TBF/TBM Avenger found off San Diego

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Posted by Kendall Raine on February 12, 2007 at 10:22:08:

The wreckage of a WWII era U. S. Navy torpedo bomber has been located off San Diego. The Grumman TBF/TBM “Avenger” was located, dived and video taped recently in deep water by the Project UB88 team. Video and still images may be seen here: www.ub88.org/avenger.html.

The location of the Avenger was originally determined by underwater survey. Low quality video images were taken by ROV. In 1996, a local tech instructor, Franz van der Molen, gave John Walker a copy of the ROV footage of what he thought at the time was the then undiscovered wreckage of a Boeing B-36. Careful review of the tape; however, revealed the aircraft was much smaller than a B-36 and suggested it to be a TBF/TBM. Footage of a torpedo was a clue to the observant.

The TBF/TBM was the U. S. Navy’s principle torpedo bomber in WWII, replacing the Douglass Devastator in 1942. This plane saw action in all major Pacific carrier engagements including Midway, Eastern Solomons, Operation Hailstone, Leyte Gulf and various carrier supported landings. The Avenger was the aircraft flown by, and shot out from under, George Bush over Chichi Jima. Numerous Avengers are recorded as having been lost off Pt. Loma during the war, but Steve Lawson’s research suggests this aircraft was lost after the war. If we could locate numbers, or even determine the paint scheme, that could confirm the time frame in which the plane served.

“Ray and Gary think they’ve found the wreck” John said to me a few weeks ago. “They have sidescan and sonar images. It’s not conclusive, but near where Franz’s numbers say it should be. We’re planning a mid-week trip to check it out. Interested?”

“I’m gassed and good to go.” I said.

John, Gary and I met Ray aboard Ray’s six pack, Sun Diver II, at Dana Landing, loaded up and headed out. Ray quickly located the target site and we geared up. Our objective was simple enough. Determine whether the target was an Avenger and get video images to prove it. If we could identify the actual aircraft, that would be a plus.

Seas were calm and surface visibility promising as we flopped off the swim step of the Sun Diver II. As per our usual, we would live boat and use a down line to aid descent. There was no surface current to speak of and the descent was uneventful. At roughly 30 feet above the bottom, a faint glow from what I took to be metridium came into view. Despite the quarter knot current blowing parallel to the fuselage, the metridium were closed. Clearly there was structure, whatever it was. Visibility on the wreck was about 15 feet. As I swam closer to the metridium, I could make out the dim outline of a vertical structure. A bit closer and the internal structure of an aircraft tail assembly presented-obviously the tail of an aircraft with the rudder missing. As I swam past the tail toward the front of the plane, the left side of the fuselage came into view. The aft section of fuselage was listing to starboard about fifteen degrees and I could make out the gaping hole where a TBF’s bubble turret would be. The fuselage itself was broken and twisted. Clearly the force of ditching was severe. No guns were visible in the turret. Slightly forward of the turret was the rear seat of the bombardier’s cockpit. All the Perspex was missing from the turret and bomber’s position, allowing me to closely examine the interior of the aircraft. The aluminum seat was missing leaving only the seat rails. Large vermillion rockfish swam in and out of the numerous perforations in the fuselage. A tangled mass of yellow poly rope extended from the left wing aft. The left wing itself was torn away outboard of the fold joint leaving only the first six feet of wing. I swam forward to the pilot’s cockpit. The sliding Perspex portion of the canopy was in the open position, with the TBF’s distinctive radio antenna extended above the cockpit. The front windshield is also intact. Much of the instrument panel is rotted away and the avionics are not easily visible among the jumble of twisted pipes and wires inside the cockpit. The seat was rotted away but the seat rails were intact. Swimming forward of the cockpit I came to the plane’s engine oil tank mounted on the engine side of the firewall. The plane ended there, with the motor, cowling and propeller missing and not visible in the near vicinity. On the right side of the plane John made and video taped a fascinating discovery: visible markings on the fuselage. Between the bubble turret and the tail assembly could clearly be seen the word “NAVY” and a white star with flanking red on white bars. The service insignia combined with the red stripe inside the white bars strongly suggests the aircraft was lost after January 1947. That paint is still visible after so many years on the bottom is particularly impressive. No tail number or other identification was located during the dive. The right wing is completely intact. A hole in the right wing reveals what we believe is a portion of the plane’s right wing mounted .50 caliber machine gun.

After fifteen minutes we elected to ascend rather than accumulate more decompression penalty. Deco was a laid back affair with no current and only the occasional salp and various equipment malfunctions to amuse us during an hour of deco.

Once back aboard we examined the video and were impressed once again with how much better John’s camera is than our own eyes.

We then spent an hour motoring and metering some other deep targets of interest in the vicinity before heading north to Dana Landing for the long drive north. Ray jumped on one such target, a 150 foot up right and intact work boat. While the vessel appears to have been partially salvaged, we’re not aware of this wreck being dived and it’s possible the vessel was scuttled after various features were removed.

Future dives on the Avenger are planned in order to identify its history. While the specific identity of the Avenger is still a mystery, its paint scheme puts its destruction after war’s end which will significantly narrow the range of possibilities. Accident reports on several post-war Avenger losses off San Diego have been ordered with the hope of getting a positive identification on the wreckage and disposition of the crew. One structural clue might be the presence of a metal strut of some kind which protrudes from both wings at about a 45 degree angle. We originally thought this curious feature might be part of the landing gear assembly, or wing folding mechanism, jammed up through the top of each wing by the force of impact. On further review; however, we now think they may be part of some peculiar assembly on top of each wing. If so, these protrusions could be unique to this plane and could be valuable clues to its identity and mission.

Upon reviewing ROV and diver video footage, noted aircraft archaeologist Pat Macha of Mission Viejo believes the Avenger to be a TBM, not a TBF. The TBM’s were Avenger’s manufactured by General Motors under sub-contract from Grumman. Pat believes that by 1947, most TBF’s had been retired. Confirmation of this will require either locating the aircraft’s Bureau Number or the engine cowling. According to Pat, TBF’s mounted a .50 caliber machine gun in the cowling and one in the right wing. TBM’s mounted .50 caliber machine guns mounted one in each wing. We believe we know the location of the engine cowling, but that will have to wait for another day.

The adventure continues…

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