Catalina flying boat was a hall of fame airplane

August 20, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

On Saturday, Aug. 14, there were many replays and newspaper photos of the scene in New York City's Times Square of the joyful celebration of the end of World War II. This marking of the 65th anniversary of that fateful war was a tribute to all who served in some way to bring three totalitarian states to defeat.

The coincidence of seeing two heroic accomplishments of the Catalina flying boat (PBY) brought back memories of WWII experiences while serving as a gunner in a "Black Cat" squadron in the South Pacific.

The first was a replay of the movie "Midway," in which there were several scenes of the discovery of the approaching Japanese fleet by PBY pilots. This made it possible to defeat the Japanese and save the island base from certain disaster.

The second event was the gift of a thrilling account of the discovery of the location of the giant German battleship the Bismarck by a lone PBY patrol plane in May 1941. Included in the story was an artist's conception of the majestic aircraft evading the flak from the guns of the Bismarck.


In each battle, the presence of a Catalina flying boat made a major contribution to the progress of the war in both the Pacific and Atlantic zones. The damage to the powerful Japanese fleet at Midway stalled the expansion of Japan in the Pacific. The sinking of the Bismarck in the Atlantic removed a giant floating arsenal that completely outmatched any allied battleship.

My years of service in seaplanes began with a long tour of duty with a PBY (Catalina) squadron operating out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After that, I served on the giant PBM, called the Martin Mariner. While in Cuba, our squadron, VP 81, primarily was involved in anti-submarine patrol. We would land at sea and taxi up to a ramp where swimmers would attach the wheels to each side of the plane. A tractor then would pull the plane to a parking space on shore.

All of this experience was preparation for a tour of duty in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. We first returned to Norfolk, Va., where we left the old model PBY's for major overhaul. The squadron reassembled in San Diego, where we were given new versions of aircraft designated as PBY-5A. This indicated that we had hydraulic wheels and could land on water or land.

The PBY-5A was a very versatile aircraft - much admired by all crew members. This 18-year-old high school dropout was no exception, and this admiration has never diminished. Our plane crews included two pilots, one navigator, two mechanics, two radiomen and two gunners. We gunners were responsible for the proper performance of all guns, bombs and pyrotechnics.

Each plane had two .50-caliber machine guns, up to three .30-caliber machine guns, four 500-pound bombs and a large supply of heavy-duty flares. The bombs were armed by two types of fuses. On the nose was the typical impeller fuse for land objects, while a transverse fuse (activated by water pressure) was needed for anti-submarine contact.

After final readiness at a naval air base in Hawaii, our squadron made its way by "island hopping" to Guadalcanal at the southern tip of the Solomon chain. As each island was secured from Japanese occupation, we moved in - working our way northward to New Georgia and then Bougainville. From each new base, we conducted night patrols over the endless stretches of the Pacific.

Each plane crew flew long night flights every four days. This spacing was required due to the fatigue from the patrols lasting more than 12 hours when stops were made for refueling. To a person, there was confidence that these "Black Cats" had the capability to master the vast expanse of the Pacific.

When our planes were in need of major overhauls, we flew them back to Kaneohe Bay and returned to the States for duty on the other seaplane bases. Probably each crewman was proud of the particular type of aircraft they serviced, whether it was a swift P-38, a sleek B-26 or a long-range bomber. But it was certain that those of us who flew in a PBY Catalina had a profound respect for that huge hulk that barely could fly more than 125 mph.

Someday, there might be a hall of fame for airplanes. If that ever happens, the Catalina could be awarded a spot in the front row.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

The Herald-Mail Articles