Douglass TBD-1 Devastator

John C Waldron

The Devastator is best known for the sacrifice of it’s crews at the Battle of Midway. In particular, Torpedo 8 which lost all of their aircraft and most of their personnel in one attack.

Let’s look at a prime mover behind the well known story.

John C Waldron was born in 1900 and appointed to the US Naval Academy in 1920. He graduated in 1924 and started sea duty on a heavy cruiser. But he quickly switched to aviation and had his pilot’s wings by 1927. Like most naval aviators of the period he had tours on almost everything; from battleship floatplanes to patrol flying boats to scouts, dive bombers and fighters. And of course, torpedo. He also served as an instructor, and even did a detail on quality control for Norden bombsights.

The twin .30s seen here were a last minute improvisation to boost defensive firepower. They wouldn’t fold down into the gun stowage and the rear window section couldn’t close over it. Also note the TBD is three place aircraft. But the middle seat, navigator/bombardier, was left empty for torpedo missions.
TBDs at Midway carried Mk 13 torpedoes with a plywood box around the rear fins to improve their stability and entry into the water. Sort of like fixing a severed limb with a band aid…

By 1941 John Waldron was a seasoned and experienced professional. That summer a new aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet (CV-8) started working up to enter service and Lieutenant Commander John Waldron was given command of that ship’s torpedo squadron. Obviously December 7 of that year added a new sense of urgency to the training. The aircrew of Torpedo 8 were a mix of Navy Careerists and Reservists, but all had signed up before the War. So while mostly young and green, they were serious about their business.
Waldron drove his pilots hard. They practiced bombing and torpedo attacks (practice torpedoes were NOT made available, so such practice involved dry runs), fighter defense, emergency launches and formation flying. When one trainee was killed, due in part to their ancient training equipment, Waldron drove to DC and informed his superiors they would not fly again until newer planes were provided. His pressure on both his trainees and higher ups was relentless, he got a formal order from the Navy Department stating Torpedo 8 would be the first to get the new Grumman Avenger.
But when Hornet left San Francisco for the War Zone there may have been B-25s on board, but the torpedo squadron was still in Devastators. After the famous Doolittle raid there was a brief turnaround at Pearl Harbor. The Avengers had arrived, but they weren’t ready. The Avenger definitely was a real improvement; much more powerful with a 1700 hp R-2600 engine compared to the TBD’s 900 hp R-1830. The Avenger also had better defensive armament, crew armor and self sealing fuel tanks. Unfortunately the pilots who were type rated on the Avenger were the squadron’s greenest pilots who’d been left behind when Hornet first deployed.
Given that there was no time to get his pilots ready in the new type, Waldron found an interesting way to improve their defensive ability. Douglass was aware that combat aircrew wanted more defensive firepower. So they had designed a twin .30 gun mount to replace the single .30 on the SBD Dauntless. And all new construction from early 1942 (this would be during the SBD-3 production run) would get this twin mount. But they also built a number of twin .30 mounts for refitting the Navy’s existing Dauntlesses. This was accomplished in the last couple weeks of May, I believe on all SBDs that were deployed with the fleet. Well no surprise, it turns out the new twin mount would fit just fine on the Douglass designed TBD too. Waldron was able exert his considerable will to get 20 of the twin mounts delivered to Hornet so that all of Torpedo 8’s Devastators could be so equipped. [I’ve also seen it claimed that a number of TBDs in the other fleet squadrons also received the twin mount, but I’ve not seen specific instances so I can’t confirm on any particular aircraft outside of Torpedo 8].

A total of 129 TBD Devastators were built. The only hardware variation I know of among them is if their forward machine gun (firing port seen here above the propeller blade) was a .30 or a .50. If you look back along the fuselage to that small intake, still just above the propeller blade, you see a small blister on the forward fuselage. That blister was added for the bigger breech and ammunition feed of the .50. I believe by the time the War started, all TBDs had upgraded to the .50.

The trip out to Midway (the three carriers actually rendezvoused at “Point Luck”, northeast of Midway Is) leads to two interesting Waldron stories. One is just that he was the only squadron commander who insisted his men do morning calisthenics every day. Apparently they would work out on the flight deck, and finish up with a run around the perimeter of the deck, while the other pilots stood aside and heckled.
The other is a much bigger deal, Waldron and Air Group 8 Commander Stanhope C Ring argued about tactics regularly. At Coral Sea the fighter escort had been split between the dive and torpedo bombers on strikes. The fighters and dive bombers suffered heavy casualties there, while the torpedo bombers did not. Commander Ring wanted to concentrate his fighters up high with the dive bombers, and reasoned the torpedo bombers had shown they didn’t need protection. Waldron strongly objected, observing his torpedo bombers were far more vulnerable, coming in low and slow. He wanted a section of fighters available to stay with his boys the whole way. Just as an aside, pretty much everyone at the time, except for Commander Ring, considered Commander Ring to be an idiot. Sadly this would prove to be a case where “everyone” was proven right. (Even before Midway, the common opinion I’ve seen is “Commander Ring wears his Dress Uniform well, he really should be an Embassy Attaché somewhere so he can wear his Dress Uniform more”).
Fighting 8 skipper Pat Mitchell supported Waldron, but Ring could not be dissuaded. To be fair, the new F4F-4 was a slow climber; so starting high made some sense. But having no fighters tasked with the Torpedo Squadron was problematic.

Lt Cdr John C Waldron on June 4, 1942. [photo via wikipedia]

June 4, 1942 was the day of the big battle. That morning Waldron handed a typed order to each of his crews. It is well known but worth repeating here:

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 us to do our utmost to destroy our enemies. If there is only one plane left to make the 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.

John C Waldron (quoted from The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds)

The previous days’ arguments about fighter assignments were repeated on the Hornet’s bridge with Capt Marc Mitscher, but by this time the bombers were warming up on deck and it was time to go with no good solution.
The air group spent too much time forming up and wasted fuel they didn’t have. Finally, with the last sighting report putting the Japanese off to the southwest, Ring insisted on leading the group due west. This led to a heated argument over the radio between Ring and Waldron about where the Japanese likely were. Finally, after much broadcast profanity, Waldron led his torpedo squadron to the southwest. This pulled them away from the rest of the air group and any possible support, but directly to the Japanese fleet.

John C Waldron and his gunner, Chief Radioman Horace F Dobbs depart the Hornet at about 0730 on June 4, 1942. [photo via wikipedia]
Two Midway combatants. The Wildcat here was flown by John Thach of Fighting 3, who provided Torpedo 3 with the only fighter cover for a torpedo squadron that day.

Torpedo 8 would be the very first US fleet unit to find the Japanese that day. They attacked right away, low and slow with no fighter cover.
The Japanese at this point had no radar and no coordinated fighter control network. So fighter direction was very much a matter of sharp eyed lookouts, and getting the attention of airborne CAP to point them in the right direction (typically this meant shooting in the direction of spotted intruders). But having fought off several attacks from Midway based aircraft that morning the lookouts were indeed sharp. Waldron’s 15 Devastators were sighted and 24 Zeros tore after them. The Zeros were methodical in shooting the torpedo bombers to pieces. Waldron went down in flames. The pilots could make no defensive moves without ruining their approach for the torpedo drop. Only one plane, flown by Ens George Gay, survived long enough to drop a torpedo. It was either a miss or a dud. Then Ens Gay was shot down too. He was the only survivor of the attack, rescued days later by a PBY.

Zeros destroyed the torpedo squadrons.

Torpedo squadrons from the other two fleet carriers present met with only slightly better outcomes. By the end of the day the carriers could muster a total of four TBDs.
But the sacrifice of the torpedo squadrons looms large in the story of Midway. There has been much fussing and arguing over the exact timing of events in the years since, but the final truth is that the attack of the torpedo planes brought the Japanese combat air patrol down low, at wave top height to destroy their attacks. That left them completely wrong footed to face the Dauntless dive bombers coming in high.
The Dauntless crews suffered heavy casualties that day too, but they succeeded in destroying all four Japanese aircraft carriers.
Commander Ring and the three squadrons he led, completely missed the Japanese and saw no combat. Many of those planes, and all the fighters, ran out of fuel and ditched in the ocean with great loss of life.

The TBF-1 replaced the TBD immediately after Midway. There really were hardly any Devastators left at that point anyway! This particular Avenger was a part of Torpedo 8’s Midway Island detachment that also participated in the battle with 6 TBFs, this one alone surviving.

This model represents Lt Cdr John C Waldron’s TBD on that day of battle. This is the Great Wall kit. Overall an excellent kit, I sort of messed up the windows, so don’t look at them. One detail mistake that amused me, the kit includes the twin .30 mount (very nice); but the directions would have you leave it stowed beneath the doors in the fuselage directly below where you see it here. And indeed that would all fit nicely. But it shouldn’t. That little storage compartment was sized for the single .30 and the twin mount could not be stowed. The rear section of glass was even removed for some little weight savings, since it couldn’t be closed over the guns at all!
This kit is a big improvement over the old Monogram kit. Better fit and more detail. Especially nice with the corrugated wings, you don’t have to destroy the detail to hide the seam!

The old Monogram kit alongside the newer Great Wall kit. Fit and detail have been much improved. Its hard to see here, but much texture detail was lost on the old kit from sanding down seams, especially on the wings.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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15 Responses to Douglass TBD-1 Devastator

  1. Jeff Groves says:

    I have often wondered what might have been different had the Wildcats at Midway been fitted with drop tanks. At the very least it might have saved several of Hornet’s Wildcats!

    • atcDave says:

      I wonder too if a single section of Wildcats would have actually helped Torpedo 8 much. So many Zeros! But they might have kept them busy, long enough to help. Maybe.

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I saw the windows Dave. Noboby’s perfect. I still have the old Monogram in its box just begging to be built.

    • atcDave says:

      Ah well, I will try again!
      The old Monogram was a great kit for its time, some good memories there. I still have one of those in the stash too.

      • Pierre Lagacé says:

        I have problems with canopies also. The problem lays with the manufacturers. Close-fitting canopies are rare.

      • atcDave says:

        My problem on this one started with paint getting under the mask.

  3. Kevin says:

    Excellent… thank you! Enjoyed the read very much, as well as reacquainting myself with some very significant history of VT-8 and the Battle of Midway. Great work on the TBD, too… a lot of fun!

  4. Pingback: Douglass TBD-1 Devastator – My Forgotten Hobby III

  5. jfwknifton says:

    Well, as a non-model maker, the windows look OK to me. Everything is the same high standard that we’ve come to expect.

  6. A lovely tribute to Walden, those men were so brave and determined to go in unaided. It’s a great model too, fabulously finished as always.

  7. “I sort of messed up the windows. So don’t look at them”. Hilarious! Thanks for the background and history. I used to be all about just building models. But now I’m far more interested in building models that have a historical significance.

    • atcDave says:

      I figure if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re doomed to much frustration!
      Yeah I love the history of what I build. It gives me a thrill to see meaningful subjects living in my home. Obviously some of it is just the “gee whiz” factor (like some of the hypotheticals I’m currently doing), but I love the research and meaning behind the things.

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