Black Cats: Up-Moon, Stalking Their Prey

Swooping in up-moon, at masthead height, with the stealth and quiet of a cat stalking its prey, the Catalinas generally were over their target before the enemy detected them. With 500- and 1000-pound general-purpose bombs set to blow with a four- to five-second delay and with a Mark 103 nose fuse delayed by one-tenth of a second, the extremely low altitude rarely presented danger of concussion damage to the aircraft. To confuse and delay the enemy’s response, a crewman dumped four or five high-candle-power illuminating flares out of the tunnel hatch just after passing over the target. The Cat’s chances of escape were enhanced as the bright light shielded the plane from the ship’s gunners.

In September of 1943, Fleet Air Wing 17 was formed to patrol the waters around New Guinea. Three Black Cat squadrons initially drew this assignment: VP11, VP52 and VP101. Their development of night operations against the enemy set the pattern for follow-on Catalina squadrons throughout the Pacific.

Japanese vessels of war were not exempt from Black Cat attacks. During the last two and a half months of 1943, while operating from New Guinea. Cats of VP52 damaged two cruisers, three destroyers and two submarines. They were also credited with sinking 10,000 tons of enemy merchant vessels.

The most effective attack procedure adopted by the Black Cat squadrons for night bombing of enemy merchantmen and barges was to begin the approach in a glide pattern from an altitude of 1000 or more feet. The bombs were normally released by an intervalometer which spaced their release at from 60- to 75-foot intervals. When the run was made across the center of the ship, bomb spacing all but assured one or more hits.

PBY pilots compared notes on various bombing approaches and developed the altitude levels by trial and error. Never had they trained, except on the job, in making low-level attacks.

Bright, moonlight nights were no deterrent to the Black Cats. In fact, an up-moon approach was regarded as safer than any dark-of-the-night attack. Conversely, an attack with the moon overhead was considered extremely dangerous. It became apparent in the early stages of Black Cat aggressiveness that the enemy could not pick up the Cats during their long, quiet approach. Enemy gunners’ failure to bring anti-aircraft fire to bear before the drop was due in part to their belief that an attack was not imminent, or that they may not have been seen by the Catalina. The few seconds afforded the gunners to aim and shoot, after the drop, were lost in the blinding light of the flares.

Although the Japanese increased their air cover to reduce the effectiveness of the Black Cats, they failed to slow the growing losses of critical tonnage. The Catalinas merely flew extremely close to the water – making radical changes in course – leaving the faster land-based Japanese fighter and dive bomber without sufficient operating altitude to mount an effective attack.

During the period of Black Cat concentration on the Kavieng Harbor-Rabaul area of New Britain and New Ireland, the enemy began placing patrol boats across the mouth of St. George’s Channel, the front door to Rabaul Harbor. He also increased aircraft coverage of the region during the nighttime hours, the hours he expected the Black Cats to come through. But these defenses were only partially successful. They were abandoned when the Cats simply found new routes.

Desperate to stop the destruction of critical shipping by the PBYs, the Japanese re-routed their ships dangerously close to the West Coast of New Ireland. They stopped forward progress of a ship when an aircraft was heard so as to eliminate the telltale wake of a ship under way. This action had the effect of reducing radar blips on the Catalina’s radar screens and cutting back on visual observance. The enemy also developed small diversionary vessels with heavy armament which reflected radar blips, falsely indicating battleship-size targets.

But, by the end of December, 1943, the Japanese were sneaking ships out of protected harbors in the day time, in particular, when air cover was available. Destroyers, carrying cargo, used the North Coast of New Britain in these daylight runs. Clearly, the enemy was pressed to supply his many island garrisons with the material of war and survival.

When the Japanese increased their use of barges to transport goods in the Bismarck Archipelago, an innovative PBY pilot, Lieutenant William J. Lahodney, VPB52, devised a removable mounting for the bow of the Black Cat. He installed four, 50-caliber machine guns, each directed at an angle of nine degrees below the flight path. The installation did not interfere with operations of the bow turret guns and was fired by the patrol plane commander who sighted through ring sights, or by tracer path.

The only restriction these guns made on the aircraft was use of the bomb sight, a unit rarely used by the low-flying Black Cats. The increase in fire power against slow-moving and stationary targets proved quite valuable to the Catalinas, dramatically increasing their toll on enemy tonnage.



Back to History index

Back to Contents