How the Battle of Midway changed the Pacific War

Devastators being spotted for launch on USS Enterprise, June 4, 1942. US Navy

2. The Douglas Devastator torpedo bomber was hopelessly obsolete

When the Douglas Devastator torpedo bomber entered service in the United States Navy in 1937 it was one of the most advanced combat aircraft in the world. Five years later it was outclassed. It was too slow, too lightly armed, and its maneuverability was poor, especially in comparison with the Japanese Zero. During the Battle of Midway, 41 Devastators were launched against the Japanese fleet. Only six survived to return to their carriers. None were able to successfully detonate a torpedo on their target. The Devastator’s disastrous performance at Midway led to its being withdrawn from front line service following the battle, though many of its failings were the result of faulty torpedoes.

The Devastators were replaced by the TBF Avenger, which also flew at Midway in limited numbers. Avengers did not perform much better, at least not until American air superiority was clearly established. The long and slow glide path required to launch torpedoes accurately rendered the attacker vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire as well as attacking enemy fighters. Even a perfect run by the pilot did not ensure success, American torpedoes were notoriously problematic during the early years of the war. Pilots and submariners reported torpedoes striking the sides of Japanese ships and failing to explode. Bureaucrats in the Navy Department long ignored the reports, and blamed the failures on the attackers, rather than on the defective weapons, for many long and dangerous months.