LAST OF THE DEVASTATORS

By: Ben H. English

 

“Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit - a magic blend of skill, faith, and valor - that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory.”

― Walter Lord, Incredible Victory: The Battle of Midway

 

With all that is happening in the world at present, some may wonder why a rusting derelict of a ditched aircraft of some seventy years ago caught my attention. An aircraft, one might add, that was bordering on obsolescence at the time it went to its watery grave.

Not so long ago an article appeared on the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) web page, which touched upon the historical significance of the recent find of a long-lost Douglas TBD Devastator, and why the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola has declared its recovery a top priority.

But there is so much more to this story; one with almost a mythological amount of coincidence and irony. But it all really happened, both in the heat of battle and in the newly developed Technicolor of the silver screen. What is even more remarkable was both made their biggest impact within the time period of less than twelve months.

The year was 1941. The wide use of sound in motion pictures had only been in use for the past decade, and an even more recent technological development was now making its presence felt in Hollywood. That new marvel was color film, often referred to by its trademark name Technicolor.

It was expensive, and was usually reserved for only the largest and most extensive film productions. One of these was a screenplay based on a story written by a pioneering naval aviator whose name was Frank "Spig" Wead.

Some of you might recall that name. Years later his own life would be made into another major motion picture entitled The Wings Of Eagles. It was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ward Bond and Ken Curtis.

Commander Wead's brainchild was entitled Dive Bomber. The production was released on August 12, 1941 and starred Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy and a host of others. Chief Pilot for the film was credited to Paul Mantz.

Paul Mantz in his own right was an extraordinary man of many talents, but is best remembered for his love of aviation. He had been an Army pilot, a barn stormer and even flew rescue missions. When Tom Mix was killed, it was Mantz who was selected to fly Mix's body home.

Mantz himself would ultimately be killed doing some stunt work for the movie Flight of the Phoenix, starring Jimmy Stewart. For those of you who may not know, Stewart was an Army Air Force combat pilot who ended up as a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve.

As an aside, all three of these movies mentioned were great commercial successes and have endured through the decades as classics from a Hollywood which simply does not exist anymore. If you have not ever seen them before, you should.

Some of the stars which shone most brightly in the film Dive Bomber were not actors and actresses though. They were the aircraft of the United States Navy, most notably the TBD Devastator. Ironically enough, a movie about dive bombers most prominently showed off the lines of the Navy's premier torpedo bomber.

Painted up in the yellow, red and silver paint scheme of the pre-war United States Navy aviation arm, the color footage of these aircraft was so well done that it was nominated for an Academy Award in 1942. Before it ever flew its first combat mission, the Devastator was as well known to the American public as any other military aircraft in our inventory at the time.

But Hollywood is one thing, actual war is quite another. Fast forward to June 4, 1942, off a tiny atoll in the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean known as Midway Island. In the following few days, a conflict will be fought which some claim to be one of the twelve most important battles in human history. The TBD Devastator will figure large into what is about to occur.

Three torpedo bomber squadrons of Devastators will be thrown against superior elements of the Japanese Imperial Navy. This is an enemy which has never known defeat and has mostly rolled over all Allied resistance in the Pacific like an unstoppable juggernaut for the past six months. The Americans are outnumbered, out gunned and scrambling for any kind of a toe hold to halt the Japanese advance. Recently it has been discovered that their Mark 13 torpedoes are not working right; they tend to run deeper than what they are set for and the detonators often do not function correctly.

But they have managed to break the Japanese intelligence code, and they know the enemy is coming. On board the American aircraft carrier Hornet, the squadron commander for VT-8 is making final preparations for his own part in the battle to come. His name is Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, and he will fly the lead Devastator tomorrow morning. In the ready room that evening, he passes out the following message to his men.

"Just a word to let you know I feel we are all ready. We have had a very short time to train, and we have worked under the most severe difficulties. But we have truly done the best humanly possible. I actually believe that under these conditions, we are the best in the world. My greatest hope is that we encounter a favorable tactical situation, but if we don't and worst comes to worst, I want each of you to do his utmost to destroy our enemies. If there is but one plane left to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with us all. Good luck, happy landings, and give 'em hell!"

The next morning three full squadrons of Devastators would form up and fly towards the Japanese forces, including Waldron's Torpedo Squadron Eight. Aerial torpedo runs at this time in history were dangerous affairs in the best of circumstances; the planes were required to fly straight and level for a considerable distance, and the Mark 13 torpedo could not be launched at speeds over 115 MPH. Due to this and the lack of fighter escort stemming from an operational mix up, those circumstances could not have been worse.

The story below says there were a total of 43 Devastators involved in the attacks. My sources, including Gordon W. Prange's acclaimed Miracle At Midway, states there were 41. There were three men in each of the TBDs, and Torpedo Squadron Eight had fifteen Devastators when they began their run.

Only four out of the total number of Devastators from all three squadrons combined made it back home. None of Lieutenant Commander Waldron's squadron returned, and only one man of those 45 squadron mates survived the maelstrom of destruction which enveloped them. Not one of their Devastators wavered in their run in.

By the end of the battle, only 39 TBD Devastators remained in service in the entire United States Navy. Due to the horrendous losses sustained at Midway, the were quickly removed from front line service and replaced by the newer Grumman TBF Avenger. Relegated to training duties, the last TBD Devastator was written off in 1944.

But their sacrifice at Midway was not in vain. While every Japanese fighter, gun and eye was trained at sea level on the ill-fated Devastator squadrons ponderously trundling in, no one was watching what was happening above. Through that hole slipped two squadrons of Navy SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and they took maximum advantage of the tactical situation that Lieutenant Commander Waldron had longed for in his message to Torpedo Squadron Eight.

By the time those dive bombers left, three of the Japanese aircraft carriers were going down amid smoke, explosions and flames. The fourth carrier in this force would join the other three by the next day.

It would be a long, bloody road to the decks of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay some three years later. Midway was a giant step along the way. After that battle, the Japanese never fully recovered from their losses and from the psychological effect of not only being beaten badly, but beaten by an inferior force made up of men whom the Japanese considered too soft and unable to make the sacrifices so lauded in their own Bushido code.

Torpedo Squadron Eight proved them wrong.