Just when the Black Cats of VPB-34 were getting warmed up, it was time to
give up the search-and-attack mission to VPB-33, and move on to air-sea rescue duties at
Port Moresby. The progress of the war and the advance of Allied forces along the northern
coast of New Guinea meant that the action was moving farther west. Air strikes were being
made almost daily and Fifth Air Force Headquarters, which controlled air-sea rescue
activities, were moved up to Nadzab, just inland from Lae. Part of the squadron was sent
forward to Langemak Bay at Finschafen to operate from the tender San Pablo and later from
the Half Moon.
The procedure for rescue operations called for one or more Cats to orbit near the target while a daylight air strike was in progress, waiting for a call. When it came, the Cat would proceed to the site, land in the water, and pick up the crew. A grid system was used to simplify the problem and if a plane had to ditch, the pilot would broadcast his grid position. Sometimes there was fighter coverage for the rescue operation and sometimes not. Frequently, disabled aircraft found it necessary to ditch close to shore and it then became a contest between the Cat and the Japanese to see who could get there first.
One such mission was performed by a VPB-34 aircraft was especially notable. It was flown by Lieutenant Nathan Gordon and his crew on February 15. Gordon's Cat, sometimes known as "The Arkansas Traveller" in deference to the pilot's home state, was assigned to cover a large B-25 raid against the enemy base at Kavieng on New Ireland. The fighting had been particularly heavy that day and the PBY went directly to the scene of action, looking for airmen in the water. The Cat crew could see that the Army aircraft had done their job well, as smoke billowed from the burning Japanese base.
A raft was spotted just offshore and although there was no sign of life in the vicinity, Gordon knew that a human head bobbing in the water can be easily missed from the air. He went down to investigate. The heavy swells off the beach were not conducive to a smooth landing and the Cat hit hard. Water came in around the seams and drained into the bilges but the old PBY stayed afloat. They taxied around the raft to make sure there were no survivors, then lifted back into the air in a well-executed open-sea takeoff.
No sooner was the Cat airborne when they were called by a B-25 circling nearby. The pilot of that aircraft had spotted another raft with men aboard close to shore. The Japanese had put a boat over in an attempt to capture the Americans but the B-25 roared down over the surf and discouraged that line of approach with its guns. The enemy now contented himself with firing at the raft and its occupants from the beach.Once again, the Catalina landed in the heavy swells and taxied over to the raft. The Japanese gunners now shifted their attention to the aircraft. It was evident that the B-25 crewmen could not be hauled aboard the moving aircraft so Gordon pulled the mixture controls back and the props ground to a stop. The raft came alongside and the men were quickly hauled aboard. With slugs sprinkling the water around them, the two pilots started the engines and the Cat labored through the swells and bounced into the air.
Now Gordon received another call more men in the water. He located the three crewmen quickly, landed, and once more cut his engines. Again, he was taken under fire by the enemy shore positions and again he made it back into the air. With nineteen people aboard, including his own crew, Gordon headed for home... But before he got very far, the B-25 pilot was on the air again. He found still another raft with six more men on board.
Already overloaded with people and a large volume of water sloshing around in the bilges, the young pilot knew this would be a squeaker. Yet he could not leave six Americans to fall into the hands of the Japanese. Returning to Kavieng, he found the raft only a few hundred yards offshore. Because of the direction of the wind and swells, Gordon was obliged to make his approach over the beach and through a hail of gunfire. Setting the big Cat down in the water, he pulled up to the raft and shut down the engines. Six lucky crewmen were hauled aboard, the engines came to life and the badly leaking Cat began its takeoff run. The Japanese threw everything they had at the plane to prevent its escape. The black hull plowed through the swells, the engines straining to heave the waterlogged Cat from the water. Gradually, the airspeed increased and after what seemed an eternity, they were airborne.
For the last time, the battered old Cat headed for Finschafen. Gordon put crewmen to work with buckets to get rid of some of the water in the bilges and thus lighten the load. Hours later, they splashed down in Langemak Bay and transferred fifteen grateful airmen, some of whom were badly injured, to the field hospital.
Admiral Halsey was especially impressed with the performance of Gordon and his men, so much so, that he took time to dash off' a message of congratulations. "Please pass my admiration to that saga-writing Kavieng Cat crew. X-ray. Halsey." Nathan Gordon was later rewarded with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his days work.
(The above section of text was taken from "Black Cat Raiders of WWII" by Richard C. Knott, 1982) (now out of print)
Click here to read an interview with Nate Gordon
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