The WW2 Pacific Treasures of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham Part 18: The Avengers of Mellu Island

Aircraft wrecks, Interviews, WW2, WW2 Pacific Treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos, text and research submitted by Dan Farnham, used by permission

av-1-TBF-Avenger-of-VT-31-drifts-over-the-port-catwalk-of-the-carrier-USS-Cabot
Α TBF Avenger of VT 31 drifts over the port catwalk of the carrier USS Cabot

Designed in 1939 as the replacement for the obsolete Douglas TBD-1 ‘Devastator’, a new torpedo bomber with the designation XTBF-1 was built in 1940 by Grumman Aviation Corporation. The first flight of the new torpedo plane took place on August 7, 1941.

The “TBF” designation stood for ‘Torpedo, Bomber’, and the ‘F’ was the letter assigned by the US Navy to all aircraft built by Grumman. The plane was not given the name ‘Avenger’ until shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, exactly four months after the first flight of the prototype XTBF-1.

TBF-1 at Midway 4 June 1942
TBF-1 Avenger of Torpedo Squadron 8 back on Midway after attacking the Japanese fleet on June 4, 1942. This TBF was one of six that went out, and the only one that came back. One of the crewmen was killed and the other two were wounded.

The Avenger carried a crew of three- pilot, ball turret gunner, and a radioman/bombardier who also operated the ventral machine gun. The Avenger could carry a single torpedo in its internal bomb bay, or up to four bombs or depth charges.

Later variants of the Avenger also carried under-wing radar pods and rockets. The wingspan of the Avenger was 54 feet 2 inches, and it had a length of 40 feet 11.5 inches. The maximum weight of the plane, when loaded, was 17,900 pounds, making it the heaviest single-engine U.S. plane of the war. By the time production ended, a total of 9,839 had been built.

The first American plane to land on the airstrip on Kwajalein island was this TBM Avenger which had developed engine trouble, and had to make an emergency landing while the battle for the island was still raging.
The first American plane to land on the airstrip on Kwajalein island was this TBM Avenger which had developed engine trouble, and had to make an emergency landing while the battle for the island was still raging.

Production of the Avenger was initially done by Grumman, but by 1943 production was taken over by the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors (GM), so that Grumman could focus on production of the F6F ‘Hellcat’ fighter plane. GM-built Avengers were given the designation ‘TBM’, the letter ‘M’ being assigned by the US Navy to all aircraft built by GM.

Four TBM Avengers flying in formation, January 12, 1945. Part of VT-4 from USS Essex (CV-9).
Four TBM Avengers flying in formation, January 12, 1945. Part of VT-4 from USS Essex (CV-9).

The Avenger first saw combat during the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Six TBF’s, part of Torpedo Squadron 8, flew from Midway to attack the Japanese fleet on June 4th. Five of the TBF’s were shot down, and the sixth was badly shot up and limped back to Midway with one crewman dead and the other two wounded.

TBM-1C_of_the_VT-51_USS_San_Jacinto_over_Majuro_Atoll_30_May_1944
TBM-1C of the VT-51 USS San Jacinto over Majuro Atoll 30 May 1944

But in spite of this unfortunate beginning, the U.S. Navy did not lose faith in the plane. And for good reason. In the hands of well-trained pilots and aircrew, the Avenger would go on to become one of the great war winners of the Pacific theater over the next three years. Avengers would also perform with distinction in the Atlantic theater as well.

TBM-3E Avenger #3 of VT-33 in flight over USS Sangamon March 2,7 1945
TBM-3E Avenger #3 of VT-33 in flight over USS Sangamon, March 27, 1945

Much has been written about the service history of the TBF/TBM Avengers, and I will not attempt to recap all of that history in this article. Instead, from this point forward I will focus on the history of Avenger operations here at Kwajalein Atoll, and the wrecks that lie in the lagoon.

The TBM-1c Avenger similar to the one found by Project Recover
The TBM-1c Avenger similar to the one found by Project Recover

The first time Avengers saw action over Kwajalein Atoll was on December 4, 1943. That was when a major carrier raid took place in preparation for Operation Flintlock the following month. The next action was Operation Flintlock at the end of January 1944. And the first American plane to land on the airstrip on Kwajalein Island was a TBM Avenger which had developed engine trouble and had to make an emergency landing while the battle for the island was still in progress.

Willys_MB_and_TBF_on_Deck_USS_Yorktown_during_attack_on_Wake_Oct_1943
Willys MB and TBF on Deck USS Yorktown during attack on Wake Oct 1943

Following the completion of Operation Flintlock, a unit called Combat Aircraft Service Unit (Forward) #20, or CASU-F-20 for short, was established on Roi. Part of their job was to occasionally service Avengers that were assigned to the fleet, as well as to prepare new Avengers for the rigors of front-line combat flying. A number of Avengers were brought to Roi by carriers assigned to the Carrier Transport Squadron Pacific, some of which were new, and some of which were over-age and being transported back to Pearl Harbor or the U.S. mainland.

Map
Map with the location of the two Avenger aircraft wrecks near Mellu Island

But not all the Avengers were sent back to the rear areas. There are at least two TBM wrecks on the lagoon bottom, and both of them are near Mellu Island at the north end of the atoll, west of Roi-Namur.

 

The upside-down Avenger: TBM-1C, BuNo 16881

Avenger TBM-1C, BuNo 16881
Avenger TBM-1C, BuNo 16881

The upside-down Avenger lies near Mellu Island, not far from the F4U-1 Corsair wreck. This plane was accepted into US Navy service in late January 1944.

Rear view of the upside-down Avenger, at the seabed of Kwajalein Lagoon
Rear view of the upside-down Avenger, at the seabed of Kwajalein Lagoon

The plane’s service took it to Majuro Atoll, and from there to Eniwetok Atoll where it served with VT-99, part of Air Group 99 which was the Replacement Air Group for the Central Pacific area.

The bomb bay doors are open, and the Yagi antennas are prominently visible on the wings of the upside down Avenger. Like most of the other planes dumped into the “aircraft graveyard” west of Roi-Namur, this plane is also missing its engine.
The bomb bay doors are open, and the Yagi antennas are prominently visible on the wings of the upside down Avenger. Like most of the other planes dumped into the “aircraft graveyard” west of Roi-Namur, this plane is also missing its engine.

In January 1945, when Air Group 99 was transferred from Eniwetok Atoll to Guam, this plane was transferred to CASU-F-35 on Eniwetok. In April the plane was transferred to CASU-F-20 on Roi, where it was stricken and dumped into the lagoon in June 1945.

Another Avenger wing lying near the upside-down Avenger- this is likely one of the wings that has been confused by some divers as belonging to the R5C-1 ‘Commando’ wreck, which is not far away from the upside-down Avenger.
Another Avenger wing lying near the upside-down Avenger- this is likely one of the wings that has been confused by some divers as belonging to the R5C-1 ‘Commando’ wreck, which is not far away from the upside-down Avenger.

The plane lies at a depth of 110 feet. The bomb bay doors are open, and the Yagi antennas are prominently visible on the undersides of the folded wings. It makes for a great dive, especially given that a Corsair and several SBDS’s are nearby.

A scuba divers hovers above the Avenger, filming the aircraft wreck
A scuba divers hovers above the Avenger, filming the aircraft wreck

Also lying near this wreck are two Avenger wings which were also dumped into the lagoon at some point. I think that those wings have been mistaken by some divers as belonging to the R5C-1 ‘Commando’ which lies not very far from the upside-down Avenger.

Divers examine the upside-down Avenger, BuNo 16881, lying on the bottom of the Kwajalein lagoon
Divers examine the upside-down Avenger, BuNo 16881, lying on the bottom of the Kwajalein lagoon

The upright Avenger: TBM-1C, BuNo unknown

Dan’s first glimpse of the ‘upright Avenger’ on June 11, 2007. He was shooting with a Sealife Reefmaster DC300 at the time. The BuNo of this plane hasn’t been determined yet.
Dan Farnham’s first glimpse of the ‘upright Avenger’ on June 11, 2007. He was shooting with a Sealife Reefmaster DC300 at the time. The BuNo of this plane hasn’t been determined yet.

The second Avenger I’ve seen is sitting upright on the lagoon bottom, with its wings partially folded, at a depth of 103 feet. This Avenger is also a TBM-1C, and it is a former VS-52 plane.

Divers examine the upright Avenger. Dan Farnham first filmed this wreck back in 2007. it was found back around 1998 I think, by some former Kwajalein residents. But I don't know for sure, which is why I didn't mention that part in my article. What I do know is that it was found by others, long before I first saw it in June 2007. The GPS position had just never been recoded until around 2015 or so.
Divers examine the upright Avenger. Dan Farnham first filmed this wreck back in June 2007. It was found back around 1998, probably by some former Kwajalein residents. The GPS position had just never been recorded until around 2015 or so.

VS-52 was a dive bomber squadron, and this Avenger was assigned to the squadron as a hack aircraft in March 1945.

The ball turret, guns, radar gear, and other equipment were removed from the plane and it was modified in order to carry more passengers and freight. One of the modifications was installing hinged doors over the opening where the ball turret had once been.

This Avenger once belonged to VS-52
This Avenger once belonged to VS-52

In July 1945, VS-52 turned in its aircraft to CASU-F-20 on Roi, including their SBW-3 Helldivers and their Avenger, for disposal. The squadron was decommissioned on July 9, 1945.

It’s not clear from available records exactly when the upright Avenger was dumped into the lagoon, but it would have been not long after the squadron was decommissioned. Due to the fragmented and incomplete information I have at this point, I have yet to determine the specific BuNo of this plane. But I’m working on solving that mystery.

The ball turret was removed from this Avenger when it was converted to carry more passengers and freight, and hinged doors were installed where the turret had once been.
The ball turret was removed from this Avenger when it was converted to carry more passengers and freight, and hinged doors were installed where the turret had once been.

I first saw this Avenger on June 11, 2007. I was out diving with two co-workers at the time, and we came across it entirely by accident. We had anchored nearby and our intent was to dive a PBJ-1H Mitchell wreck. The batteries in our GPS unit died just as we got near the coordinates for the PBJ, so we tossed anchors and went in, hoping for the best. Despite a search, we did not find the PBJ we were looking for.

Despite the fact that the fabric has deteriorated, this aircraft wreck is remarkably intact.
Despite the fact that the fabric has deteriorated, this aircraft wreck is remarkably intact.

As we were on the way back to the boat, low on air and getting shallow, I saw something below us. As we got closer I saw another plane below us, so I aimed my camera downward and shot a quick photo as we passed over it.

Divers inspect the upright Avenger, with the cockpit in the foreground
Divers inspect the upright Avenger, with the cockpit in the foreground

I recognized it as an Avenger with its wings partially folded, but at that point my focus was mainly on the dwindling air supply in my tank- I didn’t have enough air left to go down for a closer look.

The fuselage of the upright Avenger is in good condition, despite being at sea for over seven decades.
The fuselage of the upright Avenger is in good condition, despite being at sea for over seven decades.

Although Roi is only about 52 miles, and a 15-minute plane ride away, I didn’t’ see the upright Avenger again until October 7, 2018. By that time the GPS coordinates had been well-established by Roi divers, so we were able to drop right in on it.

The condition of this WW2 aircraft wreck makes it one of the most well-preserved in Kwajalein Lagoon.
The condition of this WW2 aircraft wreck makes it one of the most well-preserved in Kwajalein Lagoon.

The upright Avenger, in my opinion, is one of the best-looking plane wrecks in the aircraft graveyard, second only to the F4U-1 Corsair wreck. Like the upside-down Avenger, it provides Kwajalein Atoll divers with a great look at an iconic American naval aircraft of World War II.

Another view from the back of this Avenger
Another view from the back of this Avenger

Besides the US Navy and US Marine Corps, Avengers were operated to great effect during World War II by the British Royal Navy and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Post-war, Avengers were also operated by France, Cuba, Canada, Brazil, Japan, the Netherlands, and Uruguay. And many Avengers also enjoyed a long post-war career as crop dusters and firefighting aircraft.

There are around 80 Avengers that survive today. Some have been restored to flying condition, and others are on static displays in museums around the world, or in storage awaiting restoration.

The display of these aircraft in museums and air shows around the world provide a lasting tribute to the crews who flew and maintained this aircraft during and after World War II.