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Issue 03/03/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 08

Remembering the Avenger Torpedo Bomber
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 modernization project.

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 good start.

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 Wildcat (Eastern).

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 his career.

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 Midway.

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 every mission.

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 holes.

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 H.W. Bush.