The fighting in the South Pacific during World War II was vicious. One of the big reasons was how evenly-matched the two sides were. One plane called the Black Cat, though, helped the Allies gain a big advantage – and was an omen of ill fortune for the Japanese navy.
According to the Pacific War Encyclopedia, that plane was a modified version of the Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina. This flying boat was a well-proven maritime patrol aircraft – sighting the German battleship Bismarck in time for the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to launch the strikes that crippled the Nazi vessel in May, 1941.
The PBY had also detected the Japanese fleets at the Battle of Midway.
The Catalina had one very big asset: long range. It could fly over 3,000 miles, and was also capable of carrying two torpedoes or up to 4,000 pounds of bombs. The PBY drew first blood at Midway, putting a torpedo in the side of the tanker Akebono Maru. But the long legs came with a price in performance. The PBYs had a top speed of just under 200 mph – making them easy prey if a Japanese A6M Zero saw them.
The planes also were lightly armed, with three .30-caliber machine guns and two .50-caliber machine guns. In “Incredible Victory,” Walter Lord related about how two PBYs were shot up in the space of an hour during the run-up to the Battle of Midway by a Japanese patrol plane. One “sea story” related by Morison had it that one PBY once radioed, “Sighted enemy carrier. Please notify next of kin.”
Planner found, however, that flying PBY missions at night helped keep them alive. During the the Guadalcanal campaign, the first PBY-5As equipped with radar arrived and the first full squadron of “Black Cats” intended for night operations arrived later that year. According to Samuel Eliot Morison’s “The Struggle For Guadalcanal,” the “Black Cats” were a game-changer.
These Black Cats did a little bit of everything. They could carry bombs – often set for a delay so as to create a “mining” effect. In essence, it would be using the shockwave of the bomb to cause flooding and to damage equipment on the enemy vessel. They also attacked airfields, carried torpedoes, spotted naval gunfire during night-time bombardment raids, and of course, searched for enemy ships.
Morison wrote about how the crews of the “Black Cats” would have a tradition of gradually filling out the drawing of a cat. The second mission would add eyes, then following missions would add whiskers and other features.
Japan would try to catch the Black Cats – knowing that they not only packed a punch, but could bring in other Allied planes. Often, the planes, painted black, would fly at extremely low level, thwarting the Zeros sent to find them.
After World War II, many Catalinas were retired, but some served on. The last military unit to operate them was Brazil’s 1st Air Transport Squadron until they were retired in 1982, according to the website of the Brazilian Air Force Aerospace Museum.