Sixty-seven years after a pair of TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers ditched in a lagoon after a second world war raid on the remote Pacific atoll of Jaluit, a team of aviation archaeologists plans to recover one of the planes, described as an unsung hero of the Pacific war. When one of the Devastators is recovered, it will - remarkably - be the only surviving example of this aircraft to go on display anywhere in the world. Not only are these two planes rare, they are also historically important because they were lost during the US Navy's first offensive action of the Pacific war - a raid on February 1, 1942, by planes from the USS Yorktown against Japanese installations in the Marshall Islands, according to Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). 'The Devastator has been called one of the crown jewels of naval aviation,' Mr Gillespie said. 'When it entered service with the US Navy in 1937, it was the most advanced carrier-based aircraft in the world and ushered in a new era in naval aircraft design. 'However, so rapid was the advance of aeronautical development in those years, by the time war broke out in the Pacific in December 1941, the TBD was hopelessly outclassed,' he said. Nevertheless, Devastators played a role in the American victories of the Coral Sea and Midway, although losses were so heavy at Midway - when only four of the 41 aircraft launched returned to their carriers and not a single torpedo hit a target - that the type was withdrawn from combat and relegated to training units in the US. A mere 129 Douglas Devastators were produced, and not one survives in any museum or collection worldwide, a situation that the aircraft recovery group aims to rectify. Since 2003, the group has been working with the US Navy and the Republic of the Marshall Islands to initially inspect the two aircraft at the bottom of the 688sqkm lagoon. One of the aircraft lies at a depth of just 12 metres and can be reached by snorkellers. It is largely intact, although the propeller and engine cowling are detached from the fuselage and lie a short distance away. The glass canopy is still in place and coral has grown over parts of the wings and body. Unfortunately, the positioning of the aircraft would make recovery problematic. Which is why the recovery group has turned its attention to the second Devastator. Located by local divers as recently as June 2002, the aircraft lies in 38 metres of water, about 100 metres from its sister. It is almost entirely intact, although coral has grown across much of the airframe. The depth has apparently kept pilferers at bay: both its guns are still in place, as are the cockpit controls and instruments. To keep it that way, the wreck's exact location is being kept secret. 'The location of the deep aircraft is not being released for two reasons,' Mr Gillespie said. 'The government of the Marshall Islands does not want to encourage hazardous diving, and there is a genuine concern that items could be looted.' The recovery group's plan is to salvage the Devastator and display it as it was found. There will be no effort to restore it to its original state. Bringing it to the surface will also mean the stories of two airmen - who survive to this day - will be brought around full circle. Bombardier Charles Fosha and radioman/rear gunner James Dalzell were aboard TBD number 0298, identified as the aircraft in shallow water. The pair, along with pilot Lieutenant Harlan Johnson, were able to inflate a life raft and make it to shore, where they were captured by the Japanese occupiers along with the crew of the second aircraft, Ensign Herbert Hein, bombardier J.D. Strahl and rear gunner Marshall Windham. In the book Century of War, Mr Fosha recalls the day of the raid that ended with his captivity. He remembers heavy rain, and thinking the raid would be cancelled. He also recalls the pilot telling them over the target that they no longer had sufficient fuel to return to the Yorktown. 'Anyway, we knew we had to land,' he said. 'We couldn't possibly make it to the carrier, so we landed on the west side of the atoll, knowing we would be captured. But you might say we only had one alternative - to proceed towards the carrier and go as far as we could. 'We decided that with the weather and everything, the chances of being picked up were slim.' Remarkably, all six men survived as prisoners of war and were repatriated at the end of the war. Once recovered, the aircraft piloted by Ensign Hein is likely to be unveiled to the public at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, although there is a great deal of work to be done before that can happen, Mr Gillespie said. 'The application process for those permits requires approval of detailed plans for the recovery and conservation of the aircraft,' he said. 'TIGHAR's objective this year is to complete the planning and submit the applications for the necessary permits. Towards that end, a TIGHAR expedition to the Marshalls later this year will explore logistical options and also check on the condition of the aircraft. 'If we have the necessary permits in hand a year from now, we'll be able to establish an informed budget and begin fund-raising for the recovery and conservation,' he added. 'How soon the recovery operation goes forward will depend upon how soon we're able to raise the money. 'Funding is always the biggest hurdle, and the current economic environment makes the challenge that much greater,' Mr Gillespie said. 'This is not a commercial venture. We're not recovering the plane to sell it to the navy, and we're not acting as contractors to the navy. We're recovering the plane to present it to the navy as a gift in the interests of preserving history.' So far, the project has mainly been funded by donations from members of the recovery group. Since the start of the project in 2003, well over US$500,000 has been raised and spent on research and expeditions to lay the groundwork for the recovery and conservation work. And as soon as the recovery plan has been approved by all relevant authorities, the group will know exactly how much more will be needed to save a Devastator and a unique part of aviation history.