Command Break by Nick Spark

Command Break: The Battle Over America’s Secret WWII Cruise Missile
By Nick T. Spark

Baghdad, 2003. American forces launch a campaign of unprecedented scope against Iraqi targets. Dubbed “shock and awe” by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the attack consists of strikes by aircraft and more significantly, by Tomahawk Cruise Missiles. These remotely-operated “wonder weapons” produce devastating results. In the first 24 hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom hundreds of them converge to cut bridges, decimate early warning and communication systems, and demolish military installations. They leave Saddam Hussein’s commanders cut off from their units. When the U.S. Army and Marines at last begin their push into Iraq, they encounter an enemy force that is demoralized, disorganized, and close to collapse.

There is no denying it: the cruise missile has indelibly altered the conduct of war. Since its debut during the 1991 Gulf conflict, the Tomahawk has become a power projection tool for Presidents, and the first option for commanders – a low risk, long range, high yield, accurate weapon. Tomahawk not only appears to demonstrate America’s technological acumen, but helps define its global military supremacy. Yet while the cruise missile is often viewed as a modern “wonder weapon”, its combat role was imagined in the early part of the last century. Its ancestor, America’s first cruise missile, saw combat against Japan during WWII.

The 1930′s saw the emergence of a new and deadly breed of high performance aircraft. The Royal Navy feared that these fast, maneuverable planes could seriously challenge shipboard anti-aircraft weapons. Few in the anti-aircraft detachments took the threat seriously, although some admitted that drills using towed targets – typically gliders attached by cables to piloted aircraft – could not accurately simulate an attack by dive bombers. The threat led to the development of a remote controlled aircraft using obsolete de Haviland biplanes.

 

The Queen Bee, a de Haviland biplane equipped with radio controls, is shown here being catapulted off of a British cruiser.

The Queen Bee, a de Haviland biplane equipped with radio controls, is shown here being catapulted off of a British cruiser. It was the world's first reliable drone aircraft. While Del Fahrney (inset) appreciated the Bee's anti-aircraft training capabilities, he also dreamed of creating a robot "assault drone" that could strike targets without endangering pilots. He is now widely regarded as the Navy's "Father of Guided Missiles." (Author's Collection)

 

The result, dubbed the “Queen Bee”, represented a real breakthrough. Equipped with radio controls which activated small servo motors, it could be flown by a pilot in another plane or aboard a ship, and could simulate any kind of attack profile. After a brief teething period, the Bee rapidly proved its worth under fire. It promptly revealed gross deficiencies in anti-aircraft defense. At one point, a Bee buzzed the Mediterranean Fleet, flying straight and level and at 85 knots for over an hour without being hit!

In 1936 the American Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William H. Standley, visited England and witnessed the Queen Bee in action at a live fire exercise. Duly impressed, he determined that the U.S. Navy should immediately develop a similar training tool. Attempts had actually been made previously in the United States. The Army and Navy had both pursued “pilotless aircraft” during WWI. Elmer Sperry’s “Flying Bomb” and Charles Kettering’s “Flying Bug” and other test platforms failed due to technological limitations with stabilization and control. The development of the vacuum tube, improvements in the broadcast of modulated signals, and a new generation of gyroscopes and auto-pilots now made such things feasible.

Acting on Adm. Standley’s recommendation, the head of the Bureau of Aeronautics Rear Admiral Earnest J. King selected Lt. Commander Delmar S. Fahrney to lead the remote controlled aircraft project. A veteran aviator with a masters degree in aeronautical engineering, Fahrney had a physically imposing frame (a friend once called him a “great big bear of a man”) and a quiet, thoughtful personality that won him admirers. He proved to be a determined thinker and a bit of a visionary; today he is widely regarded as the “Father of the Guided Missile” by the Navy. But in those early days he was simply a bright and energetic leader who, in co-ordination with the Naval Aircraft Factory, supervised the modification of two Curtiss training planes and two Stearmans as “drones”. Fahrney coined that term, entirely new at the time, as a tip of the hat to the Queen Bee.

 

N2C-2 biplane

N2C-2 biplane became the USN's first target drone, and made a simulated attack against the battleship Utah in 1937. A chance hit from an anti-aircraft gun shot it down, but not before Fahrney had proved his point: the assault drone concept was a viable one. (Author's Collection)

 

By October of 1937, the first Curtiss drone flew under radio control, with Fahrney himself riding on board to perform takeoff and landing and act as a safety pilot. In the following months dozens of flights were made with and without safety pilots. Under Fahrney’s leadership the Naval Research Laboratory developed a host of support equipment, including transmitters that allowed control to be handled either from the ground or from a chase plane, and sophisticated automatic pilots to allow “robot” flight.

In 1938, the first U.S. drone anti-aircraft firing tests commenced against the gun crews of the aircraft carrier Ranger . As in England, the drones proved difficult adversaries, surviving repeated barrages during simulated attack runs. They forced what Fahrney termed an “agonizing reappraisal” of the fleet’s capabilities. At the same time the success of the drones convinced Fahrney that radio controlled aircraft could be exploited in an entirely different and much more significant fashion: as offensive weapons. A drone carrying a bomb load or torpedo could deliver it against a ship, or even crash into a ship, Fahrney reasoned. He quickly arranged a full-scale test, sending an “assault drone” against the battleship Utah . In the middle of its dive bombing run a well-placed burst of flak hit the drone dead on and it promptly crashed into the sea. “Operation successful,” Fahrney later wrote in his journal. “But, patient died.” The test might have failed, but the implications were clear: a drone didn’t just have to service the fleet. It could attack one, and without putting a pilot at risk.

Fahrney’s concept had its adherents but critics pointed out the obvious: that barring an unimaginable technological advance, control pilots would still have to be risked in drone attacks. They would need to fly in close proximity to the missile to ensure a hit, especially against a moving target, and would be potentially subject to attacks by anti-aircraft weapons and combat aircraft. Fahrney however remained undaunted. He had, he told his colleagues, stumbled across an invention that sounded like it was pulled from the pulpy pages of Astounding Science Fiction . An unimaginable technological advance called television. This method of transmitting moving images through the air debuted at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and in 1939 the Radio Corporation of America’s pavilion at the New York World’s Fair introduced this modern wonder to the public at large.

Fahrney found out he wasn’t alone in his “assault drone” concept. As far back as 1934 the brilliant Dr. Vladimir Zworykin, RCA’s chief scientist and the man who would eventually hold key patents for both television and electron microscopy, approached the Navy suggesting he could produce an “electric eye” for “a flying torpedo”. At the time no such aircraft existed, and the suggestion was rejected out of hand. Zworykin’s iconoscope television tube was however scrutinized, and ended up drafted into a much less glamorous task: beaming shots of instrument panels aboard test aircraft to engineers on the ground. Yet Dr. Zworykin persisted with talk of the “torpedo drone”. In Russia he had worked on television at its inception, and after emigrating to the United States he battled nay-sayers at Westinghouse who believed the technology to be impractical. Eventually Zworykin gained the trust and patronage of RCA’s chairman, David Sarnoff, an affiliation that lead to rapid advances. Thus the inventor remained confident that someone would appreciate his concept. So when Fahrney apprised Zworykin of his television-aided assault drone idea, it was like apple pie meeting vanilla ice cream.

Fahrney promptly arranged a contract, and a short time later RCA labs delivered the first of a series of experimental TV systems for aircraft use: a 340-pound prototype named for a popular character in E.C. Segar’s Popeye comic strip: “Jeep”. Fahrney successfully demonstrated it aboard an aircraft in 1940, while Zworykin worked to produce a refined version termed “Block-1.” This consisted of a camera and transmitter which fit into an astonishingly small 8x8x26 inch box (thus, “block”) and which weighed, including the antenna, battery and dynamotor, a mere 97 pounds. It drew 350 scanning lines, or about half those seen on a modern TV set, and ran at 40 frames per second, or 1.5 times the current standard. For reasons of maximum contrast Block boasted a green picture tube. Fahrney openly marveled at what Zworykin seemingly dropped into his lap: the technology with which to build a whole new generation of weapons systems. Very likely he had little or no appreciation of the venture that had made it all possible. By the time television reached America’s homes after the war, David Sarnoff estimated the research and development cost at approximately $50 million dollars.

Before Block could be tested however, the Navy Department was thrown into chaos. The Japanese raided Pearl Harbor, destroying or damaging nearly the entire Pacific fleet, save the aircraft carriers which miraculously were absent at the time of the raid. Replacing what was lost would take years, and turning the tide, even in the brightest scenarios, would require the sacrifice of tens of thousands of men. When viewed in light of this appalling situation, Fahrney’s television-guided assault drone suddenly looked like a world beater. It would be ideally suited for attacks against ships, and could be based and controlled from land or sea. The idea proved compelling, and a proposal quickly moved up the chain of command. By February of 1942 a top secret directive emerged known as “Project Option.” Despite the fact that a prototype did not exist, the assault drone concept became a national defense priority.

A full-scale development program commenced, supervised by another appointee of Admiral King, Commodore Oscar Smith. He represented an odd choice to head an aircraft program. Smith was not an aviator by trade but a member of the so-called “Gun Club” – the community of officers who hailed from turret toting warships, not aircraft carriers. The rivalry between the pro- and anti- aircraft factions threatened to divide the Navy in the pre-war period, and while Smith had supported carrier aviation, air wing officers looked upon him with suspicion.

 

Commodore Oscar Smith

Commodore Oscar Smith, seen here at Sunlight Field on Banika Island, spearheaded the production of the TDR-1. Because he was not an aviator by trade, Smith's activities with the drones caused a great deal of resentment, particularly by the head of BurAer, Admiral John Towers. (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom).

 

King felt confident in the selection, telling Smith that whatever he lacked in experience, he could more than make up for in enthusiasm and leadership skill. Smith took the reigns and, working closely with Fahrney, coordinated continued tests of Block TV and radio control, and fast tracked development of the Torpedo Drone.

In April of 1942, a torpedo plane-turned-drone made a successful demonstration of Block, launching a torpedo against the destroyer Aaron Ward while under guidance from a pilot aboard a control aircraft. The “fish” ran dead on target and passed directly under the hull of the Ward, despite the fact that the destroyer made evasive maneuvers and ran at nearly fifteen knots. The control aircraft meanwhile flew a holding pattern eight miles distant and completely out of sight. Zworykin and Fahrney recognized that a new era had suddenly and auspiciously arrived on their watch, one made possible by the sudden synchronous development of interdependent technologies. “Weaponeers down through the ages had sought a missile that could be launched from a safe distance and guided unerringly to a target,” Fahrney wrote exuberantly. “There off Narragansett Bay such a missile was successfully demonstrated.”

 

 

TDN-1

Designed by the Naval Aircraft Factory, the TDN-1 proved difficult to produce in large numbers. Only 114 ended up being completed. Note the hole for the television camera in the nose, and the rugged appearance of this ship when compared to its lighter, cheaper sister, the TDR-1. (Author's Collection)

 

Films of the successful test lit a fire in the upper echelons and persuaded Admiral King, recently promoted by President Roosevelt to be Commander in Chief of the Navy, that “Project Option” must proceed with alacrity. Commodore Smith was now to oversee the production of up to 5000 assault drones and the creation of eighteen drone squadrons under the auspices of a new “Special Air Task Force” (SATFOR). The size and scope of the effort apparently caused instant resentment of Smith within the Navy Department. The fiercest detractor of all, ironically, was Admiral King’s newly-appointed replacement as head of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral John H. Towers. Towers openly questioned the wisdom of committing valuable resources to an unproven weapon. While Fahrney might not have concurred, he certainly hedged his bets. The Torpedo Drone, he mandated, should be constructed with as few war-critical resources as possible. As a result, the aircraft that eventually rolled off the floor of the Naval Aircraft Factory, designated TDN-1, was constructed almost entirely of wood.

 

 

 

A TDN-1 thunders off the deck of the USS Sable.

A TDN-1 thunders off the deck of the USS Sable. The Navy initially hoped to deploy hundreds of drones on carriers, but the changing fortunes of war made that goal less and less desirable. (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom).

 

A twin-engine monoplane with a high wing and tricycle landing gear, the drone featured a removable cockpit so that it could be ferried by a pilot from one runway to another. The TDN performed well, but an assessment proved it possessed a severe flaw: the airframe was far too expensive and time-consuming to build in large numbers. So the TDN would never see combat. Instead, the hundred-odd airframes that were built served as anti-aircraft training targets. They also made a key demonstration, flying off the deck of the “aircraft carrier” USS Sable (actually a converted Great Lakes steamship) in August of ’43. Meantime the war continued, and the impatience of all concerned grew. To many within the Navy Department, the assault drone program appeared moribund.

 

 

 

TDR-1 in flight

Classic builder's photo of a TDR-1 in flight showing its lean, racy lines. This picture must have been taken during an operational test, as the cockpit glass has been removed and the landing gear has been dumped - clearly a one-way trip! Slung underneath the fuselage is a torpedo. The service panel for the television camera is clearly visible just above the port engine. Also note the crisp paint scheme with striped tail - obviously not combat markings! (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom)

 

Del Fahrney and Oscar Smith however, anticipated trouble with the TDN at an early stage, and implemented a back-up plan. They contracted with the Interstate Aircraft Company in Los Angeles to construct a cheaper, simpler craft dubbed TDR-1 (“R” being a manufacturer’s code, i.e. “R for Interstate”, “N for Naval Aircraft Factory”). Interstate subcontracted the construction of components to a group of companies which included American Aviation and, shockingly, the Wurlitzer Musical Instrument Company. It actually made a great deal of sense. Wurlitzer had a proprietary knowledge of wood and the know-how to produce complicated shapes like piano frames – or aircraft wings – quickly and cheaply. The epicenter of the effort ended up being a piano plant in DeKalb, Illinois. “Wurlitzer had the personnel and the know how,” notes DeKalb historian Roger Keys. “They had several patents on unique assembly processes. And when they were approached by the Navy to make the TDR, they were extremely enthusiastic about it. In the span of about six months they completely converted all their tooling to build them.” A furniture factory adjacent to the piano plant was refitted as an assembly line and a runway constructed nearby. Work then commenced at a hectic pace. Employees at the plant, mostly women and draft-ineligible men and boys, believed they were building training planes. Few if any knew the real significance of their efforts.

 

 

 TDR in ferry configuration

In-flight photo, this time showing the TDR in ferry configuration. While it wasn't really intended to be used as a manned aircraft, some TDRs ended up surplus after the war, and served long careers as private aircraft. (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom).

 

Given its short development timeframe and the constraints surrounding its construction, the TDR was nonetheless impressive. The fuselage, constructed entirely out of molded wood, contained a lightweight but strong central framework built out of metal tubes by bicycle manufacturer Schwinn. Almost every other significant component was wood, pressed wood, or plastic. It was outfitted with two 220 horsepower flat six-cylinder Lycoming engines, which could produce cruising speeds of 125 knots. While underpowered the long, low wingspan of the ‘bird – 48 feet – and its lightweight construction made it exceptionally stable and produced a comfortable takeoff and landing speed of 60 knots. “It was a beautiful little airplane,” recalls Billy Joe Thomas, a TDR control pilot. “You could do maneuvers in it that would stall out most conventional airplanes. But this was almost infallible.”

 

A rare color view of a TDR-1

A rare color view of a TDR-1 in ferry configuration. (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom).

 

Like the TDN, the TDR featured a cockpit for ferry operations. In combat, the windscreen would be removed and the portal covered with a fairing. The landing gear could also be jettisoned to increase the craft’s terminal dive characteristics. Without the drag of the cockpit and wheels, the bird could achieve dive speeds over 150 knots, even while carrying a full bomb load. It had a simple, rudimentary look which carried over into the cockpit. The instrument panel boasted an air speed indicator, a ball and turn indicator, and altimeter and a compass. But to save money, the engine gauges (oil pressure, tachometer, etc.) were built into the side of the power plants. In flight the pilot needed to fix his gaze four feet to his left or right to check their status.

 

Norm Tengstrom

Norm Tengstrom poses proudly in front of his Avenger, shortly after joining VK-12. (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom)

 

The men who would learn to fly the TDR, both in the cockpit and by remote control, had never dreamed they would end up involved in such a task. “I had fully expected to become a carrier pilot,” recalls Norm Tengstrom, who was a 19-year old fresh-out-of-high-school cadet in 1942. “I had full torpedo bomber training. When I finished though, I received orders from Special Air Task Force One. It was Top Secret. We really weren’t told anything.” When he found out exactly what he’d gotten himself into, Tengstrom felt deeply disappointed. “My whole group was unhappy,” he notes. “We all wanted to get to the fleet, join the fight, and we saw all this training we were in for.”

Billy Joe Thomas, who joined the group at about the same time as Tengstrom, had completely different emotions. “I was elated about the fact that I was ordered to do this,” he remembers. “Because I thought we were going to save the world with this thing.” Tengstrom and Thomas soon found themselves in Clinton, Oklahoma as part of Special Task Air Group One (STAG-1) Squadron VK-12. There they met Lt. Commander Robert F. Jones, who had commanded the first squadron of Farhney’s target drones. Now he served as Oscar Smith’s deputy.

 

Jones Brothers

Commander Robert Jones (right) poses with his brother Lt. Commander Stephen Jones on Banika in August of 1944. A veteran of Fahrney's drone experiments, Bobby Jones was a true believer in the TDR-1. When its deployment was unexpectedly curtailed, he was deeply affected. (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom)

 

A bright young officer with a promising future, Jones had a reputation for his fiery personality and dogmatism. “Bobby Jones was something of a cowboy,” Captain Grayson Merrill, Del Fahrney’s assistant, recalls. “He gathered officers around him who shared his enthusiasm. And he dedicated his life to making drone weapons a reality.” Jones believed deeply that the TDR could alter the course of the war, and each and every day his conviction grew stronger. “Our mission is one of the most important,” he would tell his men. He would point to daily newspaper accounts, in which dozens of bombers and hundreds of airmen – not to mention civilians – were lost in massive raids aimed at the destruction of precision targets such as bridges, bunkers or later, Nazi missile launch sites. If they did their job correctly, Jones would say, they might alter the cruel calculus of the war, and save a lot of lives. Before they could do that, however, the men needed to learn to fly the drones. Training commenced using ex-civilian Beechcrafts as control aircraft, with single-engine Vultees flying under radio control. Eventually TDRs from DeKalb replaced the Vultees and the Beechcrafts gave way to Avenger Torpedo Bombers manufactured by General Motors and designated TBM-1Cs. The TBMs carried a pilot, a radioman, a gunner (in a 50 cal. turret) and a control pilot. The planes carried radio controls in the forward cockpit. In the rear the radio controls were duplicated, and supplemented by a Block television screen and radar scope. A retractable radar dome below the fuselage held the receiver for all three.

 

A TBM-1C in flight

A TBM-1C in flight, shown with the radio and television receiver / transmitter antenna in the deployed position. The additional weight added by this equipment was minimal. In addition to the standard radio and TV controls, the TDR could be controlled by a beacon transmitter using a radar set on board the TBM. TBMs carried a crew of three in addition to the pilot: a radioman and control pilot shared the rear cockpit, and a machine gunner sat in a rear turret. (Courtesy Norm Tengstrom)

 

Bobby Jones and his team of target drone veterans soon taught the green aircrews how to handle the TDRs by remote control. Two men actually had to learn the procedure. In the moments after takeoff, the TBM’s front seat pilot would take control of the TDR and maneuver it by eye. He would fly in loose formation with the drone until the time he reached the proximity of a target. Then the control pilot, sitting in the rear with the radioman, would duck under a black drape (to block out the sun), turn on his television receiver and a radar scope, and make the attack run. His only inputs were the TV image, position information relayed by the radar scope, and instrument repeaters on the control panel. “It was quite shocking,” Billy Joe Thomas remembers. “I had never even heard of television before. In fact, the first television screen I ever saw was in one of those control planes! And to sit under the hood of an airplane and control the one up ahead with radar and television, where you can actually see where you are goingŠ It felt like you are actually flying that plane.” Given the pioneering nature of the TDR, the remote controls were fairly advanced. The pilot used a joystick to control the missile’s attitude, and this was supplemented with an automatic control system. “When you were flying you had a box mounted on the left side of the cockpit,” Tengstrom remembers. “It had a telephone dial. If you dialed one, it would fly at fifty feet. And if you dialed two it would fly at 100 feet.” Dialing other numbers would drop the wheels or launch a torpedo, or arm, drop or detonate the bomb load.

 

 

"telephone box" used to control the TDR-1 in flight.

This rare photo shows the "telephone box" used to control the TDR-1 in flight. The central joystick controlled attitude, and by dialing different numbers a series of pre-programmed commands could be sent. The circular display to the right contains a Block TV screen. (Courtesy of Maurice Schechter)

 

But the TDR had its primitive side as well. Each TV transmitter and receiver operated on a single fixed channel, and there were only four pre-set channels built into the transmitters. This meant that only four drones could be in the air at any one time without risk of interference. Beyond that, the vacuum tube-type electronics, Block system and autopilot packages were a bit dodgy. On occasion, one of the autopilot gyros might tumble, causing the drone to suddenly bank or whip around violently in flight. Because of this safety pilots almost always flew with, as Tengstrom puts it, “a certain sense of anticipation.” Another aspect of the TDR’s primitive design was that there were no brakes on the landing gear. “The way that TDRs took off,” Tengstrom comments, “is that there was a lanyard on the tail end that we fastened to the bumper of a truck. A ground control officer would rev up the engines, Then he would cut the lanyard, and the drone would start down the runway.” The lack of brakes once got Tengstrom in a spot of trouble. While riding as safety pilot during training, his TDR’s right engine quit during takeoff. Despite a rapid reaction – he quickly cut the left engine – the plane rolled off the runway and into a ditch. Fortunately he wasn’t injured.

 

 

 

VK-12 jacket insignia

Tengstrom's VK-12 jacket insignia: a stork delivering a dog. (This was an inside joke, as the TDR's radio codename was "Dog" or, alternately, "BWB" - the big wooden bastard!) (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom)

 

It is interesting to note in fact that although several men were killed in crashes during the course of training (a common occurrence in those days), no one was killed or seriously injured in a TDR. The airplane proved difficult to stall, it’s true, but the statistic is still impressive considering that it was an unproven, untested, experimental aircraft. “We didn’t have any technical information about their reliability,” notes Grayson Merrill. “(Bobby Jones and Oscar Smith) took all this stuff and they trained them to use it. But they didn’t test any of it.” Another remarkable aspect of the secret training program was that, owing to the lack of an appropriate Navy facility, it took place all over the country. The Clinton, Oklahoma base, situated in sparsely-populated farm country, proved a great starting point. Eventually the group moved Traverse City, Michigan, so that over-water attacks on ships could be simulated. Tengstrom clearly recalls flying a whole series of attacks against a Great Lakes lighthouse, once from nearly sixty-five miles distant. Finally, in the summer of 1944, STAG-1 received orders to move to Monterey, California. It looked like, after an excruciatingly long training period, they were finally going to be deployed.

 

Few within STAG-1 knew it, but the entire time they had been training a battle royale raged within the Navy over Project Option. Initially, three Special Task Air Groups were to be formed, but only Thomas and Tengstrom’s group, STAG-1, finished training. STAG-2, another TDR strike force, formed but eventually disbanded. STAG-3, a unit which would have requisitioned war-weary bomber aircraft, turned them into drones, filled them with explosives, and delivered them to targets in Europe, never materialized. At a certain point, Project Option appeared in danger of disappearing altogether. Part of the problem stemmed from initial production delays, the TDN fiasco, and the difficulty in procuring both TDR airframes and components at the early stage of the war. Another blow would come from an unexpected and faraway source: Project Aphrodite and Anvil. These were joint Air Force / Navy programs identical in description to STAG-3. Unfortunately, they ended up being plagued by intra-service rivalries and repeated failures. The most spectacular and infamous of these occurred in August of 1944, when safety pilot Lt. Joe Kennedy Jr. – brother of John F. Kennedy and son of the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James – died after the explosive-laden drone he was flying detonated in mid-air.

Beyond Aphrodite’s failure to produce anything but ignominy, the course of the war directly affected Project Option’s viability. After the Battle of Midway in 1942, the Japanese fleet ceased offensive operations. By 1943 it was increasingly subject to attrition, and less and less of a threat. With U.S. Naval strength on the rise, the perceived need to deploy drones became less significant. Simultaneously, Admiral Towers’ resentment of Commodore Smith and the TDR effort continued to grow. By late 1943, their relationship had more or less disintegrated. Towers allegedly told Smith to his face that he would never endorse the combat use of the “experimental weapon”. He had powerful allies. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the mastermind behind the victory at Midway. wrote a letter in which he advised against the use of any “unproven weapons in the front lines”, especially from his aircraft carriers, lest the progress of the war be impeded. As a result, Towers felt justified in his steadfast refusal to grant STAG-1 access to the Pacific Theatre. (A European posting, which might have made even more sense, was also out of the question due to the start of the competing Aphrodite venture in England.)

Beyond Towers’ jealousy, the TDR faced a whole other series of challenges to its deployment. It represented a revolutionary weapon, and that was part of its problem. Towers and his faction refused to believe it could or would work, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. Seemingly no one in the upper chain of command wanted to champion its cause. It was a circumstance similar to the situation faced by Naval aviators (which included Admiral King and, ironically, Admiral Towers himself) in the 1920′s and 30′s, when battleships and cruisers reigned supreme. Few at that time had realized the need to wholly embrace naval airpower, and as a result America had nearly fallen victim to the violent swell of a technological sea change. Pearl Harbor dispelled any remaining doubts about the importance of aircraft carriers. In the eyes of its proponents, the TDR could be the most significant advance since the emergence of the carrier. But the idea of adapting to another, wholly new form of warfare in the midst of a colossal struggle obviously appeared daunting, even to the most visionary leaders.

Despite the opposition of Towers, Smith and Jones relentlessly lobbied that STAG-1 should see combat. In January of 1944 Smith paid a visit to Admiral Spruance, Commander of the Fifth Fleet. Spruance agreed to use the drones in support of assaults in the Marshall Islands; but that plan evaporated after the dates of the campaign shifted. Next, Smith tried unsuccessfully to billet one of his squadrons on an escort carrier. Finally however, his persistence appeared to pay off. He received orders to report to Rear Admiral E.L. Gunther, Commander of Aircraft South Pacific. Gunther offered STAG-1 a posting in the Russell Islands near Guadalcanal. That wasn’t a promising arena – the Russells were a backwater long considered pacified. Although Japanese Army units occupied by-passed areas, targets of significance would be rare, and enemy ships rarer still. Nevertheless, to Smith the Russells represented an opportunity to get into the fight, and he was glad to have it. Thus on May 18, 1944, STAG-1 squadrons VK-11 and VK-12 embarked for the South Pacific aboard the escort carrier USS Marcus Island. Two other vessels followed in convoy: the transport Frederick C. Ainsworth, and the cargo vessel Morning Light, in whose hold sat dozens of crated TDRs.

 

 

adjusting Block in the field

A member of the ground crew on Banika performs a balancing act while adjusting Block in the field. Dr. Zworykin's amazingly small camera is clearly visible in the nose of the drone. The camera's front cap is being used to prop up a test receiver. (Courtesy of Maurice Schechter)

 

The deployment was a rushed affair, and when the men of STAG-1 reached their staging area at Banika Island in the Russells on June 5, they found the CBs still building their camp. “We had to take lighters in to the beach, because there was no dock,” remembers Norm Tengstrom. An airstrip known as Sunlight Field was already in place, and with few distractions to keep the group from their duties progress was rapid. About three weeks after their arrival flight operations commenced. For the next month the group performed test fights while awaiting combat orders that never seemed to arrive. TDRs made simulated bomb runs, used their TV cameras to survey nearby islands, and laid smokescreens across lagoons as if supporting amphibious landings. Aside from a crack-up or two involving the TBMs, everything went without a hitch.

Finally on July 30, some real action took place. With Admiral Gunther, Marine Major General Ralph Mitchell and Commodore Smith in attendance, four TDRs were expended in an operational capability test. For Smith the test loomed large. It represented a final chance to convince higher-ups that his men deserved a significant combat role. He requisitioned a Navy motion picture crew to record the results, and selected a truly dramatic target -the grounded Japanese freighter Yamazuki Maru that lay near Cape Esperance.

 

Edna III

On July 30, 1944, STAG-1 staged an operational test from Sunlight Field. Four TDRs were launched in an "attack" against a grounded Japanese freighter. Here (in what appears to be a staged photo) the "Edna III" is readied: the fairing is attached over the cockpit hole, a 2000-lb bomb strapped underneath, and Block given a final check-out. (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom)

 

Four TBMs took off from Sunlight Field, followed by two TDRs. The third missile suffered a landing gear collapse during engine run-up – a victim of the gear’s primitive design – and carved its propellers to splinters against the ground. Crews quickly pulled the damaged missile from the tarmac and a replacement quickly roared into the air. A few moments later a fourth missile followed. Controlled by the TBM pilots, the missiles and aircraft formed up over Banika, ditched the TDRs’ landing gear, and then headed towards the target.

Seven miles from the Yamazuki Maru, the rear seat pilots turned on their television receivers, took control of their TDRs, and guided them in from under their black cloth drapes. One by one, the missiles closed on the freighter. The first missile, piloted by Billy Joe Thomas, dived down at the last moment, hit the ship dead center and exploded with a blinding flash. The detonation almost lifted the derelict out of the water. A few moments later, the second missile came in. It missed the ship by thirty feet and hurtled into a nearby patch of jungle. Its bomb load failed to detonate. The third missile hit near the ship, and probably would have caused severe damage but its bomb also failed to explode. The fourth and final TDR made up for the second and third missiles, producing a huge fireball as it skittered into the hull. While the results weren’t perfect, Smith was delighted. He made sure to personally congratulate Thomas on his bull’s-eye.

 

stills from TDR demonstration

Hoping to persuade the Navy that his men were ready for combat, Oscar Smith had the demonstration filmed in beautiful Kodachrome. (These stills were scanned from that film by Maurice Schechter.) Armed with 2000 pound bombs, TDRs are prepped for flight and head down the runway.

 

 

stills from TDR demonstration

Just as it was about to take off, the front landing gear on this TDR collapsed. "Everyone scattered thinking the 2000 pound bomb was going to blow," remembers Jim Hall, who was part of the ground crew that day. "But the bomb couldn't arm until the pin had been pulled by dialing #7 on the phone control box." Whew!

After the test, Smith decided to turn command of the outfit over to Bobby Jones. He wanted to return to Pearl Harbor and show his “blockbuster” movie to the brass. Upon arrival in Hawaii, however, a chagrined Smith discovered that orders already existed to recall STAG-1. Admiral Towers and his allies had won out. Project Option, the Navy’s multi-million dollar secret weapons program, was going to be scrapped.

 

a TDR narrowly misses the hulk of a Japanese ship and crashes into the jungle

In this amazing series of images, a TDR narrowly misses the hulk of a Japanese ship and crashes into the jungle, where its bomb detonates. Moments earlier, Billy Joe Thomas had scored a bull's-eye, setting off a catastrophic explosion that rained shrapnel on the camera position seen in this photo ‹ probably at least a half mile distant.

 

Back on Banika, Jones expressed frustration at the news. He adamantly believed in the TDR and its mission. Plus, he and his men had been training for over a year, and had sat in the jungle for nearly two months while the Navy ignored his unit. Now he determined to get into combat, Admiral Towers be dammed. He lobbied hard over the radio and by mail for a delay in recalling the unit. Against all odds, the scrappy Captain won a reprieve. A thirty day extension was granted, and STAG-1 given permission to attack targets of opportunity throughout the Solomons as a “test”. At last, the game was afoot!

 

On September 19, STAG-1 broke into two combat squadrons. VK-12 moved to Stirling Field on Treasury Island, off the south coast of Bougainville, while VK-11 deployed north of Bougainville on Green Island. From September 27 to October 26, 1944 these squadrons undertook an unprecedented series of attacks – the first ever in the history of warfare to utilize guided missiles. For the opening day of combat, Jones picked a particularly ripe target for VK-12: a grounded merchant vessel the Japanese had turned into an anti-aircraft emplacement. Only days earlier its gunners downed a C-47 transport plane, killing all aboard. Now it was payback time. For the mission, four TDRs and control aircraft took off from the Stirling airfield and headed towards Bougainville. En route, one of the drones developed a problem and crashed into the sea. The other three flew on, the TBM pilots switching control to the rear seat pilots as they neared the target. Then, they struck the unsuspecting Japanese with a fury.

 

 

pilots

Control pilot Billy Joe Thomas (second from right) stands next to pilot, and also the skipper of VK-12, Lt. Mike Prissler (second from left) at Sunlight Field. Also pictured (left) radioman George Grimes, (right) gunner Tom Camper, and (kneeling) crew chief J.C. Parsons. On September 27, 1944 this TBM crew participated in the first-ever guided missile attack in the history of warfare, hitting a grounded freighter the Japanese had turned into an anti-aircraft platform. (Courtesy of Billy Joe Thomas).

 

Billy Joe Thomas distinctly remembers the excitement, watching the grainy and sometimes static-filled green TV screen as his missile cruised closer and closer to the grounded ship. An unfamiliar pattern of small black dots began appearing on his monitor, and Thomas thought for a moment his receiver mighty be malfunctioning. Suddenly, he realized that they were flak bursts! He flew through them as if oblivious, concentrating his efforts on trying to hold the missile’s bouncing nose squarely on target. “Once you had the drone in that configuration, ” Thomas recalls breathlessly, “You would crab it in a little bit to the target, to correct for the wind and flak bursts. I just kept working that right on in, and boom! All of the sudden it contacted the ship and blew up.” At the last second the TDR’s camera revealed an astonishing sight – a close up view of the ship’s deck. Then, static. Thomas’ TDR had struck amidships, and probably killed everyone on board instantly. For insurance, one of his compatriots dove his bird in and hit the port quarter. The third missile hit astern of the vessel; its bomb failed to explode. Nevertheless, in Thomas’ mind it was a very successful mission and not a bad day’s work.

 

But Japanese ships – beached or otherwise – were a rare sight. Buildings, anti-aircraft installations, bridges and supply dumps therefore became the focus of operations. The fact that many of these targets were obscured by jungle cover didn’t seem to present a problem at first blush, but the technical limitations of the Block system soon became apparent. “It worked well when the target was silhouetted,” Norm Tengstrom explains. “For example, a ship on the water – perfect target. But when the horizon wasn’t clear, it was tricky.” A common difficulty, visible in black and white films shot off the control planes’ TV screens during combat runs, was that a monochrome jungle painted on a monochrome screen could conceal even the most prominent target.

 

 

The "Available Jones"

The "Available Jones", full bomb load aboard, waits for a mission. Prior to a combat flight, the windscreen would be removed and the cockpit hole covered with a fairing. The television camera port is clearly visible in this shot. (Courtesy of Norm Tengstrom).

 

Nevertheless, combat operations were filled with successes and near-misses. On one attack, Tengstrom and his control pilot Murray Reiter were ordered to destroy a bridge across the Foresei River on South Bougainville. Once he got the drone to tree level, Reiter lost sight of the target on his TV screen. While he tried to regain his bearings something gave out on the drone. Perhaps it had been hit by anti-aircraft fire, or a gyro locked. Whatever the case, it started zooming skywards at a precipitous angle of attack. Reiter tried a number of maneuvers and finally succeeded in diving the stricken TDR to the ground. “It hit something,” Tengstrom says with a laugh. “The gas dump or something. That’s the biggest explosion I’ve ever seen!”

 

Thomas had some similar experiences. “Yeah, I got shot down once or twice,” he remembers. “On the way in anti-aircraft fire just brought it down. I didn’t have control, but the picture was still on the screen, and all of the sudden I was looking straight down and couldn’t do anything about it.” But he adds matter-of-factly, “The beautiful thing about that was, it was stand-off operations. No lives were risked. If it had been a piloted plane and I had been shot down, there would have been a funeral.”

The combat diary of STAG-1 makes for a fascinating study, and provides some insight into the true nature of the group’s success.

October 1: attack by four TDRs with 2000 lb bombs on anti-aircraft installations on Ballale and Peperang Island. One drone shot down, three hits near enemy emplacements. Four more drones expended in the afternoon on South Bougainville. One hit near enemy gun emplacement, two bomb loads failed to detonate, one drone crashed in route… October 5: four drones attacked Kararvia Bay supply caves in Rabaul. Two drones lost on way to target, one hit south portion of the cave area, other drone missed and exploded in vicinity… October 9: Four TDRs attacked the Matagi Island bridge in Simpson Harbor, Rabaul. Number one and two and three shot down by anti-aircraft fire, with detonations of payloads in areas occupied by anti-aircraft positions, and number four drone crashed en route… October 18: Attack by three TDRs on lighthouse at Cape St. George, New Ireland. Number one drone hit between tower and radar installations but did not detonate, number two hit thirty feet from base of tower and exploded. Third drone lost due to material failures….

 

 

Images from 16mm abord STAG-1

A month of hard-hitting attacks is recounted in these images, which were filmed by 16mm cameras aboard STAG-1 control aircraft. While the 16mm originals are black and white (here they have been tinted an appropriate shade of green) and badly overexposed, one can get a fair idea of Block's effectiveness. Visible in the first image are the crosshairs a control pilot used to guide the TDR, which here flies towards an anti-aircraft position on the beach. In the second photo, a river and the jungle is clearly visible. Next shot shows a building and a bridge under assault; the white puffs are flak. In the final image, a TDR's nose eye view as it dives on a Japanese gun emplacement (left of frame). A moment later, it was destroyed.

 

On October 26, STAG-1 undertook a final combat mission. Four TDRs revisited the lighthouse at Cape St. George, with an eye towards renovating it. En route, one of the drones developed TV signal problems, and was intentionally crashed in the vicinity of anti-aircraft emplacements on a nearby island. The other three drones flew on. The first to reach the lighthouse slammed directly into the structure, utterly demolishing it. The second and third drones hit near the smoldering rubble. Thus Jones and his men ended operations with a bang.

 

Over the course of a month, VK-11 and VK-12 expended 46 TDRs in combat. Of these, 37 reached target areas, and at least 21 successfully executed precision attacks. It was a record anyone could be proud of, and Jones hoped it would be enough to stave off the group’s disbandment. But few if any in the upper echelons would learn of the achievement. When the group returned to the staging area on Banika, new orders awaited all personnel. As Jones watched with disgust, all 30 Avenger control planes were placed aboard a barge, taken out to Reynard Sound, and dumped into the lagoon. The pilots returned to Pearl Harbor for re-assignment with the fleet, or back to the States for “further development.” It was a deeply disappointing time. Although some pilots felt relieved to finally receive carrier berths, the general sense was that their talents had been squandered.

Jones especially felt betrayed. He’d proven the TDR’s effectiveness and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t going to be used against the Japanese mainland. According to Grayson Merrill, who had a little more perspective from his vantage point in Washington, the general sense was that at this stage in the war the TDR couldn’t make much of a difference. “Yes you could have used it on precision targets (in Japan),” Merrill says. “But we had such massive domination of the air with piloted aircraft at that point, that it was very hard to identify targets that regular aircraft couldn’t handle. The war was being won with piloted aircraft and they wanted to finish it off and get it over with. As it turned out that was probably a good decision.” As ’44 dragged into ’45, the Navy’s decision not to give the TDR a wider role made sense. Firebombed, its infrastructure utterly decimated, Japan still would not surrender. In that kind of environment precision weapons would not have made any difference. As it turned out, barring invasion, only one weapon – the atomic bomb – could and would bring Japan to surrender.

Nevertheless, the TDR experiment left a whole series of “what ifs” in its wake. What if Smith hadn’t feuded with Towers, would the TDR have been deployed sooner? And if it had, what kind of difference might it have made during the Philippine or Marshalls invasions, or at the climactic naval battle at Leyte Gulf? How might the conduct of the war have changed if commanders had the option to send drones against heavily defended targets where the use of manned aircraft would have been considered suicidal? And what might have happened if TDRs had been available in Europe at the time of the Aphrodite disasters, or if the Aphrodite / Anvil efforts had succeeded? What if the Navy had actually based drones off of a carrier, or turned obsolete carrier aircraft into drones? And what if a TDR or drone had been presented with the chance to sink an enemy warship? What would have happened then?

At the same time, a whole set of contravening questions can be formulated. During the combat missions, no enemy aircraft ever appeared. What if control pilots had to tangle with Zeros, as the torpedo bombers had at Coral Sea and Midway, all the while trying to escort their missiles to target? And even more seriously, as Grayson Merrill points out, what if the Japanese or Germans had developed countermeasures to television guidance? “Television is easy to jam because it’s a broad band sort of instrument,” Merrill notes. “That could have been a big factor if they had ever gone out earlier.”

Despite Jones’ and Oscar Smith’s best efforts, STAG-1 was fully decommissioned by the end of 1944. Plans to produce a new version of the TDR featuring radial engines and a better TV system never moved beyond the prototype stage. As Fahrney noted drolly in an unpublished history of the effort, “the great broom of victory swept all new projects into the ashcan of forgotten dreams.” The remaining drones ended up at the Naval Ordnance Test Station Inyokern, California, to be expended as targets for anti-aircraft shell proximity fuses and air-to-air rockets.

 

 

TDR 3 and sketch of jet-powered bomber drone

Two views of what might have been. On the left the TDR-3, which sported radial engines and an improved Block-3 television set-up. The Navy lost all interest in propeller driven aircraft after the war, and it was shelved. On the right, a drawing of a jet-powered bomber drone - an Me 163 clone? - designed by Interstate in 1943 and put into the round file by the Navy. (Courtesy of Roger Keys)

 

In the aftermath of the war, Del Fahrney and Grayson Merrill drafted specifications for eighteen different types of Navy missiles in a directive titled Pilotless Aircraft for Fleet Use in 1950 . About half of them appeared in the next decade, including a jet-powered successor to the TDR, the nuclear-capable Regulus cruise missile. Surprisingly, Regulus lacked television guidance, and was not a true precision weapon. Planners felt it didn’t need to be, since in the “next war” whole cities would be decimated by nuclear warheads.

 

But ironically, the next conflict was nothing of the sort, and while Regulus had a significant role in the Cold War as a submarine-based nuclear deterrent, it was of no value in Korea. Here was a conventional war, and one very much affected by logistics. For Bobby Jones the conflict presented a new opportunity, and he immediately began lobbying Admiral Arthur W. Radford (CINCPAC) to allow him to demonstrate the capabilities of assault drones. In late August of 1952, six obsolete F6F-5K aircraft equipped with Block-3 TV systems, and controlled by AD-2Q Skyraiders, launched attacks from the aircraft carrier Boxer. They struck a North Korean power plant, a railway tunnel and a bridge, and achieved a 50% success rate. The brass however remained skeptical of the effort, and the experiment ended there. Jones never did get the chance to hit his dream target ­ the Yalu River bridges. “(The F6F drones were) a going program at one time, backed by a lot of people,” Grayson Merrill remembers. “But here again it collapsed. It may have collapsed for political reasons – internal politics if you know what I mean.”

Whatever the reason Jones took the rejection as a personal defeat, and he was never the same. He became embittered, suggested that an “anti-missile cabal” existed within the Navy, and told anyone who would listen that the Pentagon’s failure to fully exploit cruise missiles technology during and immediately after WWII was “a national security disaster” that cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of American servicemen. Even if Jones was right, and there are reasons to believe he wasn’t far off the mark, it was a sad way to end what had been a promising career.

Today a single TDR – the last known to exist out of about 200 produced – hangs from the ceiling of the Naval Aircraft Museum in Pensacola, Florida. It is an anonymous-looking item, one the casual visitor might very well overlook. Despite the fact that it laid the groundwork for the cruise missile, the precision weapon, and America’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet, the TDR has remained obscure. Its very existence remained classified until the early 1950′s, when it was revealed as part of Congressional hearings into the so-called “missile gap”. Even then, its combat record remained classified. Only in the last few years has the Navy acknowledged STAG-1′s record of achievement.

Ironically the Japanese, who might have lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding the TDR after they were first struck by it in 1944, misunderstood the very nature of their adversary. In at least one broadcast, propagandist Tokyo Rose referred to the missile scornfully as an “American Kamikaze”. She mockingly mourned the deaths of so many brave U.S. pilots in the Solomons. Little could she or her handlers have known that during the entire deployment of STAG-1, not a single U.S. airman had been killed, or even injured, by the Japanese forces they’d attacked. They’d simply been too far out of range.

 

Special thanks are owed to TDR-1 era veterans Norm Tengstrom, Billy Joe Thomas (a real hero who, unfortunately, passed away before the article made it into print) and James Hall. I also owe a huge debt to early television technology expert Maurice Schecter and to Roger Keys, who provided a terrific archive of materials related to the undertaking. I also have to acknowledge the work of the Jones brothers, Bobby and Stephen, who not only directed the 1944 strikes, but worked diligently to preserve and publicize the story so that decisionmakers within the Navy and Congress could benefit from their experience.

Also thank you to those who helped proof the manuscript, including Dr. David Stumpf, Mike Machat at Wings, and Andreas Parsch.

The wonderful Linda Cohen maintains the STAGONE website, and is responsible for posting the article online.

Finally, this article would not have happened without the efforts of the incredible Capt. Grayson Merrill, who served at the Navy’s “Pilotless Aircraft Desk” during WWII. Now well into his 90′s and still going strong, Grayson told me a couple years ago — when I knew nothing about this topic — that this was “a story that *had* to be told”. Well Grayson you got your wish!**

Originally published in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings (www.usni.org) and reprinted with permission.
Text copyright ©2005 Nick T. Spark

Nick T. Spark is a frequent contributor to Wings and Airpower magazines. His articles have also appeared in Naval History, Proceedings, the American Aviation Historical Society Journal, the Annals of Improbable Research, and U.S.C. Trojan Magazine. His documentary film “Regulus: The First Nuclear Missile Submarines” (www.regulus-missile.com) has aired on Discovery Channel Europe and was recently released on DVD.

3 Responses to Command Break by Nick Spark

  1. Mike Priseler says:

    Really well done! My congratulations! My father Lt. Mike Priseler was the commander
    of VK-12, STAG-1 and as I understand it was the pilot of the plane that had the first successful attack mission. I have been doing some research and found this site. As I recall, there was an earlier site that talked a little more about my dad. But the fact that all of these men participated in the growth of “guided missles”, now smart bombs, tells me they were all heroes. Congrats on a great website………..Mike Priseler

  2. Mike Priseler says:

    Hi again, I just noticed that my Dad’s name is misspelled under the picture
    of his crew and plane. Last name is spelled Priseler.
    Thanks!!

  3. Ken Walden says:

    I am attempting to reach Nick Spark to give him information about my grandfather, Henry Walden, inventor of the first American Monoplane, in 1909. I also have information on what our family lore always called a “guided missle” but was infact a model of a drone, a missle that would contain explosives which was to be dropped from an airplane and guided by radio waves to its target, hence we called it a guided missle. He attempted to get the military interested in in but in their wisdom they weren’t interested. The model, which can be googled online along with much other info on this amazing man, is supposedly stored in the Smithsonian Museum, but not on display. He does have on display in the Air and Space Museum in the Old Timers section a small model of him on one of his monoplanes. I will be happy to forward you the information I have on this drone and other info on my grandfather if you reply to me. I’ve googled pictures of it and have them at my office if you’re interested.
    Ken Walden
    kwalden@bakerred.com
    803-622-3236
    His son, my uncle, James Walden, is still alive and lives in Florida and has much info on this incredibly creative man with many patents to his name, and is a family treasure.
    Ken Walden
    Columbia, South Carolina
    Ps I saw your name on the tv show about the bombing of Hitlers bomb center designed to destroy London. I don’t have the name of the show in front of me and decided to google you

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