Catalina PBY Overview
The Consolidated PBY Catalina made its first flight on March 23, 1935. This twin-engine flying boat was built in the United States and under license in Canada and The Soviet Union. Its production run lasted over 10 years and, according to David Legg of The Catalina Society, 3,305 were built.[i] This makes it the most widely produced flying boat in history. It began operationally flying for the U.S. Navy in October 1936 and by the middle of 1938 the U.S. Navy had 14 squadrons flying Catalinas. It was used by almost all allied nations in World War II and logged more combat patrol hours than any other U.S. warplane of the period.[ii] In the mid-70s there were over 30 Catalinas serving in 7 countries.[iii] A Catalina, named Guba, owned and flown by Richard Archbold made a nonstop flight from New York to San Diego in 1937. It was the first flying boat to make a nonstop transcontinental U.S. flight. The flight set a speed record for its class of aircraft that stood until April 1944.[iv]
[i] Navy Times.com, Navy Times.com, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/08/31/cat-tales-the-story-of-world-war-iis-pby-flying-boat/, last accessed 10/13/20.
[ii] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes, © 2005 HarperCollins Publishers. P. 139.
[iii] Arsenal of Democracy by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.
[iv] Navy Times.com, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/08/31/cat-tales-the-story-of-world-war-iis-pby-flying-boat/, last accessed 10/10/20.
In 1940 Britain purchased 200 PBY Catalinas. The British received its first batch in early 1941. The U.S. also secretly sent 3 U.S. Navy pilots. One of these “on loan” pilots was Ensign Leonard B. Smith. On the morning of May 26, 1941, a PBY-5, Number AH545, took off in search of the KMS Bismarck. Officially RAF Pilot Officer (PO) Dennis Briggs was the pilot and Ensign Smith was the copilot. The plane was on automatic pilot when Ensign Smith spotted the Bismarck. He immediately took the controls from the automatic pilot as PO Briggs prepared a contact report. Ensign Smith closed in for a closer look to confirm it was the Bismarck. The Bismarck spotted the Catalina and opened fire. The Catalina received damage and lost contact with the Bismarck. Armed with the report the Royal Navy converged on the Bismarck and sank it the next morning.[i]
On August 25, 1941 a RAF Catalina and the HMS Vascama sank the U-452.[ii]
On the night of December 6/7 two RAF Catalinas of No. 205 Squadron went out to find a Japanese fleet, earlier found by Hudsons. Japanese fighters shot down one of the Catalinas.[iii] No. 205 Squadron attempted to make its way to Australia. Only 2 Catalinas reached Australia.
On December 7, 1941 there were 71 Catalinas at Pearl Harbor and Kanaeohe NAS. A Catalina discovered a Japanese submarine lying off Pearl Harbor. It sent a message reporting the submarine but the Japanese attacked before the message could be decoded. A Catalina assisted the USS Ward in the sinking of a Japanese midget submarine. This was before the Japanese attacked Hawaii. The Japanese destroyed 27 of the Catalinas before the main attack.[iv] The Japanese damaged at least 3 PBYs.[v] There were also 2 Dutch PBY-5s in transit from Java. One Dutch Catalina was destroyed in the attack and the other one damaged.[vi]
On December 10, PBYs in the Philippines found the Japanese heavy cruisers Ashigara and Maya. Five Catalinas became the first U.S. Navy aircraft to attack a Japanese surface ship. Japanese Zeros attacked 4 Catalinas as they were taking off. The Zeroes shot down one PBY and damaged 2 others. The Catalinas claimed a Japanese Zero shot down. Japanese aircraft sank 7 Catalinas moored in Subic Bay. The 11 surviving Catalinas left The Philippines for Ambon, Dutch West Indies, on December 15. The Japanese shot down 4 out of 6 Catalinas attempting to attack shipping off Jolo Island on December 27.[vii]
On April 4, 1942 RAF Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall was piloting a Catalina when his crew sighted and reported a Japanese fleet headed for Ceylon. The crew got off a warning message before a Zero shot down the Catalina. The Japanese took Squadron Leader Birchall and his crew prisoner.[viii]
On April 29-30, 1942, Lt. (j.g) Tom Pollock and Lt. (j.g.) Leroy Deede flew supplies to the beleaguered U.S. and Filipino forces in Corregidor. They flew out some evacuees.[ix] PatWing 10 operated in the Dutch East Indies but took on heavy losses in Catalinas and personnel. Within 3 months of leaving the Philippines PatWing 10 was down to 4 aircraft and 40% of its personnel. [x]
In the Far East, besides rescue and anti-submarine patrols, the RAF also used Catalinas for dropping agents on the coasts of Burma and Malaya.[xi]
On June 3, 1942 the Japanese shot down two Catalina’s in the Aleutians. One PBY crew was lost.[xii] The next day Petty Officer First Class Tadayoshi Koga, Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo, and Petty Officer Tsuguo Shikada Koga shot down a PBY-5A piloted by Bud Mitchell. The Zero pilots then strafed and killed the Catalina crew while they were helpless in the water. Koga’s plane was damaged in the combat and Koga was killed in the crash landing. On July 10, Catalina pilot Lieutenant William Thies flew off course. Machinist Mate Albert Knack spotted the Zero. Lieutenant Thies and his crew, along with photographer’s mate Arthur W. Bauman, returned the next day to inspect the Zero.[xiii] The Zero was recovered and made flyable. U.S. engineers evaluated the Zero and found they could design a plane that could best the Zero in most areas without loss of armor protection.
At 0530, June 4, a U.S. Navy Catalina piloted by Lieutenant Howard P. Ady spotted a Japanese carrier force. He reported to Midway Island there was a Japanese carrier 180 miles (288 km) from Midway. At 0545 a Navy Catalina, piloted by Lieutenant (j.g.) William A. Chase spotted two groups of aircraft headed for Midway. Lieutenant Chase transmitted, unencrypted, “Many planes heading Midway bearing 320 degrees, distance 150.” At 0552 Lieutenant Ady sighted and reported the position, course, and speed of 2 Japanese carriers.[xiv] These messages meant the forces on Midway would not be caught unaware and the U.S. aircraft carriers knew the position of 2 of the 4 Japanese carriers attacking Midway. The Japanese carriers suffered relentless attacks until US Navy dive bombers sank the 4 Japanese carriers. After one of the early attacks a USMC SBD had an engine malfunction and its pilot, Captain R.L. Blain had to ditch in the ocean. He and his gunner were in an inflatable raft for 48 hours when a Catalina rescued them.[xv]
A PBY discovered Japanese troops on Kiska on June 10. Catalinas carried out raids on the Kiska until June 13. PBYs carried out periodic raids against Kiska into 1943 when land-based aircraft took over the bombings. [xvi]
On August 12 a PBY-5A became the first aircraft to land at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal.[xvii]
On August 20, 1942 an American Catalina found the U-464 on the surface and damaged the U-boat so it couldn’t dive. Kapitan Leutnant Otto Harris decided to scuttle the U-464 and have the crew abandon ship. The Icelandic trawler Skaftfellingur rescued the 52 survivors. Two of the U-464 crew died.[xviii]
On August 25 Catalinas located the Japanese fleet at the start of the battle of the East Solomons. In October Catalinas played the main part in identifying the Japanese fleet during the battle of Santa Cruz.[xix]
On February 15, 1944, Lt. (j.g.) Nathan G. Gordon made 4 landings on one mission to rescue downed airmen. The last landing was without fighter escort and the plane was damaged by groundfire. The Catalina rescued 9 airmen. Lt. (j.g) Gordon received the Medal of Honor and the rest of his crew received the Silver Star.[xx]
On May 7, 1945 an RAF Catalina damaged the U-320. The crew continued to Sorta Island where the crew scuttled the U-320.[xxi] This was the last of the 38 U-boats Catalina’s were involved in sinking.[xxii]
On July 30 the I-58 sank the cruiser USS Indianapolis. The surviving Indianapolis crew members were in the water, without assistance, until a PV-1 Ventura saw the survivors in the water by chance. A PBY joined in the rescue. After the PBY dropped life rafts to the survivors it landed and proceeded to pick up survivors. The PBY stayed through the night and turned its searchlight skyward to guide the destroyer USS Cecil J. Doyle to the survivors. A total of 317 of 1,196 sailors on the USS Indianapolis survived.[xxiii]
The Cousteau Society operated a PBY they named Calypso. The Calypso underwent an overhaul in 1979 and during a flight test it crashed during a high-speed water run in 1979. Philippe Cousteau, son of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, died in the crash.[xxiv] PBYs were used to fight forest fires into the 21st century.[xxv]
[i] Defense Media Network, The American Who Helped Sink the Bismarck by Dwight Jon Zimmerman, May 8, 2011, https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/the-american-who-helped-sink-the-bismarck/, last accessed, 10/6/20.
[ii] U-Boat.net, https://uboat.net/boats/u452.htm, last accessed 10/6/20.
[iii] History of War.org, http://www.historyofwar.org/air/units/RAF/205_wwII.html, last accessed 10/7/20.
[iv] War History Online, Incredible images Reveal PBY Catalina Wreck Lost In Attack On Pearl Harbor, by Craig Bowman, December 24, 2015, https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/pby-catalina-wreck-pearl-harbor.html#:~:text=The%2027%20Catalinas%20based%20on%20the%20East%20coast,divers%20from%20the%20University%20of%20Hawaii%20in%201996., last accedes, 10/6/20.
[v] History of War.org, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_PBY_catalina_US_service.html, last accessed 10/9/20.
[vi] WW2 Pacific.com, WW II Pacific, Dec 7, 1941, Aircraft at Pearl Harbor, http://www.ww2pacific.com/aaf41.html#:~:text=%20%20%20Airplane%20%20%20Total%20,%20%202%20%204%20more%20rows%20, last accessed 10/6/20.
[vii] History of War.org, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_PBY_catalina_US_service.html, last accessed 10/9/20.
[viii] Thumppahi’s Blog, The Japanese Air Raid on Ceylon, Easter 1942, https://thuppahis.com/2019/04/21/the-japanese-air-raid-on-ceylon-easter-1942, last accessed 10/13/20.
[ix] History of War.org, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_PBY_catalina_US_service.html, last accessed 10/9/20.
[x] History of War.org, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_PBY_catalina_US_service.html, last accessed 10/9/20.
[xi] History of War.org, Consolidated Catalina in British Service, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_PBY_catalina_RAF_service.html, last accessed 10/7/20.
[xii] Pacificwar.org, http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Midway_attacks.html, last accessed 10/7/20.
[xiii] Fighter, Rearden.
[xiv] Pacificwar.org, http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM.html, last accessed 10/7/20.
[xv] Pacificwar.org, http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Midway_attacks.html, last accessed 10/7/20.
[xvi] Pacificwar.org, http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Midway_attacks.html, last accessed 10/7/20.
[xvii] Pacificwar.org, http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Midway_attacks.html, last accessed 10/7/20.
[xviii] U-boat.net, https://uboat.net/boats/u464.htm, last accessed 10/6/20.
[xix] History of War.org, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_PBY_catalina_US_service.html, last accessed 10/9/20.
[xx] Pacific Wrecks.com, https://pacificwrecks.com/people/veterans/gordon/index.html, last accessed 10/10/20.
[xxi] U-Boat.net, https://uboat.net/boats/u320.htm, last accessed 10/6/20.
[xxii] U-Boat.net, https://uboat.net/allies/aircraft/catalina.htm, last accessed 10/6/30.
[xxiii] EyeWitness to History.com, The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis, 1945, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/indianapolis.htm, last accessed 10/12/20.
[xxiv] Navy Times.com, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/08/31/cat-tales-the-story-of-world-war-iis-pby-flying-boat/, last accessed 10/10/20.
[xxv] Navy Times.com, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/08/31/cat-tales-the-story-of-world-war-iis-pby-flying-boat/, last accessed 10/13/20.
Consolidated PBY Catalina Stats
5x0.30 or 0.50 calibur
5x 7.9 or 12.7 mm
Bomb Load (Max)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on November 09, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. I didn't realize there were that many at Pearl Harbor either. That's one advantage of writing such articles. I learn a lot by researching them.
Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on November 09, 2020:
Thanks for this history about this much-loved airplane. I especially liked the WW2 stuff -- did not know that there were that many at Pearl Harbor.
Robert Sacchi (author) on October 15, 2020:
Yes, it was a horrible time. After the hopeless struggle in Corregidor there was the Bataan Death March and the horrific treatment by the Japanese in POW camps.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 15, 2020:
This is interesting to me for its significant role in the war in the Philippines. I had been to Corregidor and I can't imagine what those soldiers had to go through hankered in there.
Robert Sacchi (author) on October 14, 2020:
Thank you both for reading and commenting.
Peggy Woods - Yes, if the message had been sent in the clear or if they heeded other warnings how much would have been different is an interesting topic for alternate history speculation.
Liz Westwood - Often times in conflicts many planes that had major roles in the conflict don't get much attention. Getting back to Peggy Woods and alternate history at Midway the Japanese fleet didn't get good recon information on the American fleet because of a combination of a poor quality Japanese radio and a crew that probably could have done with better navigation training.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 14, 2020:
Had that message been decoded in time, it is interesting to think that Pearl Harbor might not have happened, and our entry into the World War might have been impacted. Thanks for filling in more information about this aircraft and history.
Liz Westwood from UK on October 14, 2020:
It is interesting to read about the role this plane played in World War 2.
Robert Sacchi (author) on October 13, 2020:
Thank you very much for reading and commenting. I'm glad you found this article interesting.
Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on October 13, 2020:
really interesting one to read
Robert Sacchi (author) on October 13, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, I remember a later incident where a message was sent unencrypted to insure there wasn't a decoding problem. In the Pearl Harbor attack almost everything went in Japan's favor. It is speculation as to how much of a difference an early warning would have made.
FlourishAnyway from USA on October 13, 2020:
I was intrigued by the role this vehicle almost played with Pearl Harbor...if only the message had been decoded earlier. The accidents and other roles were also very interesting. This was a well researched article as always. Hope you are doing well.
Robert Sacchi (author) on October 13, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. The USS Indianapolis wasn't an accident. The Japanese submarine I-58 torpedoed it. The rescue PBY taxied on the water to bring aboard survivors. It used its searchlight to help a rescue ship find it and the Indianapolis survivors.
Aircraft, like cars, have accidents from time to time. Thankfully the accident rate with aircraft is much less than it was in the 1940s.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 13, 2020:
This PBY Catalina plane sure has an interesting history. It does seem there were quite a variety of accidents, like the one with the Indianapolis. It does seem whe any of these new planes were build there is a good and bad side. I mean we have a plane that is unique but it seems there are akways soe sccidents. This is a very interesting article, Robert.