Story by Frank Lorey III
When you get three former World War II torpedo bomber crewmen together, the
stories recalling experiences in the old "turkey" come fast and furious. The Grumman-designed aircraft was part of the Navy's 1939 program to modernize
the carrier fleet, which up to that time had been stuck with the miserable
Douglas TBD-1 Devastator.
Proposals calling for a new torpedo bomber went out in October 1939, and out of
several submissions, the Chance Vought XTBU-1 and Grumman XTBF-1 were selected
to go to the prototype building stage. The VT (torpedo bomber) class was the last Naval aircraft to undergo the
Grumman had never attempted to design a torpedo bomber, being much more known
for its carrier-based fighter aircraft. The proposal called for a three-man crew--pilot, radioman/top gunner, and belly
gunner. It was to be able to carry a 2,000-pound torpedo or four 500-pound bombs at a
top speed of 300 MPH.
Flight tests came just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and while the Grumman
entry couldn't reach 300 MPH, neither did the XTBU-1. Top speed was clocked at a slow 271 MPH, with a range of 1,200 miles. Grumman won the contract, but the slow speed forever left the Avenger with the
nickname of "turkey."
"It was always flying low and slow, trying to drop the torpedo," recalled R.B. "Toby" Cromwell, an Avenger top turret gunner and pilot. "It looked like a turkey buzzard when coming in to land," he added, saying that was how it got the unusual nickname.
First production models of the plane rolled off the assembly line in January
1942, showing how fast the development of an aircraft can proceed when the
military has an urgent need. The Avenger first saw combat in the Battle of Midway, where six of the bombers
had just been deployed after arriving from Hawaii. In their first action, five were lost while attacking the Japanese fleet, while
one managed to make it back to a crash-landing on a Midway beach--not a very
By the Guadalcanal campaign two months later, all carrier-based torpedo
squadrons had been re-equipped with Avengers. Production at Grumman could not meet the demand, as they were only able to turn
out about 60 per month due to heavy demand for their fighters. Eastern Aircraft, a division of General Motors, was asked to build Avengers
under contract to Grumman. The Eastern-built models were designated TBM's, while the original Grummans were
TBF's. While Grumman built a total of 2,291 TBF's, Eastern was able to turn out 7,546
TBM's--77% of the total production of Avengers during the war. It was not the first time that Grumman had to enter into such an agreement with
Eastern--the same thing occurred with the F4F Wildcat (Grumman) and the FM-1
Toby Cromwell had two tours of duty in the Avenger, one with land-based Marine
Air Group VMTB 134, and the other with VTMB-143 based on the carrier U.S.S.
Gilbert Islands (CVE-107). Like the rest of the Avenger crewmen, most of his memories were of dive-bombing
missions rather than dropping torpedoes.
"We would normally be using 400 and 500-lb. bombs with delayed-action fuses, but
also occasionally 1000-lb. bombs," Cromwell said. They also would be called upon to drop para-fragmentation and anti-personnel
bombs. The heaviest of the bombs were used to neutralize enemy airfields.
"My most memorable combat hop was my first one--coming off a small island near
Guadalcanal," Toby related. He was flying in one of two 4-plane groups making up one division, coming in at
about 12,000 feet.
"Our division was the last to come in, and we faced what I can best describe as
'blankets of fire'. I have to admit it felt strange--I was scared to death," he admitted. Apparently Cromwell wasn't the only one to feel that way. He noticed a nearby plane coming in at the same time with the bomb bay open and
landing gear down--definitely against procedures. The pilot also forgot to drop his bombs, eventually jettisoning them out over
the ocean. "He got a lot of kidding," Cromwell recalled.
Cromwell flew on a total of 74 air strikes, 42 from land, and 32 off carriers. While on the second tour of duty, they trained with small rockets, a new
experience--one that the aircraft was not designed to handle.
"We used the rockets on Okinawa against Shuri Castle, coming in about 'hanger
high', against the enemy positions in the cliffs," Toby remembered. It was then that he had his worst experience--anti-aircraft fire hit his plane
right between his feet and the rudder pedals. Fire started immediately, and it was becoming obvious that they would not make
it back with the aircraft.
"I told the crew to start bail-out procedures and stand by to bail out, then
called 'Mayday' on the radio," Cromwell related. They were only halfway between Okinawa and Ishigaki when the plane started down
rapidly. Unfortunately, the hatch door had already been dropped, leaving the Avenger wide
open to the water. Fortunately, a PBM Martin Mariner seaplane had heard the
Mayday call, and started toward the radio signal at once.
Cromwell had to ditch the Avenger in the sea, killing the belly gunner upon
impact. Hesaw his radioman/gunner, Bobby Wood, throw off his helmet and dive out of the
plane. Despite wounds from striking the instrument panel on the impact, Toby was able
to do the same--just in time to watch the Avenger sink about a minute after
coming to rest in the water.
"We spent about two and a half to three hours in the water, with Japs shooting
at us from the shore. It was a great sight when the Mariner set down in the water to pick us up," said Cromwell. Later in the war he flew F6F Hellcats fighters, and afterward flew F4U Corsairs.
Cromwell even stayed in the military long enough to fly jets before the end of
Delmar Wiley was also a top turret gunner/radioman, and he started missions in the old Devastator torpedo bomber. He feels very fortunate to have survived his wartime experiences, first serving
with VT-3 on the U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-5) when it was sunk during the Battle of
At that point, Wiley was sent back to NAS Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii to learn the new
TBF Avenger. Things were still jittery in Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor attack, so during the
whole two months of training they were ordered to maintain strict radio
silence--an interesting concept for training a radioman. After training, Del was assigned as a replacement crewman, meaning he didn't fly
On August 24, 1942, Wiley finally did get to fly in combat again during the
Battle of the Eastern Solomans. He was in a two-plane section, out looking for a reported Japanese carrier. Apparently, they got too close without actually spotting it, instead finding the
cruiser Tone, part of the screening force.
"We made one run when we were jumped by three Zeros. I saw them, but they were still too far out for my turret," Wiley recalled. At this point, his pilot asked him to go below to turn on the radio and contact
their carrier, the Enterprise. While he was below, the Zeros caught up to them and sent the Avenger down into
the ocean. Del was the only one to get out.
"I got the raft, with three canteens of water, and spent the next fifteen days
in the ocean," he related. "Eventually, I landed on a small island at the north tip of Bougainville, which,
of course, was all Japanese territory," said Wiley. Natives took care of him, even fixing his several wounds. Wiley was to spend the next six months on the island before nine members of a
B-17 crew that had been shot down arrived on their rafts.
"The island was too small to support that many people--the natives usually had
barely enough food just for themselves," Del recalled. A plan was devised that would lead to their rescue. Wiley and a couple of the B-17 crew would join the natives in a large dugout
canoe, and sail down the coast of Bougainville at night to avoid detection by
the enemy. The natives had been well-trained to do anything necessary to help allied
soldiers and sailors by the famed Coastwatchers, and it was to the nearest
Coastwatcher base that the natives headed.
They had to travel the whole length of Bougainville to get to Choiseul Island,
where the Coastwatcher sent a radio message calling for a rescue crew to pick
up the stranded airmen. Wiley had been listed as "missing in action" for seven months by the time he was rescued. He was so grateful to the natives that he eventually set up a non-profit group
to supply educational materials and food to the natives still living on the
small islands in the area.
Robert K. Yount was another turret gunner/radioman with VT-1 aboard the U.S.S.
Yorktown between 1943 and 1945. His experiences with the Avenger started right away while training at NAS
Kaneohe Bay. He survived a mid-air with a P-51 Mustang over the ocean.
"I felt like I was looking death in the face," Yount remembered. The Avenger's right wing tip hit the cockpit of the Mustang, and about two feet
of the wing folded. Fortunately, the TBF made it back to the base, and the Mustang made a
crash-landing on a nearby beach. Everyone involved survived the incident, but it was just the first of many close
calls for Yount.
In June, 1944, they were on the U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-10), involved in the
Marianas operations doing photo reconnaissance work. They would fly over Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Haha Jima, Shi
Jima, and other Japanese-held islands, sometimes being the first plane to take
aerial photos for mapping purposes. Usually they had three F6F Hellcats along for escort.
"We had to fly straight and level to get good photos, and we could watch the
anti-aircraft fire walk up to the plane," said Yount, adding that "they would fire three-round bursts, and it was my job to call out to pilot the
when the next round of three would hit our aircraft, so the pilot could change
course." Many times they came home to find the Avenger's wings full of small-arms bullet
The day after the famed June 19, 1944 "Marianas Turkey Shoot," Yount's squadron was one of many called to go out on a "maximum safe distance" mission. They left at 1620 hours, and shortly received a message giving a new position
for the Japanese fleet--40 miles further away.
"We ran into hot and heavy AA [anti-aircraft] fire," Yount recalled, "and we got one possible hit and two near-misses." Two planes in his flight were shot down, with no one recovered. The biggest difficulty, however, was still ahead.
The increased distance turned out to be quite a problem with fuel, as four
planes in his squadron dropped into the water on the way back. At least they made it far enough back that all of the crews were saved. By the time the remaining planes arrived at the carrier, it was dark, and most
of the crews had never even practiced a carrier night landing, let alone
actually trying one. In addition, the carriers could not turn all of their lights on, just a minimum
to try to help out the pilots.
"One of our planes cracked up on the Princeton, and we found the Enterprise,
coming in to land there," Yount stated. The next day his plane returned to the Yorktown, the only torpedo plane from the
carrier to make it back safely from the mission.
Another time, Yount recalled a mission to Chichi Jima. One TBM went down in the water off the coast, and Yount's plane circled the spot
to coordinate rescue operations. They dropped a floating Gibson Girl radio to the crew in the raft, then waited
around until their fuel finally got too low to continue. When they got back to the carrier, the engine died just as they were released
from the landing wire.
"We found out that the crew was never spotted again, and I was the last person
to see them as I looked out my turret," Yount recalled, the memory bringing back a tear.
Once, the Yorktown's landing operations were so efficient that they landed a
plane every three seconds, a record never again matched. However, cutting it that close led to another hair-raising experience. While looking back from his turret, Yount saw the following plane lose its
tailhook on the wire.
"The plane had AA damage, and it shot off the wire like a rubber band," he said. The deck crew got the barrier cables popped up barely in time to catch the loose
Avenger just before its propeller would have chewed into Yount's turret.
The Avenger brought back a wealth of memories for these guys, but one thing they
all agreed upon was that it was a much better dive-bomber than torpedo bomber. The torpedo missions required them to come in "low and slow," and the Avenger was just too big a target to easily miss. When assignments were handed out, dive-bombing missions were greeted with much
more enthusiasm. About ten to fifteen Avengers still fly today, about half
based in California. The Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, CA maintains their Avenger in the
marking of perhaps the most famous of Avenger pilots--former President George