Seventy three years ago Jamestown’s furniture makers, world famous and superbly skilled wood-craftsmen, also built top secret warplanes – “American Kamikazes” – for World War II. Few people remain alive today who knew. Secrets, in those days, were kept well.
“Oh my gosh! That’s a Jamestown Drone,” exclaimed Karen Livsey, archivist at the Fenton History Center to Sam Genco as they watched the flickering images revealed in Genco’s ancient stretch of 16 mm Kodachrome film. “We were thunderstruck,” Livsey told the Jamestown Gazette last week.
Genco had turned up the top secret World War II footage in an old film can destined for a trash heap when he found it at an auction in Westfield 15 years ago. He knew it was something special, but when he showed it to Livsey recently, she realized he had rediscovered one of Jamestown’s longest-held secrets. Livsey had previously published some historical research on the planes, but Genco’s 10-minutes of original footage was new, exciting and revealing.
The decaying U.S. Navy film – which Genco plans to digitize – showed strange wooden aircraft flown without pilots and aimed at Japanese warships and military targets in the South Pacific in 1944. They pounded their targets – courtesy of the American Aircraft Corporation in Jamestown, New York – with 1000-pound bombs and torpedoes strapped to their bellies.
The U.S. Navy developed these planes, designated TDR-1. Genco’s film depicts an apparently later version, the TDR-3. The plywood-clad airplanes, or selected wooden parts requiring Jamestown’s special craftsmanship, were built in American Aircraft’s specially designed factory employing 400 workers per shift atop Jamestown’s “Airport Hill,” adjacent to the Chautauqua County-Jamestown Airport. Some metal parts were also supplied by Schwinn bicycles and a few other wooden parts by Wurlitzer Piano.
American Aviation’s uniquely constructed original plant still exists, but it is now owned and operated by the unrelated Jamestown Advanced Products, today engaged in very different work.
The “big secret” was actually the planes’ use as attack drones more than the construction of airplanes. The plane itself was designed by the Interstate Aircraft and Engineering Corporation of California.
A few, incomplete pieces of the story were published locally in 1985, but telling the full story had to wait for Livsey’s research and Genco’s last pieces of the puzzle.
Though designed as pilotless drones, the planes were equipped with a simple cockpit, strap-on canopy and rudimentary landing gear so that the test-pilot (Jamestown’s Warren B. Skelton) and ferry-pilots could fly them and transport them to a Navy base in Philadelphia for deployment.
Unconfirmed reports hint that for local, un-piloted test flights, American Aviation actually sat dummies in the planes to look as though they were piloted.
On a Whim
“I found the stack of old, rusted film cans at the auction,” Genco said. “But when I spotted the words ‘U.S. Navy Motion Picture Film – Photographic Science Laboratory,’ and ‘Confidential,’ I bought them on a whim. “I didn’t know about the Jamestown connection until I showed them to Karen years later.”
Though drones with cameras are commonplace today, whether in war or with back-yard enthusiasts, in 1945 pilotless, remote controlled planes were more like science fiction. Lashed inside the nose of the plane an early, experimental R-C-A television camera transmitted grainy, monochrome images back to a drone pilot flying 10 miles behind in a chase plane. A remote pilot there operated a primitive joy-stick to aim the flying bomb.
TDR-1s were deployed in 1944 to the South Pacific during the U.S. war against Japan, under the direction of the Special Air Task Force. They targeted and destroyed a number of Japanese fixed installations. Of the 50 deployed drones, 37 (74 percent) reached their target areas and 21 (42 percent) hit their targets dead on. Despite the relative success, the U. S. Navy canceled the project in the fall of 1944, stating that the forces already deployed – piloted aircraft launched from land or sea – were sufficiently effective.
What’s in a Name?
The history of experimental broadcast technologies – radio and TV – and flying drones predates the TDR-1. Admirals of the U.S. Navy visited London in 1935 to observe British war readiness. They watched an especially impressive demonstration of a radio-controlled aircraft, which the British called their “Queen Bee.” Seeing the potential for such weaponry, the U.S. began its own research program to create their own radio controlled war machines. As a tip of their hats to the British “Queen Bee,” they called their flying units “Drones.” The name has apparently stuck. Those drones were also the forerunners of today’s smart bombs.
More to Tell
Genco also revealed that the U.S. Navy film was only one of the reels he obtained at the Westfield auction that day 15 years ago. “There’s a lot more interesting material in the other cans,” Genco said. He did not, however, reveal those contents, stating that further research and future announcements are still in preparation.
The next opportunity to share the results of Livsey’s and Genco’s ongoing investigations will be open to the public on Wednesday, August 8 at the Fenton History Center’s regularly scheduled Brown Bag Lunchtime Talks, noon to 1:00 p.m. “Come and enjoy,” Livsey said.
According to Livsey, there is one surviving TDR-1, now located at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. The Fenton History Center also has a few documents relating to the American Aviation Corporation, as well as some issues of the American Aviation Sky-Gest magazine.
Interested readers can find the veterans organization formed by the Special Task Air Group, which has posted more about these drones online at www.Stagone.org, though the Jamestown connection is not mentioned there.
Livsey added, “If anyone in the area has more American Aviation Corporation information or photographs that they would like to share with the Fenton History Center, [or to learn more about any of the Fenton or Hall House resources and archives] please contact the staff at 664-6256.”