Navy Catalinas Known As "Black Cats" of Guadalcanal

"The Black blind, vengeful eagles they flew, cruising hour after hour in the black night, hunting Japs at sea, on land and in the air. They patrolled over enemy territory for 13 hours at a time. They led PT boats into battle. They droned north for an eight-hour harassing mission against the once-dangerous Munda airfield. Or they helped Naval task forces to bombard Jap installations by hovering over the bursting shells and reporting back on the accuracy of the fire.

For six long months, the men of VP-12 flew the "Black Cats" that prowled at night from Guadalcanal, the first organized and specially trained squadron of night patrol bombers. Just before dusk, they would leave Henderson Field on their long, lonely missions, never knowing whether an unseen weather front or unexpected ack-ack would cause the most trouble during the night. Usually, the weather was the worst. But the six months, from December, 1942, to May, 1943, ended with the squadron suffering no casualties among its 49 officer pilots. Instead, there were one Legion of Merit, one Distinguished Flying Cross, 19 Air Medals, and nine letters of commendation from the Commander in Chief, South Pacific Forces, to reward these men for their heroic service.

The first pilots and planes from VP-12 arrived on Guadalcanal in the middle of December, 1942, under the command of Commander Clarence 0. Taff, U.S.N. The big Navy patrol bombers looked incongruous in that battle-torn spot where small, speedy fighter planes had been doing most of the air work. But these Catalinas were even stranger than might have been expected - they were painted completely black, so that the night might hide them better and searchlights find them less easily.

The squadron had a real black cat as its mascot - and the men were very proud of the discrimination it showed. It seems that two days after VP-12 reached Henderson Field, a coal black kitten wandered out of nowhere into the squadron's coconut grove camp. For six months, he went everywhere with the men and his loyalty never wavered. Early in May, when the squadron knew it would be sent back to the United States, Commander Taff announced that he was going to take the kitten back home. But two days before departure, the mascot disappeared; the black cat and the "Black Cats" had ceased to operate as a unit.

Immediately after arrival at Guadalcanal, the first few planes went to work, answering "Washing Machine Charlie," the annoying Jap night raider, by going up to Munda, Vila, Kahili, Buka and Rekata Bay. Like alley cats at home, their mission was to keep the Japs awake with the whine of bombs. They would leave at dusk and return with the dawn, with the men apparently more worried about chow than they had been about the grueling job of flying on instruments for 12 or 13 hours.

The "Black Cats" used no lights. They could neither see nor be seen. The nerve-wracking nature of this type of flying made it advisable for pilots and crews to fly only every third day. But conditions in the Solomons allowed no quarter; the men frequently flew every other day. Then, after several weeks, they would go back to the base at Espiritu Santo for less arduous work. A few weeks of this, then back to Guadalcanal they went.

Night harassing missions were one of the major tasks of the "Black Cats." The standard job over Munda took about eight hours, with two to four hours over the target. The usual bomb load included 500-pound bombs, fragmentation bombs, some incendiaries, and maybe 20 or 30 empty beer bottles brought along for noise. Some of the more imaginative men, such as Lieutenant (junior grade) Arthur R. Siirola, U.S.N.R., also took along hand grenades, door knobs, chains, tin cans, or anything else that would make a clatter as it hit the ground. One very appropriate gesture was the inclusion of shrapnel from Jap bombs in the junk thrown back at the enemy.

The pilot usually made four runs at about half hour intervals over the field, with one heavy bomb and a quarter of the rest of the load dumped on each trip. Many times, the pilots on these runs over Munda, Vita or elsewhere, started fire and hit ammunition and fuel dumps. Their bombs hit runways and bivouac areas and undoubtedly killed plenty of Japs besides spoiling their sleep and cutting down their productive efficiency.

Despite the strain of their work, however, the "Black Cat" men retained a happy sense of humor. Take, for example, the New Year's Eve run made by Lieutenant Norman Elwood Pedersen, U.S.N.R. He started out early and was scheduled to be relieved over the target Munda airfield, again-by Ensign Randall Kennon, U.S.N.R., at midnight. Lieutenant Pedersen, however, had saved a few special tokens for the Japs, and he waited a few minutes overtime to deliver them. At 0000, January 1, 1943, he started his run, blew the warning in the plane, and dropped a 500-pound bomb, a flare, and 24 screaming, empty beer bottles. Ensign Kennon followed along with a similar gift from the United States about five minutes later, but Lieutenant Pedersen claims to have dropped the first bombs of 1943 on the Japs.

A typical search mission carried out by three planes occurred one night in early February. They were trying to spot a large Japanese task force headed toward Guadalcanal. The planes took off in a blinding rain at 10 p.m. The first one ran into a weather front 60 miles from Guadalcanal, and, after finding no way around it, started into the weather melee. The plane was bounced all over the sky. When it made a 2,000 foot drop in one minute, the pilot decided the job was hopeless and returned to Henderson Field. The third plane got closer but the weather was so solid, it too had to return early. The second plane, piloted by Lieutenant Hartsel Dale Allen, U.S.N., completed 100 per cent of the course with visibility zero. The rain was so heavy during the entire flight that at one time the navigator called on the interphone and asked Lieutenant Allen if he was "taxiing."

Several times, the searching "Black Cats" found the Tokyo Express. On the night of January 14, 1943, three planes, piloted by Commander Taff, Lieutenant Cyrenus L. Gillette, U.S.N.R., and Lieutenant Hadley McCoy Lewis, U.S.N.R., spotted a Jap force and attacked. Two direct hits on a destroyer were made and the ship left burning. A couple of weeks later, Lieutenant Lewis found another force, and after notifying Henderson Field, started to bomb the force himself. He kept tracking the force for three hours, and while no direct hits are claimed, as far as is known, the Japs did not continue in to Guadalcanal after Lieutenant Lewis' attacks. In May, 1943, the men of VP-12 were withdrawn from the Solomon Islands. By that time, many of the pilots had completed more than 15 missions and more than 150 hours of night flying over enemy territory. All told, more than 300 combat missions had been flown...."

Taken from: Navy Catalinas Known As "Black Cats" of Guadalcanal,
by Aero Parts Manufacturing Company, published in Aeropinion May 25, 1944.
This material was provided courtesy of  The United States Navy Patrol Squadrons website.


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