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TBD Devastor Survey

Please note:
The site numbers used in this report are based upon those used in the Jaluit Underwater Survey Final Report dated May 25, 1997.

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American Aircraft

Site MI-JL-LA-004: Intact wreckage of Douglas TBD-1 Devastator

Site MI-JL-LA-005: Scattered wreckage of B-25 bomber

New Site MI-JL-LA-007: Intact wreckage of US Navy Douglas TBD-1 Devastator

The Douglas TBD-1 “Devastator” was the U.S. Navy’s first all-metal monoplane shipboard aircraft. Entering service in 1937, the three-man torpedo bomber was also the first to have main landing gear wheel brakes and power-operated folding wings. Although obsolete by the outbreak of the Pacific War, the type played pivotal roles in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942) despite horrific losses.

Devastator 3viewSpecs:

  • Description: Single-engined three-seat torpedo bomber.
  • Crew: 3
  • Power plant: One 900 hp Pratt & whitney R-1830-64 radial engine.
  • Wingspan: 50′
  • Length: 35′
  • Height: 15′1″
  • Max. spd: 206 mph
  • Range: 700nm

Site MI-JL-LA-004

Shallow TBD
Photo by J. Hoover. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  • Intact wreckage of US Navy Douglas TBD-1 Devastator, aka “the shallow airplane,” presumed to be U.S. Navy Bureau Number 0298.
  • GPS coordinates 05° 58.657′ North; 169° 27.101′ East
  • The coordinates given in the 1997 NPS Survey are 05° 58.651′ North; 169° 27.088′ East
  • The slight discrepancy is probably due to GPS signal variation.

This site was inspected and filmed during two dives on the morning and afternoon of May 9, 2004. With the port wingtip a mere 40 feet below the surface, the wreck can be seen from a boat on a calm day and viewed easily by anyone snorkeling on the surface. The aircraft is one of two Devastators resting in Jaluit lagoon about a mile and a half northeast of Pinglap Island. The other TBD is nearby but at a considerably greater depth so, as a matter of convention, we refer to the wrecks as the “shallow” airplane and the “deep” airplane.

Shallow Devastator Crew
Left to right: Pilot Lt. Harlan T. Johnson, bombardier ACMM Charles E. Fosha, and radioman/rear gunner RM1c James W. Dalzell. from That Gallant Ship – USS Yorktown (CV-5) by Robert Cressman, Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, MT. 1985. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
TIGHAR was able to determine the probable identity of the shallow aircraft as U.S. Navy TBD-1 Bureau Number 0298, assigned to Torpedo Squadron 5 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), and crewed on the morning of February 1, 1942 by pilot Lt. Harlan T. Johnson, bombardier ACMM Charles E. Fosha, and radioman/rear gunner RM1c James W. Dalzell. Fosha and Dalzell are still alive and have been interviewed by TIGHAR.

The identification of the aircraft was accomplished without disturbing the site. U.S. Navy records show that the two TBDs that landed in Jaluit lagoon were Bureau Number 0298 (Yorktown’s aircraft 5-T-7, radio call 77V44) and Bureau Number 1515 (Yorktown’s aircraft 5-T-6, radio call 76V44).¹ By fortunate coincidence, Bu. No. 1515 was part of a late production batch of 15 airplanes (Bu. Nos. 1505 through 1519) ordered in August 1938 which differed from earlier TBDs in a few minor details.² Most notably, a small “bomber’s compartment window” on each side of the fuselage just above the leading edge of the wing root was omitted in the later aircraft.

old tbd
Shallow TBD. TIGHAR photo by R. Barrel.
  The windows are present on the shallow TBD (above) and absent on the deep TBD (below) thus suggesting that the shallow airplane is Bu. No. 0298 and the deep airplane is Bu. No. 1515. As described below, further corroboration is provided by the absence of a rear machine gun on the shallow TBD. Positive identification from serial numbers on data plates would require significant invasive action that was beyond the scope of this survey.
no window
Deep TBD. Photo by J. Hoover. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
new tbd

According to the 1997 report:

The aircraft is intact other than the propeller and engine cowling that is [sic] separated and lying approximately 15 feet from the main body of the aircraft. The glass canopy is still intact however the forward pilot’s window is broken.

vertical finTIGHAR found that the aircraft is intact in that no major structural components are missing. The doped cotton covering of the control surfaces is gone, as are all traces of paint or markings on the aircraft.

There is a large growth of Pocillopora Sp. coral on top of the fuselage in front of the pilot’s cockpit, and smaller coral lumps and sheets elsewhere, but the condition of the aircraft’s aluminum skin appears to be remarkably free of corrosion. Rivet heads look tight and sound. The bare metal corrugated aluminum surface of the wings is shiny. As noted, the engine is separated from the airframe and lies just forward of the port wing. The propeller hub is 13. 5 feet from the center of the fuselage nose section.

engine position
Photo credits: upper left, vertical fin; TIGHAR photo by R. Barrel. Above, photo courtesy T. Praster. Directly below, photo courtesy T. Praster.

The engine appears to have been knocked off when the nose struck a coral ledge just before the airplane came to rest. As the fuselage settled onto an underwater hillside it slid backward a short distance until the port wing wedged against and somewhat under a large coral outcropping and the starboard wingtip jammed against a smaller coral boulder. The aircraft now lies in roughly a 30° bank, starboard wing low and nose high, on the reef slope (see illustration).

There is minor structural damage to the wingtips and underside of the fuselage caused by the short rearward slide. Nothing in the suggested scenario explains the broken windshield.

engine detail
left wingtipright wingtip

Photos courtesy T. Praster.

Left wingtip.
Right wingtip.

It appears that the pilot’s Mark III Model 2 telescopic gun sight and Mark XXIV, Model 3 torpedo director have been removed. Photographs taken during the 1997 survey reveal that these items were missing at that time. The gun sight and torpedo director were incorporated in a single unit – a tube roughly 2.5 feet long and 3 inches in diameter – that was mounted on the centerline of the aircraft on top of the instrument panel in front of the pilot and projecting out through the windshield. The loss of these items is almost certainly associated with the broken windshield.

Right, broken windshield and missing gunsight. Photo courtesy T. Praster.

windshield

Right, installed gunsight. U.S. Navy photo.

According to the 1997 report:

There was no sign of any weapons – these may already have been removed. The plane was in such a position that it was impossible to see if a torpedo was still present.

gun sight

rear gun

Above, rear gun installation. U.S. Navy photo.

Nose gun, 0298Standard armament for the Douglas torpedo bomber was a fixed, forward-firing Browning M2 .30 caliber (in some cases .50 caliber) machine gun mounted in the starboard side of the forward fuselage and firing through the propeller arc; and for rear defense, another M2 .30 caliber machine gun on a flexible mount aft of the radioman/gunner's position. Contrary to the 1997 report, the forward-firing .30 caliber machine gun on this aircraft is, in fact, present (left). Several panels on the starboard side of the nose are missing, possibly blown off by water pressure during the ditching.

nose gun

Above, nose gun on shallow airplane. Photo courtesy T. Praster.

Right, nose gun installation. U.S. Navy Photo.

missing gun

The rear gunner’s weapon is missing (left) but Mr. James Dalzell, who was the radioman and rear gunner on Bu. No. 0298, has told us that after the aircraft landed in the lagoon he dismounted the machine gun thinking to take it ashore for defense against the Japanese but, upon realizing that the crew of the other TBD had accidentally punctured their inflatable rubber boat and that his plane’s boat would have to accommodate the crews of both aircraft, he dropped the gun over the side. If his recollections are accurate, the gun should be on the lagoon bottom somewhere between the two aircraft.

Left, missing rear gun. Photo courtesy T. Praster.

U.S. Navy records indicate that for the February 1, 1942 raid all of USS Yorktown’s TBDs were armed with 500 pound bombs, not torpedos. In the case of Bu. Nos. 0298 and 1515, due to low cloud and poor visibility the target was never located and the bombs were reportedly (and sensibly) jettisoned prior to ditching in the lagoon.³ A limited visual inspection of the underside of the aircraft revealed no sign of ordnance.

The tail wheel is missing but this is believed to be damage that occurred during the ditching rather than due to theft. The deep airplane, which exhibits no sign of looting, is also missing its tail wheel.

ditching a TBD

This TBD, Bu.No. 0358, was ditched in Pensacola Bay, Florida on August 15, 1938. Note the nose-high attitude and extended flaps. U.S. Navy photo.

prop blades

In accordance with recommended procedure, both aircraft apparently touched down nose high with wing flaps extended (observable on both wrecks) and carrying little or no power, as evidenced by a lack of any bending of the propeller blades on either aircraft (photo at left).

In such a landing the tail wheel is the first component of the aircraft to make contact with the water and, naturally, does so at a higher speed than any other surface. Because the structure was designed to absorb compression rather than tension, separation of the wheel assembly from the spindle due to failure of the attaching pin (Douglas Part No. AC386-4-21) seems probable (see illustration below). This hypothesis is supported by the appearance of the remaining portion of the strut (photo below left) but confirmation would involve removal of the coral that presently covers the spindle.

Left, photo courtesy T. Praster.

strut

TIGHAR photo by R. Barrel.

tailwheel diagram
inflated bags

On both TBDs, the panels that covered the wing bays in which the flotation airbags were housed are missing. This is consistent with the bags having been inflated after the ditching to keep the aircraft afloat while the crews deployed their rubber boats. According to Mr. Dalzell the bags were then shot with sidearms and slashed with a knife blade to prevent the aircraft being retrieved by the Japanese.

Flotation bags inflated on TBD. U.S. Navy photo.

empty bayThe 1997 survey reported that “coral-encrusted dials,” the pilot’s “joystick” [sic], and “foot peddles” [sic] were still in place. Given our commitment not to disturb the wreck, subsequent increased coral growth made it impossible for us to confirm whether instruments, control stick or rudder pedals are still present. We were similarly unable to ascertain whether or not the Norden bombsight is still mounted in the belly compartment, but it would be surprising if the device is in the aircraft.

Mr. Charles Fosha, the bombardier on Bu. No. 0298, has said that the then-Top Secret bombsight was thrown over the side while the aircraft was still in flight. Mr. Dalzell, who was sitting behind Fosha, independently corroborates that recollection and adds that the bombsight was actually passed aft to him so that he could throw it clear of the wing.

The empty bays where the flotation bags were housed on #0298. TIGHAR photo by R. Barrel.

Loop drawing

Another item of equipment that remains in question is the direction-finding loop antenna for the Bendix RDF-1 radio receiver that was normally mounted inside the canopy between the center and rear cockpits (illustration at left).

Below, possible radio on seat. Photo courtesy T. Praster.
Radio in seat

No loop antenna is present on the aircraft now and photos taken in 1997 indicate that no antenna was present at that time either. However, historical photos suggest that not all TBDs carried this equipment and, according to Radioman Dalzell, by 1942 new technology had made the RDF obsolete. It is possible that the aircraft never had a loop antenna but there is an object laying in the pan of the rear gunner’s seat which looks very much like a broken radio. If so, it could be debris left behind when someone forcibly removed the loop antenna.

 

In summary, the aircraft has not been looted to the degree initially believed but it appears that at least one and perhaps two components were removed at some time prior to the 1997 survey. No further damage since then is apparent. Although the aircraft rests in relatively shallow water, its position – securely wedged into the eastern face of a reef on the western side of the atoll – has served well to protect it from storms but would also make any attempt to raise the aircraft extremely problematic.
  1. Robert Cressman, That Gallant Ship -- USS Yorktown (CV-5). Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana, 1985. Back.
  2. Al Adcock, TBD Devastator In Action. Squadron/Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas, 1989. Back.
  3. TIGHAR interview with James Dalzell, June 10, 2004. Back.
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