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.

map 3

American Aircraft, Page 2

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

B-25 3 viewThe North American B-25 Mitchell was the most numerous Allied medium bomber of World War II. According to research done by Majuro-based amateur historian Matt Holly, the wreckage at Jaluit is the remains of B-25G USAAF serial number 42-54893 assigned to the 41st Bomb Group, 820th Squadron, 7th Air Force and crewed by:

  • 1st Lt. Gerald J. Gavin – pilot
  • 2nd Lt. John T. Moyer – copilot
  • 1st Lt. Charles F. Jennings – navigator
  • Technical Sgt. Steven J. Miko – radioman/gunner
  • Staff Sgt. John W. Major – gunner
  • Corporal Samuel A. Bush – gunner

According to Mr. Holly’s research, the aircraft was one of nine B-25s that made a low level attack on Japanese installations at Imrodj on January 2, 1944. The aircraft’s right wing was reportedly shot off by anti-aircraft fire causing the Mitchell to crashed into the lagoon at high speed, disintegrating on impact. According to local witness Mr. Total Jimna, the bodies of the crew were recovered, stripped of papers and valuables, and sunk in the lagoon.

Site MI-JL-LA-005

  • Scattered wreckage of B-25 bomber.
  • GPS coordinates 06° 04.108′ North; 169° 36.471 East
  • The coordinates given in the 1997 NPS Survey are 06° 04.255′ North; 169° 36.471 East
  • The north/south discrepancy is undoubtedly due to the readings being taken at opposite ends of the long debris field.

This site was inspected and filmed in the afternoon of May 11, 2004 and was found to be generally as described in the 1997 survey. TIGHAR does, however, take issue with that report’s observation that “As the site is in such (poor) condition there is little interest to divers other than possible further investigation of the area with metal detectors for artifacts, etc.” Aside from the lamentable encouragement of souvenir hunting, the comment fails to acknowledge that the scattered B-25 wreckage lies at the base of a truly spectacular reef whose profusion of Porites sp. corals make it a potentially popular sport diving destination in its own right.

overhead deep airplane
Photo by J. Hoover.

New Site MI-JL-LA-007

  • Intact wreckage of US Navy Douglas TBD-1 Devastator, aka “the deep airplane,” presumed to be U.S. Navy Bureau Number 1515 assigned to Torpedo Squadron 5 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), and crewed on the morning of February 1, 1942 by pilot Ensign Herbert R. Hein, Jr., bombardier AOM3c J. D. Strahl, and radioman/rear gunner SEA1c Marshall E. Windham. All members of this crew are now deceased.

1515 crewThis aircraft’s presence had been postulated since at least 1997 but it was not until June 6, 2002 that Majuro-based divers Brian Kirk and Matt Holly located the wreck in 125 feet of water roughly 100 yards from the shallow TBD. Since then a very limited number of people have visited the wreck.

L. to R.: Ensign Herbert R. Hein, Jr.; AOM3c J.D. Strahl, SEA1C Marshall E. Windham. From That Gallant Ship – USS Yorktown (CV-5). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This site was the subject of three dives, two on the afternoon of May 10 and one on the morning of May 11. The first dive illustrated how difficult the aircraft is to find, even with the help of a guide, and the complexities of working at greater depths. The boat was brought to the area over the site using GPS and sonar. The guide then dove down to anchor a marker float near the aircraft. The four-man survey/photography team entered the water shortly afterward and attempted to follow the guide’s bubbles to the aircraft but, because the bubbles had drifted somewhat with the current, were unable to locate either the guide or the aircraft. After a suitable recovery period, a second dive followed the marker line and found the aircraft without difficulty. The buoy was left in place and, on the morning of May 11, the team once again followed the line to the aircraft and completed the survey and filming. The buoy and line were then retrieved.
deep engine
Photo by J. Hoover.

The deep TBD rests level on the sandy bottom with the starboard wing and a portion of the fuselage supported by some flat coral growth. Aside from the flotation bag covers, fabric control surfaces, tailwheel and a few skin panels from the starboard side of the nose (some of which appear to be nearby and partially covered with sand) the aircraft is entirely intact. The lower engine mounts appear to be broken, probably from the aircraft settling to the bottom in a nose-down attitude resulting in the engine from the mounts forward being tilted 9° downward and 20° to starboard (right). The outer 2.5 feet of one propeller blade is buried in the sand. No excavation was attempted but the exposed remainder and the entire length of the other blades show no indication of damage (below left).

deep prop

Due to the much greater depth, coral growth on this aircraft is markedly different from that seen on the shallow TBD. Coral which in shallow water grows tall tends, at depth, to hug the bottom to maximize the area exposed to light so that its zooxanthellae can photosynthesize. This stunting effect reduces the visible distinctions among various types and makes the identification of deep corals difficult without collecting samples, which was not an option in this case. Rather than large but isolated clumps and sheets, the coral on the deep TBD forms a thinner but more uniform coating over much of the airframe (right).

coral on 1515
Photos above and left by J. Hoover.

As a consequence, it is not apparent whether any paint survives under the coral but it was possible for the survey team to observe more interior detail, especially in the cockpit area, without disturbing the wreck and confirm that the aircraft exhibits no evidence of damage or pilferage since its arrival on the bottom 62 years ago. Both machine guns, the loop antenna, the cockpit controls and instruments, and all of the canopy elements are present and undamaged to the extent that can be determined without disturbing the site.

cockpit Cockpit of 1515, left; official Navy photo of TBD cockpit, right. official cockpit
Rear gun

The deep TBD in Jaluit lagoon represents that rarest of archaeological opportunities: a complete, virtually undamaged, remarkably well-preserved, undisturbed artifact that has both general and individual historical significance. Not only is it an intact example of an important aircraft type that survives in no museum or collection, but, as a casualty of the February 1, 1942 Marshall Islands raids, the individual aircraft is one of the very first American offensive combat losses of the Pacific war. The aircraft is most certainly eligible for inclusion on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and any undertaking involving the site by any agency of the United States government would be subject to the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and require a Section 106 review.

Rear machine gun. Photo by J. Hoover.


Above, Loop antenna. TIGHAR photo by T. Love. Right, Front machine gun and sight. Photo by J. Hoover.

To date, the aircraft has been protected by two factors:

  • Its very existence was only theoretical until recently. Only a handful of people today know its location.
  • Although resources on Jaluit are capable of supporting sport diving to moderate depths, any significant bottom-time at the deep TBD requires technical support that must be brought in at considerable expense. TIGHAR's survey was accomplished with a boat, equipment, compressor, and specialized safety equipment ferried from Majuro 125 miles away. Our team included a physician whose specialty is dive medicine.

However, it would be foolish to suppose that the aircraft will remain in such pristine condition for long. It is accessible to sport divers who are willing to “bounce” dive for a brief stay at the greater depth and potential souvenirs like the gun sight, the control stick, the instruments, and even the rear gun are vulnerable to smash-and-grab tactics.

In TIGHAR’s opinion, the only viable management option for this irreplaceable cultural resource is recovery under rigorous archaeological supervision followed by the application of expedient conservation measures and immediate transportation to a museum conservation facility for stabilization, restoration, and ultimately, exhibition.

Legal concerns, practical considerations and ethics dictate that any recovery of the TBD have the approval and full cooperation of the Historic Preservation Office of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the owners of that part of the lagoon in which the airplane rests, and the four iroij of Jaluit atoll. This is an aspect of historic aircraft recovery that has, in the past, been too often neglected. Bribery, intimidation and outright theft of aircraft and artifacts by salvagers have left a sad legacy of distrust throughout the Pacific region that can present a formidable obstacle to legitimate preservation efforts. There is, in fact, a widely held belief among the residents of Jaluit that at some time in recent years an aircraft was stolen from the lagoon and taken to Saipan. Whether true or not, the story fits the image of piracy that typifies, and is even embraced by, some aircraft salvagers.

TIGHAR is committed to the idea that an archæologically and ethically sound recovery of a TBD from Jaluit lagoon can benefit both the interests of historic preservation and the local community and set an example for future cooperative efforts worldwide. The happy coincidence of two TBDs in the lagoon means that the intact and complete deep airplane could be recovered and preserved while the more safely accessible shallow Devastator remains in situ to compliment the other historic ship and aircraft wrecks in the lagoon as tourist diving attractions. Of course, increased promotion of Jaluit as a WWII wreck-diving destination will require increased vigilance to prevent souvenir hunting but, in our experience, the worst looting occurs when a site is known to only a few enthusiasts who see it as a private treasure-trove. Daylight, in such cases, is the best disinfectant and it is our hope that the documentary film we’re making about the aircraft at Jaluit will both promote increased tourism and help protect the wrecks as cultural resources.

American Aircraft II

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