Early in World War II, PBY Catalinas and PBM Mariners—the PBM being a newer flying boat built to complement the PBY— were sent to Iceland, Newfoundland, Bermuda, and other bases as part of the Neutrality Patrol searching for German U-Boats. In May 1941, Lieutenant Leonard Smith was helping train Royal Air Force pilots in PBY operations, when he took part in a mission that led to the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. The seaplanes escorted the Marine contingent to Iceland in July of the same year.1
Seaplanes were also in the Pacific when hostilities commenced. Part of the reason for the Japanese fleet’s northern approach to Pearl Harbor was the threat of being spotted by PBYs out of Midway and Hawaii.2 A PBY was involved in the sinking of a Japanese mini-submarine outside the harbor before the air raid started, first dropping smoke markers to help with localization and then dropping its own depth charges.3 The plane transmitted a warning message to Pearl Harbor but it was not decoded until after the attack commenced.4
During the attack, most of the PBYs at Pearl were destroyed on the ground. The first Medal of Honor awarded during the war went to a PBY crewman, Chief Petty Officer John Finn, who took a PBY’s machine gun and mounted it on a tripod to fight back at the attacking Japanese plans.
In the Philippines, the PBYs quickly found themselves extremely vulnerable to Japanese fighters and were withdrawn. In spite of the defeat, seaplanes showed their utility, especially since they did not need the frequently targeted runways and could tuck into in hidden coves between missions. PBYs became the first Navy aircraft to attack Japanese surface ships and the first to score an air-air kill. Moved south to the Dutch East Indies and later to Australia, they flew a number of missions in support of the stranded Philippines garrison. As the situation grew dire, they were tasked with a marathon multi-day 7,000-mile mission to land, among others, Colonel W. W. Fertig, who led the resistance force, and evacuate a number of personnel, including several Army cryptologists and nurses.5
After an inauspicious start, the seaplanes helped the United States regain the offensive. Their big moment came during the Battle of Midway. On 3 June 1942 a PBY spotted the Japanese occupation force, prompting attacks by B-17s and other aircraft.6 Later that night, four PBYs made a torpedo attack on the force and hit a Japanese tanker. It was the only successful torpedo attack by American forces during the battle.7
Before the battle ended, the PBYs performed a humanitarian role. Seaplanes were uniquely capable of search and rescue, since they could spot downed aviators, then land to save them. The last Americans were rescued after 17 days in the water on 21 June.8
As the war continued, seaplanes were some of the only aircraft capable of the long flights to attack Japanese forces in the Aleutian Islands and in 1942, became the first Navy aircraft to attack the Japanese home islands. The naval battles in support of the Solomons Campaign saw the sealanes pressed into more frontline service; they played an integral role in interdicting Japanese night resupply convoys. Painted black with carbon soot, the first “Black Cat” squadrons preyed on Japanese resupply vessels with bombs, torpedoes, and guns. Some were armed with extra machine guns to go after lightly armored barges and personnel. They also flew over Japanese positions and dropped beer bottles to keep the enemy awake at night.9
Seaplanes conducted some of the first Navy signals-intelligence missions, code-named Cast Mike, during the Guadalcanal Campaign. PBYs had extra space to carry antennas and analysis equipment and, after a number of missions, located a Japanese radar installation on Poporang Island. The information led to photo-reconnaissance and airstrikes.10
By the end of 1943, the PBYs were aging fast. Already considered near-obsolete at the start of the war, they were increasingly assigned away from offensive roles to search-and-rescue or transport missions. After a Navy destroyer sank off of the Philippines in early 1944, two PBYs rescued 63 and 53 sailors, respectively.
As the PBYs were withdrawn, Martin PBM Mariners replaced their front-line mission. The Mariners were better suited to the search-and-rescue role once bombing raids began on the Japanese home islands. The Mariners performed antisubmarine warfare, mining, and reconnaissance missions as the offensive continued. With the war’s end, the seaplane’s glory days were over. In spite of the outsized role seaplanes played in the war, much of the public’s and the Navy’s attention centered on the Fast Carrier Groups.
The author thanks Stan Piet and the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum for working to save the history of Martin’s seaplanes.
1. Don C. East, “History of U.S. Navy Fleet Air Reconnaissance.” Retrieved from: (http://www.coldwar.org/histories/historyofusnavyfleetairreconnaissance.asp) 15 JUN 2017
2. Mark L. Evans and Roy A. Grossnick, United States Naval Aviation 1910-2010, Naval History and Heritage Command. (141-142)
3. Most patrols were to the South and West. Source: (https://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2009-12/how-japanese-did-it)
4. This PBY was from VP-14 and piloted by Ensign William Tanner
5. Sebastien Roblin, “The ‘Other’ Pearl Harbor Atttack Nearly Everyone Forgets About,” National Interest, 8 December 2016. (http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-other-pearl-harbor-attack-nearly-everyone-forgets-about-18666?page=show)
6. Evans and Grossnick, (155-156)
7. This PBY was from VP-44 and piloted by Ensign Jack Reid.
8. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword. Washington, D.C: Potomac Books, 2005. (114)
9. Evans and Grossnick, (158-160)
10. “Navy Catalinas Known as “Black Cats” of Guadalcanal”, Aeropinion 25 May 1944. Retrieved from: (http://www.daveswarbirds.com/blackcat/history0.htm) 19 JUN 2017.