Just after midnight on November 25, Hal Sommer, skipper of VPB-52, was prowling an area about 75 miles west of the enemy complex at Rabaul when his radar operator picked up a large force of several ships on his equipment. A few minutes later the wakes of several fast-moving vessels came into view. Sommer picked out one and executed a glide-bombing attack. The entire bomb load was released at about 700 feet and all missed the target. The intended victim, a destroyer, opened up with tracers and fire from its main batteries. Sommer opened to a distance of about 25 miles and proceeded to track the enemy formation. He radioed his position and the situation to Lieutenant Bill Lahodney, who was also searching the Bismarck Sea that night.

Lahodney arrived at the position a short time later and homed in on radar. At about two miles and 1,200 feet, he could make out a large zigzagging wake. It belonged to a cruiser flanked by several destroyers. He pushed the nose of the aircraft over and began a steep dive toward the violently maneuvering target (believed to have been the heavy cruiser Aoba or another ship of that class).

The attack on the big ship was made from port quarter to starboard bow and although the intervalometer was set to provide bomb spacing of 75 feet, it is probable that the weapons hit closer together, due to the steep angle of the dive and the low altitude of the drop. The copilot, Ensign H. M. "Hank" Kalstad, released the quick of bombs on Lahodney’s signal and the pullout was made between 100 and 150 feet. They found their marks on the writhing target. The starboard waist gunner looked out to see the large superstructure, masts, and the after turret of a big cruiser flash by. The Cat made a climbing turn and came back for a strafing run despite a withering antiaircraft barrage. As the plane approached its wounded victim, there was a violent explosion from the bowels of the big warship. Lahodney continued the run, dropping a duster of fragmentation bombs from about 400 feet. As he did so, heavy antiaircraft fire enveloped the Catalina, blew off the tunnel hatch, and ripped through the tail section. Lahodney was suddenly aware that he had lost all aileron and partial elevator control and was losing altitude. Adding full power on one engine and somewhat less on the other, he was able to pick up a faltering wing and thus keep the aircraft in the air. Other enemy ships in the formation now picked up the PBY in their searchlights and were making frantic efforts to shoot it down.

Retiring out of range, the wounded Cat slowly climbed to 6,000 feet, still experiencing severe problems with directional control and maneuvering. Lahodney and his co-pilot wrestled with the problem for some time when, suddenly, dozens of searchlights came on and flashes of light could be seen on the ground below. Only then did they realize that they had strayed over the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul. Luck was with them again, however, and a broken layer of clouds covered their escape. They headed east, passed over the southern end of New Ireland and proceeded out to sea. There they altered course to the southwest and headed for home.

The aircraft was still flying but it was not performing normally. Differential throttle had to be employed on the engines to retain control. Excessive power was necessary to maintain altitude and even so, maximum speed was only about 90 knots. Lahodney ordered all excess gear jettisoned – guns, ammunition, tool boxes, catwalks – everything, as Kalstad later remarked, "that was not riveted to the plane itself."

About 50 miles south of New Ireland they ran into a front with heavy turbulence. With no aileron control, and the elevator cables hanging by a few strands, they were buffeted about for almost two hours before they emerged on the other side.

The problem now was one of navigation, for they had only a vague idea of the aircraft’s position. Finally at daybreak they were able to raise the Half Moon on the radio and discovered that they had passed to the west of the tender and were off the southern coast of New Guinea. Reversing course they returned to the coastline and followed it eastward until they came upon the base at Samarai about two hours later. There, they made a deliberately hot landing to prevent the tunnel compartment from taking on too much water, and taxied right up to the ramp. There the aircraft sank in shallow water. It had been an eventful night and Lahodney later received the Navy Cross for his skill and daring.

(The above section of text was taken from "Black Cat Raiders of WWII" by Richard C. Knott, 1982)(now out of print)


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