Heavily-armed Catalinas, painted black, bring something new to night warfare by teaming with PT boats to drive Jap shipping from the ocean.
Along the new coral roads of the South Pacific the air is quiet and sullen. Great black-fox bats hover above the Banyan trees, looking as sinister as something out of Dracula, but actually benefiting the fighting men in the unfriendly tropical jungle. The bats prey upon the pestiferous insects -- the mosquitos, gnats and disease-bearing bugs that fly the air.
On the nearby airstrip is another kind of bat-like creature -- the biggest, blackest, most sinister looking bird that flies. It, too, preys upon unfriendly insects. It is the famous Black Cat, an amphibious Navy Catalina (PBY-5A) painted dark for night work. Its chief mission is to hunt down and destroy the pestiferous night-creeping Jap barges that seek to reinforce and resupply the enemy.
Black Cats taking off for a night mission are an awe-inspiring sight. Generally, they leave around dusk and soon disappear from sight. The Japs will probably never see them. But they will feel them. For this new version of the PBY now is heavily armed and goes on deadly missions. Working with destroyers or PT boats, they make the night unsafe for Jap supply barges. Before they glide in again at dawn, more than one shattered and burning hulk that the Japs in some area are in for a hungry time.
The Black Cats, as Comdr. C.F. Coe of ComAirSoPac named them, have this in common with all versions of the PBY: they do a little of everything. Even now when the war is becoming more specialized, with Navy Liberators handling the search and Dumbo taking over the rescue, the Cats still perform all these duties and many more. They have been used for mail runs; flown regular search missions; done anti-sub work; and acted as spotters for artillery fire, telling the ships how they are doing. Frequently they act as guides for lost planes. Not long ago two Avengers were lost after darkness fell. A Black Cat went out and lighted the way home, dropping flares at three minute intervals.
These night prowlers -- which have names like Black Mac and Night Raider -- do a lot of miscellaneous rescue work. One Black Cat on routine flight from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal landed at sea to pick up the pilot of an Army Aircobra southeast of Cristobal. The Cat's retractable landing gear makes water landings slightly more risky. So, before the heavily-loaded plane dropped down, the pilot was forced to jettison 14 cases of priceless beer. Beer, though never consumed in the planes, serves a double purpose: it provides a pleasant interlude for hot afternoons at the base and the bottle, carefully preserved to be dropped over the Jap encampment on the way home, becomes a screaming weapon of warfare to harass an enemy already overtired. The falling bottle gives out a weird, soul-searching, whistling scream. It annoys the Japs considerably.
The first plane to land at Green Island was a Black Cat which answered a hurry call to Torokina, on Bougainville Island, scenting big game. But it was only to haul passengers. However, when the crew members were told what passengers, they scrubbed the metal work inside the plane until it sparkled; they brought in settees and cushions; and they turned the tiny interior into a miniature parlor car. Nothing, they felt, could be too good for Admiral Halsey, Admiral Fitch and Brigadier General Riley. Admiral Fitch took the controls himself most of the way. After the party had made an inspection and returned safely, the Cat headed for base, happily strafing the Japanese-held coast and reporting some mines spotted near the Shortlands.
One big role of the Black Cats, as stated previously, is now to track down and destroy barges. Recently both the Cats and the PT boats have entered an impromptu armament race with the Jap supply-runners. At first the barges were duck soup; then they put on more guns. So the PT's added more, too. After this, the ordnance men got in a huddle to see what more the PBY-5A could carry. Consideration had to be given to the design of the plane itself. The Catalina is a big plane with two 1,200-h.p. Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines, a wing span of 104 feet and a wing area of 1,400 square feet. She weighs over 20,000 pounds empty and can carry a load of approximately 15,000 pounds. All this had to be figured into the armament calculations. Already the Catalina had .30-calibers in her nose and .50's in the two blisters, besides a .30 in the tunnel hatch. She carried a ton of bombs, numerous fragmentation bombs, many illuminating flares and a generous supply of the terrifying empty beer bottles. With her gas load, that added up to more than 34,000 pounds. What about more .50's? And couldn't you take out some of the light machine guns and put in a couple of 20-mm. cannon? One crewman experimenting on his own, tried to install a 75-mm cannon he borrowed from a wrecked tank, but it wouldn't fit. With the greater load the PBY groaned, yet rose and flew. Currently, the Japs have great respect for those nocturnal marauders. Jap night fighters keep a respectful distance. If it's a choice of jumping a Black Cat or a PT boat, the Nip will strafe the PT every time.
What the Black Cats are doing to win the war cannot be appreciated until the strategy of the Solomons campaign is fully understood. That is one thing the public should be told. The average American picks up his morning paper and reads about another Jap barge sunk off of some faraway atoll in the South Pacific. He may even see a picture of the beached ship, burned and ruined, lying half in the water and half out under the overhanging shade of the cocoanut palms. It's nice to know, but it isn't very exciting. He turns the page to read about big bombers wiping out whole cities and the little barge seems trivial.
Actually, the little barge which didn't get through with the groceries represents imprisonment for the Japs on the island it was headed for. We know what it costs in lives and explosives to take a Tarawa or a Kwajalein, but we do not know enough about how the Japs have been starved and squeezed out of the whole long chain of Solomon Islands.
The first move of an advance in the South Pacific is to knock out the enemy air opposition. Jap planes on nearby fields are kept on the ground by ceaseless bombing of their strips. Then in go the LST's with the Marine raiders to bite off a tiny chunk of the island where we want to base our planes for further moves. And the Army comes up with guns and tanks and holds the lines. Seabees quickly lay the strips; our planes come in; and offensive air operations are begun. What if there are 10,000 or 20,000 beleaguered Japs within five miles of the airfields? If they show their faces the dive bombers will work on them. Every time the Japs drag up an antiaircraft gun, a Navy or Marine dive bomber is detailed to knock it out. If the Jap gun remains, it will need ammunition. That is where the barge running and the Black Cats come in.
Throughout the Solomons campaign there have been three squadrons of Black Cats. VP-12 was the first. It came to Guadalcanal in December of 1942, and was replaced by VP-54. VP-54, in turn, was relieved by VP-81. They keep up a constant rotation to avoid combat fatique. The squadrons are not very large and not more than three or four Cats go out each night. But the results are anything but negligble. VP-12 flew more than 300 combat missions. VP-54 dropped an amazing number of bombs on Munda and Vila as their contribution to the softening-up process of those airfields. The squadron members strafed barges galore, beaching a great number of them. As a sideline, they rescued 52 men, 27 of them pilots. The returns on VP-81 are not all in, but the record they have made under their skipper, Lieut. Comdr. E.P. Rankin, is truly impressive.
Some of the missions are varied and sometimes they get pretty lively. On Christmas Eve, 1942, two Black Cats of VP-12, each loaded with two torpedoes, set out to attack shipping in the Buin-Kahili area. Lieut. Norman E. Pederson and Lieut. Ronald F. Stultz were pilot and co-pilot of one, Lieut. William L. Pack was flying the other alone. Near Fauro Island, just opposite the Shortlands, Lieutenant Pederson decided to make a practice run on a reef. While making the run he picked up a surfaced enemy sub near at hand. Since the sub, once spotted, did not dive, the pilot made a wide turn to hit it abeam. Shultz dropped a torpedo at 600 yards set to arm in 450 yards and with a depth setting of 11 feet. Rings around the sub indicated a direct hit, though no explosion was seen. Feeling that they had paid their respects to the sub, the crew then continued to the Shortlands. A Jap destroyer was discovered at anchor in Shortland harbor. The Cat made two dry runs before getting in one that suited. On the third, after the plane's torpedo had been dropped, the ship opened up with antiaircraft. The plane banked sharply to escape it. The result of this attack was impossible to obtain, but the crew felt reasonably hopeful that the torpedo connected. Meanwhile Lieutenant Pack had flown formation with Lieutenant Pederson about halfway to Bougainville and then lost him. Searching the waters below Buin and Kahili, he located four destroyers anchored off Fauro Island, three of them together and one off half a mile by itself. Pack dived on the straggler and dropped a well-placed torpedo, then got out in a hurry. Destroyers are bad medicine for slow-flying patrol planes. However, this torpedo was also believed to have got in, winding up a very successful Christmas Eve for the two-plane Black Cat party.
A month later, Lieut. Clyde W. Curley, also of VP-12, took off at midnight to help some PT boats work on the Tokyo Express. His job was chiefly to point out the route. Fifteen miles off of Cape Esperance he saw three destroyers, and simultaneously, a light cruiser. For an hour Curley trailed the cruiser, giving continual reports to the four PT's that were detailed to attack it. Once he came down to 350 feet and again to 500, dropping smoke lights ahead of the cruiser to direct the PT's. They joined the battle, and the Cat saw tracers from both the PT's and the cruiser. After working in close enough to deliver their Sunday punch the PT's withdrew, without being able to check the damage. Twice during the melee the Cat narrowly escaped destruction, once getting caught squarely in the ship's searchlights, making a perfect target. One of the most interesting parts of this mission occurred when Curley was returning to his base, which was then Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. Another plane seemed to be following him in, he reported to the field. The plane's lights were directly on him. He decided that if the condition existed when he sighted the field, he would open fire. While he circled for a landing, however, the plane shot by without any hostile action. It turned out to be a Navy plane whose pilot said that he had not even seen the Cat, thereby proving the effectiveness of the black paint, the sealed-in navigating compartment, and the like. His statement also made clear why Black Cats prowl on their own.
The pilots of VP-54 keep equally busy. The night of July 2 Lieutenant Commander Schoonweis and Lieutenant Erhard rescued eight Dauntless pilots and one Corsair pilot at Rennell Island after the strike of June 30. On the same night Lieutenant Anderson, feeling in an indestructible humor, took on a heavy cruiser, two light cruisers and four destroyers. He dropped some big ones on the heavy cruiser and some more on one of the destroyers. After his bombload was expended, he tracked the Japs until daylight.
Again, on July 19, Lieutenant Johnson made a night contact with an enemy task force of a heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, five destroyers, and three transports ten miles off of Fauro Island. He tracked them into Vella Gulf and made a glide bombing run on the three transports, which were in close column formation. All of his bombs were dropped in a stick. Result: all ships hit and two left smoking. Intense antiaircraft fire was encountered which resulted in severe damage to the Cat. Avengers then went out and scored repeatedly.
A Black Cat can be hit. Lieut. (j.g.) Samuel Lefcourt Lanier, of VP-81, discovered this fact during a joint air and surface attack on Jap shipping near Oema Atoll, the night of February 16. Lieutenant Lanier had a great many hours under his belt at the time, as befitted a patrol plane commander.
The crew consisted of 10 -- three pilots, a navigator, a radioman, and an ordnance-man. The action did not start immediately. The Cat first joined the PT boats at Choiseul Bay around 10 o'clock and dropped flares for them at Emerald entrance. The boats asked the Cat to search along the southeast coast of Bouganville and to meet them again at Oema Atoll in an hour's time. Since the search yielded nothing, the Cat rejoined the PT's, picking up an indication which was thought to be Oema reef. As it homed on this indication a wake was observed. Eyes accustomed to the dark strained to see more. It wasn't any reef; it was a ship of about 1,200 tons surrounded by a cluster of 80 foot craft, and all heading south. The central craft was a gunboat of a new type, later reported by the PT's to be carrying 7.7, 20-, and 37mm guns.
As soon as this group was sighted, both the PT's and the base were informed of the contact and the Black Cat went to work on its own. The first run was easy. The Jap will invariably hold his fire until he is positive he has been discovered. Jap ships, incidently, are always very careful about shooting down their own night fighters. On the first low strafing attack the big gunboat was clearly visible -- about 50 feet wide with one stack located amidships. After the second run, the Cat held off a few minutes until the PT's came up.
The PT's and the Black Cat complement each other perfectly. As soon as the torpedo boats arrived, they informed the Cat that one of the smaller Jap boats was already smoking, plainly in trouble. A co-ordinated attack was then planned. Flares went down from the plane, lighting up the target for the torpedo boats. Then the plane and the PT's closed in together. The three torpedo boats closed to 200 yards, firing every available gun at two of the barges. At the same time the Cat strafed from one end of the Jap group to the other. Shortly after this the PT boats reported that two more barges were smoking.
The Cat then requested the PT's to hold off while it tried a bombing attack. In hot spots like this the Catalina usually climbs upstairs and dives across, pulling out at moderate altitude over the target. On this particular attack Lanier wanted to make sure, so he went down much, much lower before releasing two bombs and six frags. These were reported by the PT's as effective near-misses. Encouraged, the PBY tried a fourth pass, strafing and tossing out more fragmentation bombs.
This time the Cat was hit. The oil pressure on the port engine dropped to zero and all the instruments on the left side of the pilot's cockpit quit functioning. The PT's likewise were in distress, two with an engine out apiece, and all three with holes in the hull. Lanier's plane was having real trouble staying up on one engine. It had been hit at 900 feet and immediately he had to put full power on the good engine. A PBY usually cruises at 115 m.p.h. and cannot maintain altitude at less than 98 m.p.h. with a heavy load. Lanier was doing only 95 and losing altitude rapidly. He dropped the two remaining bombs and then the waist and tunnel guns and the rest of the fragmentation bombs and flares. But it wasn't enough. So he took a chance and dumped 450 gallons of gasoline. Everything that could lighten that plane had to go -- even a cup of coffee cream.
Finally, while struggling along at 800 feet, the base at Treasury Island was raised. Searchlights shot up and Lanier brought his plane down at night on a runway where he had never landed before. When the damage was determined, several holes from explosive shrapnel were found, the oil tank was split, the tab control panel was shot away and the main spar in one wing was hit. Yet not one man in the plane received a bruise. There is no way to tell accurately what happened to the barges, but it was reasonably certain that they were put out of commission.
As these accounts indicate, the bulk of Black Cat work against enemy barges is carried out in close co-operation with the little PT boats. Co-ordination between air and surface craft, even in a broad daylight attack, requires the utmost in staff work and co-operation of the personnel involved. To do this at night is doubly difficult. Plane crews and PT boat crews become well acquainted with the other by radio, yet they seldom, if ever, actually see each other.
An effort to remedy this situation slightly was made by some of the officers of VP-81. They invited Lieut. (j.g.) Tom Leydon, the intelligence officer for the PT boat group to come up for a visit. The visit was to include "a ride about the circuit in a Black Cat." Lieut. W.K. Love, the squadron intelligence officer, was officially the host. They had dinner at the mess hall.
The mission that night turned out to be pretty much of a three-ringed circus. The PT intelligence officer climbed into the plane piloted by Lieut. C.N. Vogt. Just as the night flyers made contact with the PT boat support they picked up three large Jap barges heading toward Oema Island. The Cats made a pass over the barges, dropping flares. Then, at the request of the PT boat, Lieutenant Vogt dropped his four bombs. He was unable to observe the results, but the PT boats reported direct hits on one barge. Immediately the Cat turned and made a strafing run on the wounded barge. Enemy searchlights caught the plane but the antiaircraft fire was ineffective. The only trouble from the barges was the blinding glare of the Jap tracers. In the meantime, shore batteries from Oema had opened fire, and at the same time a bogey (Navy code for unidentified plane) was picked up.
The PT boats suggested that the plane proceed to Tauro Bay and operate in that area for the rest of the night. They would follow along, they added. By the time the PT's closed to within 100 yards, the Japs sent one barge on the beach and the other high-tailing seaward. Later on that night Vogt's plane encountered an additional five barges heading toward Ratan Island, which he strafed with good results.
Long before dawn the surface boat officer got another chance to see from the air the close tie-up between the Cats and the PT's. Jap barges headed for the river that drains Lake Lohalla were spotted, and the Black Cat dropped flares which showed them clearly. The PT's came up and opened fire, while Vogt's gunners strafed.
Later, with his ammununition expended, Vogt dropped his last seven flares along the shore line so that the PT boats could continue, then he returned to base. It was three o'clock in the morning when Lieutenant Leydon landed.
"Wonderful," he said. "Now I understand why you birds can't judge your own bombing results but can still direct our fire. Damned fine work, I call it."
"Those PT gun crews aren't so dusty, either," said Vogt.
"I guess we all are just about perfect," admitted Leydon modestly.
This story originally appeared in Flying
magazine in October 1944.
(this article is available occasionally on ebay; it was sent to me by Mike Goodwin)
Back to History index