"The Black Cats were stealth-like PBYs flying against Japanese ships and Zeros in the dead of night in almost invisible, all-painted-flatblack planes. They would swoop in quietly, flying just above the surface of the water at no more than mast height, and before the Japanese even knew what hit them, the PBYs would be gone, leaving nothing but a path of destruction and sinking ships behind. Japanese fighter pilots couldn't see them from above nor could they get underneath them. So too, they could fly so slow and low if need be that the Japanese fighters would overshoot them trying to come in from behind. Plus the fighter pilots didn't like having to be so low to the water during a night time attack. Most of the time the Black Cats, having nine lives, got away."
When it comes to flying things, primarily because of an early infatuation with the Flying Tigers, an infatuation that started in earnest sometime just before or not long after I began school, I have ended up with page after page related in some fashion to the venerable World War II fighter plane the Curtis-Wright P-40 Warhawk --- also known as the Tomahawk and the Kittyhawk, depending on who flew them, their area of operation, and when they were made. Although I hold no distaste toward other aircraft, and I mention many throughout my works, relative to the P-40, most, but for one exception, have a tendency to take a backseat. That one exception, PBYs.
In 1947, before I reached age ten, a movie version of the book The High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the same authors who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, came out. Set in World War II and following the plot of the novel, the movie starred Van Johnson and June Allyson as childhood friends who get separated when June's family moves away. The story begins in the present (that is, the present then, circa 1943-44) with June and Van now back together again as grown adults. June soon discovers that Van has not followed his dream of becoming a doctor and tries to convince him that he needs to be true to himself or else he will never be happy. Before June succeeds in her mission, although the two find themselves in love, neither can act on it because once again they become separated --- only this time by the ravages of war.
Van, who has now become a Navy pilot, while on patrol in the South Pacific in his PBY 5-A floatplane, is shot down. He and his co-pilot find themselves stranded and drifting without communication and become listed missing in action and presumed dead. Days go by. To pass the time, through a series of flashbacks, Van begins telling stories of his childhood, taking the viewer through his life as a young boy and the close friendship he had with June up until the time she moved away. He talks about his Uncle and various tall tales he used to tell. His uncle, a seafaring man who is now a Navy Captain, told him about a mysterious enchanted and uncharted island that rose up out of the sea that he saw once in his youth, an island called High Barbaree. In his stories he even related to Van the latitude and longitude of the island. The co-pilot charts their position and discovers their location is right on top of the coordinates Van's uncle had given him for the legendary island many, many years ago when Van was just a boy. Before the disabled floatplane is able to drift to the actual location --- 1 Degree North, 160 Degrees East --- the co-pilot dies and Van is left all alone and on the verge of dying himself, adrift at sea having long since run out of food and water. He is eventually located alive and returns to June, but not until after he apparently finds refuge on High Barbaree. Of course when he is finally found --- on his downed PBY --- even though he is no longer dying and in good health, as well as seemingly of sound mind, just like in the ancient Egyptian fable The Shipwrecked Sailor, there is no island or sign of High Barbaree.
THUS ENTERS THE NAVAJO CODE TALKER:
Because of the unusual nature of the story and how it relates to my Merchant Marine Friend being found strapped to a piece of debris in the middle of the ocean still alive weeks, possibly months, after his ship was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-333 --- and then him giving me the book High Barbaree that alludes to an island that rises up out of the ocean and saves a U.S. Navy PBY pilot after weeks of being lost at sea, I told the story to my Uncle and a tribal spiritual elder accompanying us at the table that day. The elder listened intently to my story and, although not interested in the specifics because much of it was foreign to himself specifically and to his culture, the overall theme of the story he liked.
However, a few days later he showed up with a truly elderly man. The spiritual elder had been talking to a group of men about my story when an elderly man stepped forward saying he had been a Code Talker in the south Pacific during World War II and knew about PBYs. This inturn put a second truly elderly man in the group into some sort of trance. Using his native language the second truly elderly man told the Code Talker for ME to beware of PBYs. Because of the unusual nature of the warning, PBYs and all, the spiritual elder brought us all together. The second truly elderly man was somehow privy to a story that it had been said that I, as a young boy, had been touched by the White Painted Lady (see). Because of such, he felt a connection that otherwise might not have been there. Basically, through translators, because the second truly elderly man did not have a full command of the english language, he wanted to know if I had access to a PBY. I told him although I had long known of PBYs, not only had I never been on one or near one, to my knowledge I did not think I had ever even seen one. The old man slumped back almost as though he had fainted. Within minutes he returned to consciousness. He said that if not me someone from my past, possibly a woman, and if not her someone close to her would be impacted adversely in the use of such a craft. He told me to stay away from such aircraft and ensure that any of my friends that might fit the bill stay away from them as well.
At the time I knew nobody that in anyway would be involved with a PBY, especially so since they were for the most part World War II aircraft on the brink of obsolescence.
One summer, albeit unrelated to any of the above by me at the time, I crewed on a yacht come marlin boat owned by the multi-millionaire David J. Halliburton. On one of the days the boat was in the marina a very little girl who apparently couldn't swim fell off the dock into the water. I jumped in and pulled her to a location along the docks where the skipper I worked for, who was following right behind me, was able to lift her out of the water. In the process a small crowd gathered and in the crowd was a woman from my past that I had not seen in years. The following relates to that incident and is found in context in the final few paragraphs at the very end of Chapter 2 in the source so cited:
"Amongst the crowd was a woman that recognized me, a former Rose Marie Reid swim suit model that I knew as Sullivan, but since married to the son of a renowned ocean explorer. They had a boat in the harbor and since we had not seen each other in years, after everybody was sure the girl was OK, she asked me to join her for drinks on her yacht, get into some dry clothes and get caught up. As I was leaving later in afternoon Sullivan asked if I would be willing to go to a party she was throwing in a couple of weeks. As I slowly strolled away down the dock I halfheartedly turned back and nodded in agreement that I would attend." (source)
Now, I do not recall if the above incident between the former model and myself, who I knew from my high school days in Redondo Beach, occurred before or after the warning by the elderly man, but please note that I say the woman in question was married to the "son of a renowned ocean explorer." She and I never had an opportunity to talk or cross paths again after the aforementioned party. However, some years later --- and with me being in absolutely no position to know of such things --- they, in the mid-1970s, bought a PBY. Four years after the purchase her husband was killed piloting the plane during a water landing. For more on the subject, the lady on the dock, et al, please see:
THE PBY IN QUESTION, N101CS, AT THE LONG BEACH AIRPORT MARCH 20, 1975
(please click image)
A few paragraphs back I wrote that while talking with the truly elderly tribal spiritual elder, up to that time, not only had I never been on or near a PBY, to my knowledge I had never even seen one --- but had long known of them. Personally, as an aircraft I held PBYs in a certain high esteem. The same way I liked P-40s initially because of their use by the Flying Tigers, I liked PBYs because of their use in what was called the Black Cats. As a young boy growing up during World War II the Black Cats, like the Flying Tigers before them, were for me, right up there. They would swoop in quietly, flying just above the surface of the water at no more than mast height, and before the Japanese even knew what hit them, the PBYs would be gone, leaving nothing but a path of destruction and sinking ships behind. Japanese fighter pilots couldn't see them from above nor could they get underneath them. So too, they could fly so slow and low if need be that the Japanese fighters would overshoot them trying to come in from behind. Plus the fighter pilots didn't like having to be so low to the water during a night time attack. Most of the time the Black Cats, having nine lives, got away. The following paragraphs, as found in The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia (so sourced), is perhaps the best descriptive run-down of the Black Cats that your are going to find:
THE BLACK CATS
A handful of PBY-5A Catalinas equipped with early Air to Surface Vessel (ASV) radar had reached the Pacific by August 1942 and participated in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. In December 1942, the Americans deployed a full squadron of PBY-5As to operate at night in the Solomon Islands. This "Black Cat" squadron (VP-11) painted its aircraft black, except for a squadron insignia that started out as a basic cat outline. Eyes were added after the second mission, teeth and whiskers after the third, and, allegedly, "anatomical insignia of a more personal nature" after the fourth mission (Morison 1949). The Black Cats participated in search, strike, and gunfire spotting missions, taking off at about 2230 each night and returning after daybreak. Over time, other squadrons began flying Black Cat missions, and Creed (1985) claims most of the squadrons in the South and Southwest Pacific had rotated through Black Cat tours by the end of the war.
The Catalinas proved well suited for these missions. The black paint and the flame dampers that were later installed over their exhaust ports made them all but invisible in the darkness. If a Japanese night fighter did locate a Black Cat, the Catalina would drop to very low altitude, where it was almost impossible for a night fighter to engage without crashing into the sea. This tactic was aided by radar altimeters installed on most of the Black Cats. The radar altimeters also allowed the Cats to fly the last 100 miles (160 km) to their targets at 50' (15 m) altitude to evade radar. The slow speed of the Cats was actually advantageous for night attacks at mast height.
Initially, the Cats dropped illuminating flares before attacking, but this proved counterproductive. Torpedoes also proved ineffective because of their unreliability. Eventually the tactic that was settled on was to locate targets by radar, then visually, before attacking from the quarter with a salvo of four 500 lb (227 kg) bombs with 5-second-delay fusees dropped from 50 to 150 feet (15 to 45 meters) altitude. A flare was sometimes dropped with the bombs to blind enemy gunners, and some Cat crewmen tossed parafrag bombs from the blisters or ventral hatch to further suppress antiaircraft fire. The gunners held their fire until the bombs were released to further increase the element of surprise.
Black Cat search missions in the Solomons included "Mike Search", a three-hour course up "The Slot" and through Indispensable Strait between Santa Isabel and Malaita. Three circuits could be flown in a single night. By August 1943 the Cats were flying "ferret" missions with electronic warfare technicians to locate Japanese radar installations for later air strikes.
A number of Cats in the Southwest Pacific were field modified with four 0.50 machine guns in the nose, turning them into potent strafers and making them highly effective at night barge hunting.(source)
PBY-5 Unit: VP-11 "Black Cat Command", US Navy Serial: 30, Riviere Sepik, New Guinea, end of 1943.
Artist: © Pierre-Andre Tilley Source: Aero Journal No.7, June - July 1999, (c) Aero-Editions, ISSN: 0336-1055
(FOR LARGER IMAGE CLICK HERE)
PBY-5, RIVER SEPIK, PAPUA NEW GUINEA 1943
FROM THE P-40 FIGHTER PILOT DAN ROWAN SITE
STORY OF THE BLACK CATS
A VIDEO FROM THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY FILM ARCHIVES
OF COBRAS, SCARABS, MASERATIS, AND ZEN
THE P-40 FIGHTER PILOT DAN ROWAN
THE PBY CATALINA FLYING BOAT
FLYING TIGERS AND MORE
THE BOY IN THE MAN REMEMBERS THE LEGEND
WORLD WAR II COMES TO REDONDO
INCIDENT AT SUPAI
AMERICAN STEAM TANKER S.S. HALSEY. TORPEDOED OFF FLORIDA
MAY 6, 1942 BY GERMAN SUB. MY FRIEND WAS ONBOARD WHEN HIT.
Photo courtesy of the Mariners Museum, Newport News VA
P-40 WARHAWK: PEARL HARBOR SURVIVOR
THE STRANGE ODYSSEY OF THE GERMAN U-BOAT U-196
THE WANDERLING'S JOURNEY
U.S. Navy Black Cat Squadrons
PBY Catalina General Characteristics
- Crew: 8 – pilot, co-pilot, bow turret gunner, flight mechanic, radioman, navigator and two waist gunners
- Length: 63 ft 10 7/16 in (19.46 m)
- Wingspan: 104 ft 0 in (31.70 m)
- Height: 21 ft 1 in (6.15 m)
- Wing area: 1,400 ft² (130 m²)
- Empty weight: 20,910 lb (9,485 kg)
- Max. takeoff weight: 35,420 lb (16,066 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 Twin Wasp radial engines, 1,200 hp (895 kW each) each
- Zero-lift drag coefficient: 0.0309
- Drag area: 43.26 ft² (4.02 m²)
- Aspect ratio: 7.73
PBY Catalina Performance
- Maximum speed: 196 mph (314 km/h)
- Cruise speed: 125 mph (201 km/h)
- Range: 2,520 mi (4,030 km)
- Service ceiling: 15,800 ft (4,000 m)
- Rate of climb: 1,000 ft/min (5.1 m/s)
- Wing loading: 25.3 lb/ft² (123.6 kg/m²)
- Power/mass: 0.034 hp/lb (0.056 kW/kg)
- Lift-to-drag ratio: 11.9
PBY Catalina Armament
- 3× .30 cal (7.62 mm) machine guns (two in nose turret, one in ventral hatch at tail)
- 2× .50 cal (12.7 mm) machine guns (one in each waist blister)
- 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) of bombs or depth charges; torpedo racks were also available
Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp Radial Engine
The Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp was an American aircraft engine widely used before, during, and after World War II. Produced by Pratt & Whitney, it was a two-row, 14-cylinder, air-cooled radial design displacing 1,830 cubic inches (30.0 L) with an equal bore and stroke of 5.5 inches (140 mm).
A total of 173,618 R-1830 engines were built, with their use found in two of the most-produced aircraft ever built, the four-engine B-24 heavy bomber and twin-engine DC-3 transport. A bored-out version (to a 5.75 inch/146 mm cylinder bore) thought by some to be found in the U.S. Navy's F6F Hellcat had a slightly higher power rating and other slight changes in detail design was produced as the R-2000, although if it was found in a F6F originally it was quickly replaced on the production line and in combat action by the 18 cylinder R-2800.(see)
TWO HUGE PRATT & WHITNEY'S SPREAD OUT ACROSS THE WING OF A PBY
(for larger size click image then click again)
American soldiers and natives unloading one of the infamous Black Cat flying boats, a PBY-5 Catalina of the 11th Squadron patrol (VP-11) US Navy, on the River Sepik, Papua New Guinea, circa 1943: