-catch-can nature of the tactical situation at Midway resulted in the torpedo bombers making unsupported attacks upon alerted and heavily defended targets. The Devastator crews pressed on despite these overwhelming odds and the result was as tragic as it was inevitable. Their sacrifice, however, was not unrewarded. The low level attacks by the TBDs served to pull the Japanese fighter cover down “on the deck” allowing the high-flying SBDs to reach the target area and begin their dives unopposed. The resulting accuracy of the American dive bombing attacks was largely responsible for the victory at Midway.

Unquestionably obsolete by the time it saw combat, the Devastator nonetheless played a crucial role in the opening months of the Pacific war. After Midway, the TBD was relegated to stateside training duties where accidents and mishaps further reduced its ranks.

There were never very many TBDs produced, 129 to be exact.* Now they’re all gone. Not one example survives in any museum or collection.

With your help, TIGHAR is determined to correct that situation.

* By comparison, Avenger production totaled 9,839 aircraft.

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