How Superb Recon in the South Pacific Helped to Win WWII

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September 21, 2020 Topic: History Region: Oceania Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: HistoryWorld War IIPacific WarIntelligencePBY

How Superb Recon in the South Pacific Helped to Win WWII

The Australian coastwatcher organization and the American “Black Cat” PBY Catalina flying boat squadrons made substantial contributions to minimizing Allied losses and ensuring that Japanese losses were ruinously high.

Almost as soon as Kennedy asked for help, fast attack transports were loading Marine Raiders and an airfield engineering advance party. The move fit well with Allied strategy. Given the aggressive but disjointed Japanese response to the landing on Guadalcanal, it seemed a good plan to land on New Georgia, get an airfield up and running, and let the Japanese waste their strength trying to drive the Allies off. An airfield at Kennedy’s base at Segi Point and an attack on their base at Viru, seemed to be good ways to provoke them.

Construction crews and equipment were soon on the way; within 10 days of the arrival of the main body of engineering troops, aircraft were landing on the field.

The Marines’ attack on the Viru base met a spirited defense, but once it was captured the Allies used its field to pound the larger base at Munda until they were ready to assault it. As on Guadalcanal, once Munda was captured the Allies let the Japanese wear themselves out trying to drive the Allies off. They maintained enough of an offensive posture to keep the Japanese off balance while they strangled their supply lines. Eventually the Japanese tired of the pounding and abandoned the island.

The lumbering PBY flying boats built by Consolidated looked ungainly, so they quickly earned the nickname “Dumbo,” after the popular Walt Disney cartoon character—the elephant with huge ears that could fly. But this Dumbo—a very effective scout, rescue plane, and ship killer—was a workhorse.

The PBY Catalina squadrons based on and around Guadalcanal became an Allied resource that complemented the coastwatchers’ efforts. The PBY had two engines mounted on a wing above the fuselage. It cruised at a stately 90 knots while carrying a fair load of bombs or torpedoes and could do so for about 24 hours at a stretch.

Its crews had complete confidence in it, although its defensive armament was not heavy enough to make the Zeros keep their distance; a Zero could fly rings around a PBY. If caught by one, the best hope for a PBY was to dive for the water’s surface, turning repeatedly. A Zero diving on a PBY had great difficulty staying on target and stood a good chance of flying into the sea.

When they were first deployed to the Solomons, the PBYs were assigned a variety of duties such as spotting enemy artillery positions when Allied ships shelled Japanese bases. As Allied strength grew, the American squadrons concentrated on bombing and search and rescue operations. Australian squadrons handled a variety of duties and provided coastwatcher support.

As commerce raiders, the PBYs could be deployed well north of Guadalcanal—at least on moonlit nights. A veteran of the Catalinas told the author that if he had known they were going 600 miles behind Japanese lines he would not have gone! The same time and distance constraints that meant that Japanese raids on Guadalcanal arrived around noon meant that Japanese convoys that wanted to be in one of their protected anchorages by dawn would be passing through narrow straits at predictable times.

When signal intelligence or coastwatcher reports heralded the approach of a convoy to a PBY, the “Cat” would loiter above the narrow strait and try to spot the convoy.

Japanese sailors knew they were in for it when they heard a PBY’s engine noises and then those noises suddenly cut off. It had throttled back to glide down into a low-elevation release of a bomb or torpedo just before it passed over a ship. The crew of at least one plane scrounged up something to use for nonreflective coating to minimize the effectiveness of Japanese searchlights and make such an attack slightly less hazardous. The Navy was impressed, and shortly after the landings on Guadalcanal a more effective version of the PBY with a nonreflective paint job began appearing, making it perhaps the first “stealth” plane.

More importantly, the PBY came with radar good enough to spot ships and barges on dark nights. Dubbed the “Black Cats,” the radar-equipped PBYs made the aircraft an effective ship killer; one squadron destroyed 157,000 tons of Japanese shipping. The countermeasures the Japanese attempted—night fighter cover for convoys and patrol boats stationed to intercept Cats flying into a Japanese-controlled harbor—made it clear that they hurt the Japanese.

The Allies’ ability to predict the locations of Japanese conveys improved once Henry Josslyn and John Keenan slipped onto Vella Lavella and Nick Waddell and Carden Seton took up a post on Choiseul.  Between the Black Cats, PT boats, and occasional forays by bigger ships, running the Tokyo Express became an expensive proposition. On average, Japanese destroyers assigned to the Solomons lasted about two months before they were sunk.

One Japanese countermeasure was to start moving much of their maritime traffic in barges and other small vessels. If they stayed close to land, they were hard to pick out on radar, and they were so small it was hard to put a bomb close enough to do damage.

 The PBYs’ answer to the barges was a locally produced mount that added four Browning .50s to the two machine guns already in the nose. Barges were an ideal target for the quad .50s. Black Cats sank dozens of enemy barges. One Cat sank 25 in a single mission.

The Black Cats squadrons rotated between night bombing and other duties. Dumbo flights picking up downed Allied flyers were welcome, if nerve-wracking, missions. If a formation raided a Japanese target and a plane went down, there was usually another plane on the same raid that knew about it and could call for a PBY to pick up any crew that got out.

In other cases, damaged planes tried to limp back to base alone and went down without search and rescue having a clear idea where they were. But friendly natives, coastwatchers, and Black Cats kept these sorts of losses down. A Black Cat veteran proudly told the author that his squadron alone picked up 258 downed flyers.

When a crippled B-17 went down near Bagga Island, most of the crew got ashore, and the natives were there in minutes. A couple of hours later, coastwatcher Jack Keenan arrived with K rations and first aid supplies. As soon as it got dark, the crew was taken to Vella Lavella, where the chief of the village of Paramata had arranged for a hot meal and beds. The next day a PBY picked the men up there and took them to Guadalcanal.

When the coastwatchers got word to headquarters on Guadalcanal that they had people to be picked up, a PBY escorted by fighters would usually be there within a day or two. The wounded got even faster service, and an especially crucial squadron commander was back at Henderson Field the same day he was shot down.

On one occasion the survivors of a sunken destroyer were spotted by a Dumbo. It located another vessel close by and gave it directions to the site. Within an hour the men were picked up.

In a similar situation later in the war, a pilot assumed that there would be heavy losses by the time a surface vessel arrived, so the Dumbo landed and picked 114 shipwrecked sailors out of the water; the overloaded airplane sat there until a destroyer relieved it of its passengers.

On still another occasion, the call for help came in the aftermath of a raid on Kavieng Harbor on New Ireland. Before the mission was over, the PBY landed four times in the harbor, under Japanese shellfire, and on three of those occasions had to stop its engines to get the survivors into the aircraft. All told, 15 flyers were rescued.

Between the coastwatchers and the Dumbos, an airman who made it safely to the surface stood virtually a 100 percent chance of making it back to Allied lines. This had a tremendous impact on morale and helped make the wastage of trained, experienced people far smaller for the Allies than for the Japanese.

By mid-November 1942, the South Pacific was getting major air and sea reinforcements, and by that point in the campaign the coastwatchers were operating at maximum efficiency. They were keeping  headquarters well informed and quickly picking up downed flyers and shipwrecked mariners. The Black Cats had shown that they could handle maritime targets from the smallest barge to the biggest capital ships. The Cactus Air Force, as the squadrons based on Guadalcanal were known, had grown to 200 airplanes, half of them fighters.

As the battle for Guadalcanal progressed, the relative strength of the adversaries shifted sharply in favor of the Allies. A look at the Japanese attempts to retake the island illustrates this point; the reinforcements usually took heavy casualties during their trips down the Slot.

After the battalion the Japanese sent on their first attempt to recapture Guadalcanal was destroyed, a regiment was committed. Later a brigade was sent. Finally a whole division, the 38th, was committed. The last attempt was made with the reinforced Hiroshima Division.