In the summer of 1934, the United States Navy held a design competition between the Great Lakes Company of Cleveland, Ohio and the Douglas Aircraft Company of El Segundo, CA. Known for their reliable bi plane design, the Great Lakes Company submitted an updated version of their most recent carrier plane. The Navy had purchased 60 of the previous model in the early 1930s prior to holding this competition. The Douglas Company, on the other hand,submitted an aircraft that was very different. It was unique in a lot of ways but its main distinction was the first thing one would notice when comparing these two aircraft. The Douglas TBD Devastator had only one set of wings.
The first motor powered aircraft was the biplane built by the Wright Brothers in 1903. Progress was slow until World War 1 greased the wheels of innovation. Once Great Britain’s Royal Flying Corp banned monoplanes due to structural failures, the biplane had a monopoly on the aviation combat market. The biplanes were effective fighers as they became lighter and faster over the course of the war. Towards the end of the war, the Germans were tinkering with a monoplane prototype that was very successful. The war ended before the monoplane could fully display its skills and the biplane remained the predominant choice until the 1930s. As the engines became more powerful, the need for a double wing aircraft decreased. With Europe already flying monoplanes, it was only time before a monoplane posed a threat to the combat throne of the American biplane.
The Douglas TBD Devastator had more features than just the one pair of wings. It was the first carrier plane to have brakes. It was the first plane to be made out of all metal, as most planes before then used wood in their design. The wings could be folded up using hydraulics and the cockpit was completely enclosed. These revolutionary features addded to its impressive display of dive bombing put the Douglas Aircraft Company ahead of the Great Lakes Company, ushering in a new era of carrier bombers. In 1935, the US Navy ordered its first round of TBD Devastators to restock their carriers. By the start of the South Pacific in 1942, 129 TBD’s were boarded on aircraft carriers destined for the Marshall Islands, combat ready. With early dive bombing successes in February and March of 1942, the celebration peaked in May with the sinking of a Japanese aircraft carrier at the Battle of the Coral Sea. However this jubilation was short lived because, in the following months, the Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros would prove to be a superior aircraft to the Douglas TBD. By 1944, it flew slow, dove slow and its torpedoes never connected. The Battle of Midway put all but four TBD’s into extinction with those remaining to be used as precious scrap metal.
I called the head of TIGHAR one Monday afternoon to discuss the TBD Devastator. TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recover) locates, funds and recovers historic aircraft from the sea. Their work is quite impressive and I would suggest taking a look at their website, tighar.org, to learn more. TIGHAR has located a TBD off the coast of the Marshall Islands and the situation is ripe for a successful recovery because of the depth of the water and conditions of the plane. However, both the Marshall Islands and the US Navy cannot agree on who owns the plane. It’s a game of squatter’s rights. That plane is Naval property yet it has been in the Marshall Island’s jurisdiction for over 60 years. While the two entities argue over ownership, TIGHAR waits. They wait as the plane sits in the salty Coral Sea. They wait at their chance to recover and restore arguably the rarest aircraft in World War 2 history. With no example of a Douglas TBD Devastator on land, they wait as the salt water slowly ticks away at the chance of redemption for a forgotten legend.