On the afternoon of January 15, information reached Samarai that a large enemy convoy from Truk had entered the Bismarck Sea and was headed toward Rabaul. Land-based Army bombers could not make an attack on the convoy before dark. If action was delayed until daylight the next day, however, the formation would have reached the cover of a large front extending along the entire southwest coast of New Ireland. Under cover of weather, the enemy ships would reach Rabaul and unload their cargo, which by this time was sorely needed by the Japanese defenders. It was up to the Black Cats to make the interception.

Tom Christopher and his officers poured over the charts. If the intelligence information was accurate, they should be able to make contact with the enemy at about 0130 off New Hanover Island, just west of the northern end of New Ireland. Six planes, all that could be spared, were readied. Four of these planes were loaded with the customary two 500- and two 1,000-pound bombs. The other two each carried two 500-pounders and one Mark XIII torpedo.

Takeoff time was at 1800 and the six planes headed north. Crossing over into the Bismarck Sea in darkness, they immediately spread out in a loose scouting line to find the enemy convoy. The weather was unusually good that night, with scattered cumulus clouds at about 1,200 feet and a quarter moon providing just the right amount of light.

Tom Christopher made first contact with the enemy at 0108 northwest of New Hanover proceeding on a course of 150 degrees at a speed of 10 knots. As he approached the formation, he could make out four large cargo vessels and two cruisers. About eight miles to the west he could see a second group of ships, consisting of two smaller merchant types and some escort vessels. Having heard the Catalina’s approach, the Japanese knew they had been discovered and prepared for the worst. Tom Christopher orbited nearby and called in his other aircraft in order to make a concentrated attack. The enemy, he noted, seemed to have a bad case of nerves. "The cruisers seemed to have great difficulty in keeping the merchantmen in position, and they were milling around in circles, and got all spread out. The other convoy came over and joined them, and the cruisers were just dashing back and forth in among this mess of ships trying to give them adequate coverage."

By about 0230, three of the other PBYs had arrived on the scene. The remaining two aircraft were delayed by distance and weather, and the attack was begun without them. Ellis Fisher moved in first and made a torpedo run on the lead cruiser coming in from the ship’s starboard side. Because torpedo attacks are best made from a beam aspect, the target has an opportunity to bring to bear all its guns on one side on the attacking aircraft. And this is exactly what happened in this case, with the second cruiser also pumping out rounds to augment the firepower of the first. Fisher bore on. Positioning himself at about 100 feet off the water at 105 knots, he waited for the right moment and squeezed of the drop. Nothing happened.

Fisher moved out of range and circled around to try again. This time even the merchantmen and another small escort vessel were firing at him but he continued on, getting even closer to the target before he attempted manual release. Again, the torpedo hung up in its mounts. By this time, the cruisers had the picture. The Cat was after them. They appeared to forget about their slow-moving charges in the convoy and concentrated their efforts on saving themselves. Again, the Cat dove, levelled off at 100 feet and zeroed in on one of the big warships. For the third time, the obstinate weapon refused to drop. A serious oil leak had now developed in the starboard engine. Reluctantly, Ellis Fisher and his crew departed the area and headed for home.

But the fun was just beginning. S. B. Bradley who had been orbiting about six miles from the formation, now made his move. Climbing to 3,500 feet, he moved in close, using a broken layer of cloudsto mask his approach. When he was almost on top of the enemy ships, he nosed over in an unusually steep dive of perhaps 70 degrees. As he broke through the clouds, he found himself about a mile from a fat tanker which he immediately chose as his target. Flattening his dive angle to about 50 degrees, he came in fast (for a PBY), indicating about 200 knots. Antiaircraft fire was now intense but Bradley concentrated on his chosen victim as the Cat plummeted toward the water. At 150 feet, he pulled out and pressed the intervalometer bomb-release switch for a stick of four. The mechanism failed to function. Fortunately, the copilot pulled the starboard emergency-release handle at the same time, releasing one 500- and one 1,000-pound bomb from under the starboard wing. Both were direct hits amidships. Bradley maneuvered violently to escape the antiaircraft fire which enveloped him and retired to safe distance where he observed his handiwork with some satisfaction.

Tom Christopher later described the sight. The ship was a large tanker loaded with gasoline. When Bradley’s bombs found their marks "she went up into a beautiful torch. In the light of that the other planes picked out their targets...."

Next to try his luck was Lieutenant (j.g.) Loring M. Bates, Jr. He moved in on a freighter approaching from the starboard side at an altitude of 500 feet. When he was only a few hundred yards from the target, he pushed over into a dive and let all four bombs go in a stick at 125 feet. There were no hits and the Cat made its escape at a low altitude, skimming a few feet off the water.

At about this time, Vad Utgoff came upon the scene and, in the light of the fire from the burning tanker, he began a torpedo run toward a group of ships which included one of the cruisers. The enemy could hear the Cat coming but apparently thought it was another bombing attack and concentrated his gunfire skyward.

Utgoff slipped in underneath and launched his fish. It was a perfect textbook run, 125 feet, 105 knots at drop point. Distance was about one-half mile with plenty of running time for the weapon to arm. The torpedo left the aircraft on cue – but there was no explosion and the enemy ships steamed on. Utgoff still had two bombs left and he was determined to make them count.

By this time the convoy was fast approaching a line squall which the enemy ships clearly intended to use for cover. Christopher decided to make his attack before that could happen. Moving in at 500 feet, he chose a large cargo vessel. He lined up his approach from port bow to starboard quarter and when he was almost on top of the vessel, Christopher dove on the target. As the Cat bore in at close quarters, the bow gunner sprayed the deck with his twin thirties, silencing one gun on the ship’s stern. Releasing all four bombs on the intervalometer, Christopher concentrated on making good his escape. It was a good drop – right on the money, but there was no explosive flash. Suddenly, there was a blast which threw Cat crewmen into the bilges. Seconds later, a plume of water, smoke and debris rose 200 feet in the air over the stricken vessel. All fire from the target ship had now ceased but guns from the other ships in the convoy zeroed in on the fleeing aircraft. There seemed to be a wall of tracers ahead. If they could not go through that hail of bullets, perhaps they could go under it. Christopher dove for the water to make good his withdrawal.

Now it was Vad Utgoff's turn to try again. He had seen the spectacular explosion aboard Christopher’s target ship and chose another large cargo vessel nearby. Utgoff began his attack about a mile from the target, diving quickly from 1,200 to 200 feet in an attempt to get under the antiaircraft fire coming at the airplane from all directions. It was from all kinds of guns both heavy and light and it followed the aircraft in its dive. Utgoff released both 500-pounders together as he made his run from port quarter to starboard bow. One hit the ship’s side and exploded, shooting a bolt of fire outward and parallel to the water. The other appeared to have gone through the deck plates and went off. As the aircraft made a circling escape, fire was seen amidships and below decks in the forward part of the ship.

It was a beautiful sight. Three large vessels whose cargoes would never reach the Japanese garrison at Rabaul were burning brightly below. With weapons expended, the four remaining planes headed for Samarai and a good day’s sleep. At 1045 the next morning, an Army reconnaissance aircraft arrived at the scene of the battle to survey the damage. There they found one of the ships in its final stages of agony and watched it go under. The other two were burning, and belching smoke and debris from periodic explosions from within. Soon they too would be claimed by the sea. There was no sign of life except for a few empty lifeboats and the flotsam and jetsam of battle. The Black Cats had done their job well.

(The above section of text was taken from "Black Cat Raiders of WWII" by Richard C. Knott, 1982)(now out of print)


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