Ken MacWhinney: General MacArthur’s Navy

Ken MacWhinney, Osprey, Florida, spent the better part of VP11’s first tour as an instructor for new PBY pilot recruits and didn’t get a shot at squadron flying until VP11 began reforming for its second tour in March of 1943.

Ken offers a recap of his experiences beginning about the time the squadron was reforming.

"A lot of the pilots had just returned from the Guadalcanal action and thought they were headed for some rather soft duty in the Caribbean, after a lengthy leave, of course. So, it didn’t help their morale to be recalled from leave and find they were reforming VPl1 for duty in the same war zones they had just left. Some were further dismayed to find that a few of us ‘stateside’ instructors had more flight time and were made Patrol Plane Commanders ahead of them.

"We left the states in April, stopping briefly in Hawaii, then on to the west coast of Australia where we completed our training before heading north to Samarai, near the southern tip of New Guinea. From there we began our Black Cat searches in a northerly direction.

"On the night of September 16, 1943, we intercepted a Jap merchant ship just north of Wewak, New Guinea. We caught it about 300 miles up the coast. We slipped in on a bombing run, then strafed the vessel, repeatedly. It was hit after a couple of runs, but we continued strafing it until it flamed. We got the squadron’s first kill; although Bill Mason got another on a like ship later that night.

"Naturally, we were not a skilled crew and Ensign Jim McGhee went up into the bow section where the forward blister had been, stood there with his body right out in the open, and manned the 30-caliber machine gun. We made a frontal attack to give him some direct fire and when he pulled the trigger, the gun muzzle-flash blinded us in the cockpit causing us to duck down behind the instrument panel and begin our pull-out.

"As we pulled up, we saw tracer fire coming past us and Jim McGhee became immortalized in the Southwest Pacific for his remark, ‘Hey, my bullets are bouncing back past us!’ When we assured him that those tracers weren’t his, rather, the enemy’s, he ducked down out of that fresh air so fast you would think he could outrun the bullets.

"During this period, we were working for MacArthur. He had asked for people to do night work because three or four of their B-24s had dropped into the water at night – killing all the crew – and the Catalina was a natural to take up the slack.

"The weather was so bad up there that most other aircraft flights during the day and evening were cancelled. But MacArthur kept sending out the communique mentioning that all other flights had been cancelled and ‘Black Cat Eleven covered all sectors last night, as usual.’ We got pretty proud of that. At which point, the Navy said, ‘Okay, if MacArthur’s going to decorate you and give you all the credit himself, then rotate with the Army!’ With that, they kicked us out of the Navy Officer’s Club. But guys from the Fifth Air Force came over and split their beer rations with US.

"We got along famously with the Fifth Air Force pilots but we did have to rotate with them. That caused our squadron to stay out almost 20 months when other Navy squadrons were being relieved after about six months.

"On September 15, 1944, we were en route to Morotai, flying along over this vast expanse of sea – expecting nothing at all – when the radar operator said, ‘Hey, there’s a blip on the radar!’

"I said, ‘There’s nothing out here!’

"He said, ‘It's a great big one!’

"Just as I was repeating my ‘nothing out here’ statement, we were surrounded by fighter planes. About then we came up over the horizon upon a major unit of the United States’ Seven Fleet.

"Quickly, we turned on our IFF – Identification, Friend or Foe – to keep those trigger-happy fighter pilots from shooting us out of the air. Then we looked again. As far as the eye could see, there were ships of the line and supply ships: battle wagons, carriers, cruisers, everything and everywhere. We sat there awe-struck and began to realize the immensity of the force behind us, the enormity of the fighting force that was ours. It gave us a great thrill knowing that with such might, there was no way we were going to lose that war."

January of 1944 brought a new plateau for the Black Cat squadrons operating night offensive reconnaissance missions in the Bismarck Sea. In that month they sank an estimated 52,500 tons of Japanese merchant shipping while damaging an additional 5500 tons. Quite impressive was the combined totals compiled by the Black Cats operating in the area from August of 1943 through January, 1944: 112,700 tons sunk; 47,000 tons damaged. In addition, they damaged, without known results, seven destroyers and three cruisers, each hit by 500 – pound or 1000 – pound bombs or both. They received credit for two probable sinkings of enemy submarines. But more damaging to the enemy than the tonnage sunk was the total disruption of his shipping routine.

January, however, also brought stronger defensive measures against the Black Cat attacks. Air cover became a near constant accompaniment of convoys; more escorts were provided, their anti-aircraft fire beefed up. Single Catalina attacks on convoys were discouraged by squadron leaders except where additional help could not be called up in time to make a combined attack. Coordinated attacks by two or more Black Cats often confused the enemy, causing ships to disperse, permitting attack.

One such coordinated attack meeting with outstanding success was executed by five Black Cats, two of which were carrying a torpedo with a TNT head under one wing and two 500 – pound bombs under the other. The other three carried the normal complement of one 1000-pound and two 500 – pound bombs.

This group of agitators attacked a convoy consisting of a cruiser, a destroyer and two torpedo boats which were escorting four merchant vessels. The first torpedo missed but apparently was heard by the sound gear of the escorting vessels, causing them to disperse in an attempt to locate the source. Left unattended, the four merchantmen were attacked by the Black Cats and three were left burning and dead in the water. B-24s verified their condition the following day.



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