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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Black Cats

"The Black Cat would take off at dusk and prowl the enemy shipping lanes in the darkness.  "

“The Black Cats”

It was, I believe, in December of 1942 that our PBYs came into their own as weapons of war.  Being slow and downright clumsy to maneuver, the PBY “Catalina” was a sitting duck in the daylight for enemy fighters or anti-aircraft fire.  Consequently, they were relegated to scouting and anti-submarine patrol missions.  Not for long, however.  The ingenuity require that I mentioned earlier manifested itself in many ways during those early days of the war and before long “the Black Cats” became deadly to enemy shipping.  Captain Richard Knott said it best in his book The Black Cat Raiders--"Not since David and his slingshot has there been a more unlikely instrument of war.”
The PBY was the only airplane of that time with the endurance to fly—“prowl” if you will—all night and radar had been installed to give it the eyes of a cat.  When it was realized that in the darkness a PBY could literally sneak up on enemy shipping and arrive overhead undetected, that capability was put to use.
The airplanes were painted dull black (see the photography of the Ile Nou base) and flame dampeners were installed on the exhaust stacks of the engines.  The Norden bombsights, of little use in darkness and at low altitude, were replaced with simple aiming devices that were literally made from coat hanger wire and scraps of metal.  The airplanes were then armed with four bombs under the broad wing—a 1,000 lb bomb inboard on each wing and a 500 lb bomb outboard.  The alternative was a 21-inch torpedo on each wing.
The Black Cat would take off at dusk and prowl the enemy shipping lanes in the darkness.  When a target was picked up on the radar—freighter, tanker, supply barge, and sometimes even warships—the “Cat” would come in at low altitude.  Before the enemy could figure out the significance of the sound of airplane engines in the darkness, the PBY would be overhead, release its deadly load, and be off into the darkness before searchlights and anti-aircraft weapons could be brought to bear.  Our VP-11 squadron alone sank more than 100,000 tons of enemy shipping during that first deployment to the South Pacific and was subsequently awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.  I longed to be back on a combat flight crew but consoled myself with the thought that someone had to keep those Cats ready to prowl.ne noteworthy black cat episode occurred on October 22, 1942.  It was a long distance raid on Tonelei Harbor on Bougainville Island 900 miles northwest of the base at Esprito Santos where some of our VP-11 airplanes were operating.
Three airplanes took part—one piloted by my old friend Jack Coley, one by George Poulos, and one by my old co-pilot “Whiskey Willis”.  They were each armed with a torpedo beneath the port wing and two 500 pound bombs on the starboard wing.
They took off at dusk, Jack Coley in the lead, and flew the 900 miles over enemy-held territory to arrive off Tonelei at 0200 in the morning darkness.  Not a shot was fired by the Japanese until the three black cats started dropping torpedoes and bombs at the many ships moored in the harbor.
All three pilots believe they scored heavily—Coley with a torpedo into an armed transport, Willis with a torpedo hit on a cruiser and bomb hits that sand a destroyer, and Poulos with both torpedo and bomb hits on a heavy cruiser.  (In deference to my old shipmates I probably should not repeat the rumor I heard soon after the raid that one of them dropped a torpedo at what, in the darkness, he believed was an aircraft carrier but that turned out to be a dock!  It was only a rumor.)
The PBYs had no time to stay to observe results.  To quote Whiskey Willis, “Then all hell broke loose.  It was like the Fourth of July!”  Searchlights came on and anti-aircraft fire lit up the night.
The airplanes stayed low on the water as they left with the waist gunners shooting out searchlights as they went.  All three made it safely back to Esprito after a refueling stop at Tulagi Island in spite of numerous bullet holes in the airplanes including a hit on Coley’s starboard fuel tank that nearly caused him to run out of gas short of Tulagi.  He landed at Tulagi with barely ten gallons left in the port tank.
(Such sea stories were commonplace as we went about our business in the heat, dust, and sometimes torrential rains of New Caledonia.  Since this is intended to be my story and not a history of the war in the Pacific, I will confine myself to personal incidences at Ile Nou and will include a bibliography at the end of my story with some books that will give a better insight to World War II in the Pacific and the role that my beloved PBYs played in that long ago war.)