'Holy Grail' of Warbirds Found off San Diego
Effort under way to raise TBD Devastator
Developed before WWII but proven obsolete by war’s breakout, the TBD Devastator torpedo bomber has no display or flying examples
Nothing fishy here, just a frame of the underwater video showing the Devastator’s aft-facing rear gunner position.
March 2, 2011 — The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, announced last week plans to raise a pre-World War II Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber located off the coast of San Diego, California. Once sponsorship is secured, the rare warbird will be retrieved and restored to static display condition. With no flying or display Devastator examples anywhere in the world, the TBD is among the most sought-after restorations, according to Capt. Ed Ellis, USN (Ret), who heads aircraft restorations at the museum.
“It’s the ‘holy grail’ in terms of naval aviation, and something we’d like to have in this museum,” Ellis said.
Taras Lyssenko, of A&T Recovery, Chicago - which has raised more than 30 WWII warbirds from Lake Michigan and other sites - stated, “A long, long time ago Capt. (R.L. “Bob”) Rasmussen (museum director) gave us a list of airplanes he wanted to get into the museum. The TBD was high on his list.” A&T is the company that recovered a Curtiss Helldiver last August from Lower Otay Lake near San Diego and a rare “Birdcage” Corsair from Lake Michigan in November 2010.
Lyssenko said the TBD wreckage was discovered about 15 years ago but its location was kept secret. “We’ve located a lot of airplanes; we have a bagful of secrets,” he said, hinting at a considerable number of yet-to-be disclosed finds. “We haven’t gone out looking for aircraft since 1996.”
A&T learned of the wreckage from the accident report describing a Devastator crash during a training flight from N.A.S San Diego on March 4, 1941. The pilot, Lt. W.A.H. Howland, described in full detail events leading to the forced ditching of the three-place aircraft. The others on board during the flight were R. Rogers, Aviation Ordnanceman Second Class (AOM2c), and First Officer O.A. Carter, Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class (AMM3c). All three were rescued within 30 minutes of the crash by the destroyer U.S.S. Williamson. (Read the accident report here.)
Sonar located the wreckage and a dive confirmed it was a Devastator. A&T declined to give its precise location, but generally described it as being in federal waters, between 3 and 12 miles out, in 600 feet of water. The report indicated the crash took place 5 miles west of Mission Beach.
Second option from ‘the bag’
Ellis explained that until recently the museum’s focus was on raising a Devastator from the Atlantic Ocean off Miami, Florida. However, the project was scuttled due to legal issues when the party that discovered the wreckage filed a lawsuit to claim it. Another TBD located in the Marshall Islands looked promising but the logistics and cost of raising and shipping it back to the U.S. proved prohibitive. So Lyssenko reached into his bag and pulled out the plane off San Diego, which has now become the museum’s top priority.
Resurrecting a submerged warbird always seems overwhelming, Lyssenko said, but it takes more than just dollars to accomplish a project such as this. “Multiple entities can find an aircraft, but it’s more about preserving the history of the greatest generation,” he said. “The people who underwrite these recoveries understand that these machines protected our freedoms.”
Honoring TBD pilots’ sacrifices
The TBD Devastator was considered the Navy’s most formidable airplane when it became part of the inventory in 1937. By the time Pearl Harbor occurred, however, rapid worldwide development in aviation technology had rendered the airplane virtually obsolete.
“TBDs were slow torpedo bombers that had to fly low, straight, and level at a fixed speed to drop their torpedoes,” Ellis explained. During the Battle of Midway in June 1942, 43 unescorted TBDs went on the attack against Japanese carriers, but 39 were destroyed without inflicting any damage by the superior Zeros. However, because the Zeros were drawn out of position to deal with the TBDs, two late-arriving squadrons of American SBD Dauntless dive bombers were able to successfully attack and destroy three carriers. This is widely considered the most important naval battle of the Pacific campaign.
“There are no aircraft on display anywhere to honor those brave men who did their duties,” Ellis said. “Nobody thought to save any of those airplanes.”
The museum is looking for sponsors to help with the estimated $300,000 needed to raise and ship the plane back to Florida, where museum staff and volunteers will be tasked with restoring to plane for static display.
“That is the focus of our efforts,” Ellis said. For more information about the project, send Ellis an e-mail.