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A chance to get incredibly historic aircraft–Devastators and one important Wildcat!

24 October 2022

The U.S. Navy has a premier opportunity to recover Category I (according to the NASM system)—aircraft which participated in an historic event. In this case the aircraft are several Douglas TBD Devastators and a singularly historic Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat.  They were on the forward part of the U.S.S. Lexington’s flight deck when she was scuttled with a destroyer’s torpedos. She was scuttled after fires stopped the engines and threatened to explode the torpedos in storage. 

These eleven aircraft settled to the bottom of the Coral Sea a good distance from the Lexington. They alsohave remained in excellent shape since they were largely not involved in the ship’s fires or explosions. The depth of nearly 10,000 feet aids in keeping these aircraft remarkable preserved since the cool waters and low oxygen concentration values keep marine life to a minimum as well as corrosion rates.  The magnesium based engine mounts have returned to the ocean so the engines are most often either detached or nearly so. Paint is in excellent shape though as are the fuselages and wings. These aircraft are a remarkable find thanks to the efforts of Paul Allen and his ship the R/V Petrel.

The Navy should get these!

All of them!

They still own them after all—see the Sunken Military Craft Act for more details.

And the Navy can now get them due to a gathering of private groups and museums joining forces with a private benefactor providing 25-40% of the cost of recovery, conservation and restoration. Volunteers have also joined.

The idea is for these nongovernmental entities to use their skills in conservation and restoration after also raising the funds for the Navy’s Diving and Salvage Division to recover these aircraft. The Lexington is a war grave but these aircraft are not. The aircraft are also free and clear of the Lexington ensuring the remains of the 216 sailors KIA aboard ship remain undisturbed, as they should remain.

On Tuesday, October 25th, the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) will receive the request to recover these aircraft as well as the plan to conserve and restore them at the Air Zoo with the assistance of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation (NAFM). The NHHC needs only to review the application and rely on the Navy’s Diving and Salvage Division as well as experts from the NAMF and the vaunted Air Zoo—with advice from experts in two other countries. 

A TBD Devastator should be, and could be, in the soon to be built National Museum of the U.S. Navy as well as in the National Naval Aviation Museum. Surely the NHHC can focus on two priorities—the Navy’s newest museum and recovering the heritage of U.S. Navy’s ultimate heroism, when it won against dark odds and helped to save to world from more totalitarian rule, for display to the public. Other aircraft can be distributed so that they may be within driving distance of most U.S. localities.

Need more be said?

Okay… 

The first half of 1942 found the U.S. Navy in dire straits having World War II thrust upon it—especially in coping with the Imperial Japanese forces which were expanding their territories across the Pacific Ocean at an unprecedented pace.

The Pacific Fleet battleships had been decimated but most would be salvaged and repaired in time. A stroke of luck prevented the fleet’s aircraft carriers from damage or outright destruction buy the Navy’s most modern fighters—the Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat (the version yet to possess folding wings)—were few in number as were the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers. Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo-bombers numbered less than 150 in the entire Navy. The Navy had not heavily practiced offensive aircraft carrier tactics due to economic and political measures until to the raid on Pearl Harbor. 

This is what the Navy had to take the fight to the enemy at the time. And fight against an enemy who had honed combat operations through years of military exercises as well as years of combat. The U.S. Navy against Imperial Japan. Novices versus veterans.

What was the Navy to do? To think?

What the Navy always does…go into Harm’s Way…any action is better than no action.

So the fight was taken to Imperial Japan with an aircraft carrier-borne raid in the Southwest Pacific against the islands of Lae and Salamaua—which Japan had recently invaded to support the invasion of New Guinea. Japan invading New Guinea would cut Australia’s sea lanes off and isolate it. The U.S. Navy was going to fix that. The raid was a success with Devastator and Dauntless crews obtaining near total surprise and devastating the facilities. The Doolittle raid on Japan’s home islands threw another wrench into Imperial Japan’s martial plans of dominating Asia.

Imperial Japan’s military reacted by diverting more forces for home defense but they remained tru to their main strategy—lure the U.S. Navy into a cataclysmic night battle and this decision led to the Battle of the Coral Sea (the world’s first carrier-on-carrier fight) where Devastator and Dauntless aIrcrews once again proved blunted Japan’s moves for domination. Dauntless dive bombing at steep descent angles for a few minutes in their attack runs. Devastators flying barely faster than 100 mph straight and level less than 100 feet above the water for several minutes. The Navy had not yet perfected coordinated attacks with fighter cover but the idea of a combined torpedo and dive bombing attack was sound at the time—but could not work well in 1942 with little fighter cover and the slow Devastator aircraft. Yet the Devastator aircrews pressed on and did their ships proud. The Devastator’s reputation came crashing down at the Battle of Midway of course which seems to have unfairly made the Devastator and their aircrews not worthy of remembrance.

This is wrong and should be rectified. These were some of the Navy’s best attack aircraft and they took the fight to the enemy—forcefully and decisively. Their actions help wrest the initiative away from Imperial Japan. The first rule in war is to gain the initiative. The second is to retain the initiative.

So…where are these Douglas TBD Devastator aircraft to be seen? In what museums?

Nowhere. None.

Dauntless aircraft can be found, as can Wildcats, but not a single Devastator is to be seen—not even in storage. Why is there no regard for this historic aircraft?  

And why the Wildcat? This F4F-3 Wildcat is significant since it has four kill symbols and a single bombing mission symbol—these symbols are some of the earliest personal victories against the Imperial Japanese forces rampaging across the Pacific early in World War II. This early Wildcat was also flown by at least three historical figures in the U.S. Navy. They were “Jimmy” Thach, “Butch” O’Hare and “Scoop” Vorse and Noel Gaylor—collectively three future admirals as well as one who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Quite and aircraft.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick Veronico permalink
    25 October 2022 01:43

    Outstanding column, Joe! These aircraft need to be recovered, preserved, and displayed for all to see. Looking forward to more details soon!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      26 October 2022 11:10

      Could be one of the Navy’s best and most important recovery ops so far in the 21st Century.

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