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TBDs and the
Mk XIII Torpedo

The March 10, 1942 Raid on Lae-Salamaua:
VT-2 Takes on the Owen Stanley Ranges

in 1/48 Scale

Figure  SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 1.  No Close Ups of VT-2 TBDs with Torpedoes Survive: This is a VT-6 Aircraft in October 1941. Note the slings hanging down under the second cockpit.

by Joe Lyons

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This raid by Lexington and Yorktown was intended to cover a troop convoy between Noumea and Australia while at the same time complying with Admiral King’s simple order to “attack the enemy.” Japanese ships present after the March 8 landings at Lae-Salamaua on Huon Gulf, in the bight of New Guinea facing the Bismark Sea, provided the targets. Details of this raid can be found in References d and f. 

The article presents one of the 13 TBDs Lexington put up from Torpedo Two armed with the Mk XIII aerial torpedo. These aircraft executed torpedo attacks on several (I have not found an exact count) ships in the Huon Gulf. One hit was claimed, per reference d; the rest of the torpedoes malfunctioned. This use of the Devastator was of course a requirement of the aircraft when the Request for Proposal that resulted in its production was issued in 1934. Its use as a torpedo bomber on March 10 was known to be a bit of a gamble while the mission was being planned, the 10000 ft-plus height of the subject mountain range providing a challenge to the heavily loaded TBDs. It looked at first that VT-2 would not be able to climb over the mountains, and would be forced to turn back. However, the C.O. Lt Cdr James Brett, an experienced glider pilot, noted some portions of the jungle-covered peaks in cloud-induced shadow. Knowing the relatively cool shadowed terrain produced thermal updrafts he led the TBDs to them and thereby got enough of a boost to get to the other side.

The Airplane 

The TBD entered service in 1937; ultimately 144 were built. It equipped all of the VT squadrons in service in December 1941, and was to have a busy war in its seven months of front-line service. Its primary mission of course was torpedo delivery, but it was used as a bomber on several occasions. The TBD had three crew positions, pilot, assistant pilot/bombardier and radioman gunner. Usually but not always, the middle seat was not occupied during torpedo missions. It is not known for sure how VT-2 was manned that day (my guess is two), but in May 1942 during attacks on two carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea, it happens there were three aboard at least two of its aircraft.  

The TBD, no matter how gallantly flown, does not bring much of a reputation to us down through the years. But, reflect on this: in less than a month in mid-summer 1942, 84 torpedo-armed TBDs were launched at seven Japanese carrier targets. 55 (65%) go to weapons release range. An admirable record, the lamentable Mk XIII notwithstanding.


The Torpedo 

The Mk XIII was the first and last purpose-built large steam aerial torpedo actually fielded by the US Navy, although there were other experimental designs. Its development was typical of many done during a budget-poor peacetime, primarily the failure to adequately test the weapon in operational conditions. There were political reasons as well. 

The photo of the model torpedo shows a Mk XIII installed on a TBD; all the multi-seat carrier bombers that used this weapon (TBD, TBF/M, TBU/TBY) apparently mounted it in the same way. Two slings supported the torpedo, in the case of the TBD the ends of the slings terminated at the bomb racks on either side. One end of a sling was fixed; the other end was releasable to drop the weapon.  

Sliding into formation a short time later was Leonard (Lt (jg) William N, VF-42) who saw the TBDs drawing away from the target, the torpedo brace straps dangling underneath the lumbering Devastators. [Reference b] 

Two big crutches serving as sway braces secured the torpedo laterally. Fore and aft movement when mounted on the airplane was prevented by a stop bolt inserted into a receptacle in the top of the weapon through a hole in the bottom of the fuselage (in the TBD’s case). The bolt stayed behind on drop. Torpedo running depth could be changed in flight by means of a skate key-like device that accessed a valve on the torpedo via a small hatch in the airplane. Two other non-carrier navy aircraft, the PBY and the PBM, used the Mk XIII in combat. USAAF B-25s and B-26s also made limited use of them. The flying boats almost certainly used the sling arrangement. Those of you who know what a skate key is, probably also know how to wind a watch as well as cope with rotary dial phones.


Figure  SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 2 Slings, and Access Hatch to bolt & valve: TBY


Figure  SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 3 TBY Torpedo Installation (TBF/M similar)

Less than 10% of Mk XIIIs dropped in combat by TBDs scored, mostly because the torpedo malfunctioned. The malfunctions were known pre-war but ignored by the navy Bureau of Ordnance whose responsibility they were. The weapon would eventually become reliable and effective, but the entire story of USN pre-war torpedo development is an abysmal one and reflects no credit on that service.



Monogram's 1/48 scale TBD


The TBD may fall into that category of “Never have so few been modeled by so many.” The Monogram kit remains king of this scale after 30 years.  IMHO this kit had stood up well in the 30 years since it was released; we are unlikely to see a replacement in this scale much less at this price. Those who continue to buy and build Monogram P-47s rather than Tamiya P-47s know what I mean. Part of the Eduard P/E set for the TBD is used in this model, most visibly the flaps and front cockpit detail. There are fit issues with some internal parts and the wing-fuselage joins.


Click the thumbnails below to view larger images:

Color and Markings

Although you cannot tell from the photos the model represents BuNo 0300, delivered to VT-2 in 1937 and marked “2-T-1.” 0300 spent its entire operational life on USS Lexington (CV-2); the two rest together to this day. I do not know if it was still the skipper’s aircraft on March 10, 1942 but I like to think it was. By that date the original Golden Wings colors had been overpainted first, by Overall Light Gray and then by Blue-Gray on the upper surfaces in the fall of 1941. There is some fading of this color, particularly on the fabric control surfaces. There is no way of knowing if 0300, originally delivered with aluminum lacquer interior surfaces, was repainted with Bronze Green during some pre-war depot period, but I’ve assumed it was. The torpedo is painted with MM Steel Metalizer (afterbody) and a light gray warhead.  

The markings are standard six-position national insignia for the period, accompanied by those red and white stripes on the rudder. A white LSO stripe and “T 1” (reference c) in white finish off the simple markings. The Lexington CAG was unique in retaining white numbers and codes post Pearl Harbor. This is no photo confirmation (available at least to this mere mortal) of the rumor that CAG-2 also retained full squadron markings into 1942. There is no evidence that it did not, either. 

All Photos and Drawings USN or the Author.





a.       Adcock, A. (1989). TBD Devastator in Action. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publication.

b.      Lundstrom, J.B. (1984). The First Team. Pacific Naval Aircraft Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

c.       Morison, S. E. (1968). History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Vol III The Rising Sun in the Pacific. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

d.      Tillman, B. (2000). TBD Devastator Units of the US Navy. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.

e.       Wilmott, H.P. (1983). The Barrier and the Javelin Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies February to June 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.


Model and Text Copyright © 2005 by  Joe Lyons
Photos and Drawings by  USN or  Joe Lyons
Page Created 27 March, 2005
Last Updated 26 March, 2005

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