I got to meet US Marine Bernard Simon who worked on the TDR-1s in the Pacific.
During WWII, the United States did some top secret work. One of the best kept secrets was the use of radio controlled guided bombs. You may have heard of “Project Aphrodite” where they filled up an old B-17 with explosives and it was “guided” to its target. This was where JFK’s brother, Joe, died.
Well, the US Navy also had a guided bomb project and it used television!
The US Navy used these TV guided drones as guided bombs in the Pacific. They were called TDR-1’s and were made out of wood by the Interstate Aircraft Company. The Wurlitzer Musical Instrument Company and the Schwinn Bicycle Company were subcontractors! The TV's were developed by RCA.
The plane used two 200 hp flat six cylinder Lycoming engines. It had a cockpit that could be used for ferrying the planes but in combat, the pilot’s windscreen would be removed and a fairing installed. The landing gear would be jettisoned since it was on a one way mission.
The TDR-1 was guided by TBM Avengers which carried a pilot, a radioman, a gunner in the .50 cal. turret, and a control pilot. The planes carried radio controls in the forward cockpit. In the rear the radio controls were copied, with a television screen and radar scope added.
Two men actually had to learn the procedure to fly the drone. During taxi and takeoff, there were guys in the tower who would control it. Right after takeoff, the TBM’s pilot would take control of the TDR-1 and maneuver it by eye while also flying his TBM. He would fly in loose formation with the drone until the time he got close to the target. Then the control pilot, sitting in the back with the radioman, would go under a black drape (to block out the sun), turn on his television receiver and radar scope, and make the attack run while the TBM pilot kept them at a safe distance.
The control pilot used a joystick to control the TDR-1’s attitude. There was also an automatic control system with gyros to help keep it stable. Part of the controls had a telephone dial. If you dialed 1, it would fly at fifty feet. And if you dialed 2 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.\
I got to meet US Marine Bernard Simon who worked on the TDR-1s in the Pacific. Here he is telling his story of being attached to squadron VK-11:
“See, remember now, all I did was to hang bombs on the TDR-1’s. The Navy went and started this thing, and they wanted to do it on Bougainville. That was a turning point battle in the Pacific war. The squadron that I was in, and others with it, was pivotal in this whole bit in developing the tactics that were used to protect the left flank of the 37th Infantry’s cavalry on the dash from Dagupan in the Philippines to release the people that were captive in Manila. As I told you, my MOS was propellers, but I was in engineering and a senior and NCO so when this deal came up, they said, ‘Okay you can go to the bomb dump and tell Sgt. Cutler that you have this special deal, that he will do what you tell him to do, and so forth, and that's your duty there.’ And report to this officer.”
“Anyway, I went there and Tom Brown was there, and Eddie Euster, the radioman. Tom Brown was the line chief and Eddie Euster was the communications man in this squadron. There was this selection of people in the upper echelon and enlisted men went down there. My job was to handle the ordinance through Sgt. Cutler. So these airplanes flew in, and there were three or four of them, as I recall. Tom Brown’s job was to have this top part taken off and have a piece faired over that was already prepared put over the top of it and fastened down.”
“The main thing, this was impressed on all of us, that this was top secret. We were not allowed to discuss it, even amongst ourselves. The officer in charge was a naval officer and our own officers had specifically picked us with the idea that we would be a complete secret. It turned out to be one of the best kept secrets of World War II. Twenty five years later they finally released it and they put it out very sneaky like!”
“Okay, so we went down to this fighter airstrip. There were three airstrips there. We’re already on Green Island. It all started on Bougainville. Things I did not know, and would not know until we read all these things later, Tom Brown and I, was that the reason they left Bougainville was that there radio frequencies that the artillery people there were using to cover their own radio communications was interfering with the TDR-1’s. So we went to Green Island and it was closer to Rabaul. It was predicated on the idea that in Rabaul, in that area, there were steep cliffs and the Japanese had dug tunnels up into the cliffs and put in large caliber cannons to destroy battleships. It was really big stuff, so they’d pull them out on the track, fire it on ships, and then roll it back in. It was kind of like in the movie, ‘The Guns of Navarone.’ We tried dropping bombs on the guns but they were protected in the caves. The only way to get them was with the TDR-1.”
“So these planes were there and each one of us had to help the others. Since we had a limited number of men working here on this, if Joe Schmo asked you to do something, you would do it, and so on and so forth. That's the way we worked including helping to hang the bombs. Then, when the order came that they were going to go, see, the mother ships were TBM’s, the Grumman Avenger. They had a pilot and a back seat man. Now I did not see this part, but one of my friends who worked in the tower did. He saw most of this stuff, and fairly up close. Now what I saw was on the nose of the aircraft there was a 3 inch lens right flush with the nose, and already by that time, oh, who knows, it's television, what do you know!”
“So anyway, these TDR-1’s, the bombs were all armed. These were Torpex high explosives, the best stuff we had for that job. We had a 500 pounder on each one, so they took off in a circle. Now, no one told us anything more. They were very sneaky and they’ll shoot you if you talk about it.”
“The project was successful. There was an account by the Japanese commanding officer on Rabaul. Now the Japanese were extremely good at identifying aircraft. So this officer, he hears strange sounds and he says, ‘I've never heard something like that before.’ So they shot one of these down and it crashed in the bay and he ordered his men to take it out and bring it to him, which they did, and then they found out. Immediately after that, Japan was saying that the Americans had kamikazes, even though they knew by the time that the TDR-1 used television. Tokyo Rose referred to the missile as “American Kamikazes in her radio broadcast.”
“The rear seat man, he would fly the drones. So they had a guy on the ground that would monitor them and wait for them to take off and then they would turn it all over to be back seat man in one of the TBM’s then they would fly it to Rabaul and then they stood back offshore enough that they could observe. See, they flew the aircraft by the TV.
Now, Bill Letton, who was the man who knew the inside stuff and was in that tower, he said that they're going to have a showing. Well, let’s just say that he saw the showing, not us, and now remember he only had a little screen about 5 x 3" around and they use the apparently a gun camera to take the pictures of the that screen. So here it is: the black-and-white and very grainy type stuff very hard to tell what it was. And as the plane comes in, he looks at the black spot and aims for the black spot and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it disappears and was successful.”
“The guys who were actually supposed to be there were unable to get in so they had to improvise and they got us. We where the next ones up. So in the war, this is what happened: The 37th Infantry was right there and our tent stakes were in the revetment where the mortar guns were shooting at the enemy! And the 37th Infantry guys, they would come in and wake us up if they had to fire the mortar because the mortars going out sounds like one coming in! Very close combat!”
“Now the fiercest stuff, it might sound kind of dumb, but it was the insects! I'm not kidding! Could you imagine a centipede that was about a foot long and a half an inch wide, and at the front he's got pinchers and on it’s tail and he has two barbs??!! One of our men got one on him and it got on his arm and the more he shook the more it grabbed onto him. So it's clamped onto him with its stingers inside him and his flesh turned black! He was in really serious condition and it was questionable if he was going to be sent home!”
“In conclusion, the TDR-1 was a revolutionary design and was successful, but was scrapped anyway. Now look at the new unmanned aerial vehicles! Most people don’t know it, but it all started in WWII. It wasn’t like the modern launching points, oh, no way. There were bugs crawling and guns shooting all night! The war was terrible.”
The TDR-1 project was then canceled by the Navy even though it proved very successful. In one month Squadrons VK-11 and VK-12 used 46 TDR-1’s in combat. 37 of these reached their targets areas, and at least 21 successfully hit their targets precisely.
Of 200 Interstate TDR-1's built, there is only one left. It's at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.
Bernard had a lot more amazing stories of his time in the Marines and it was great to have him share them with me.
I couldn't find much information on the TDR-1's except for these amazing websites...
Interview, all transcribing, and research by me! Last photo and some editing help by my dad.