Photo of Catalina

Catalina flying-boat tales

The aircraft

High wing monoplane flying boat. Wingspan about 104 ft. Maximum all-up weight about 35,000lb. Weight empty 15,900lb.
Two engines, each 14 cylinder air-cooled radials. Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasps R1830S1C3G 1200 horse power.
Maximum fuel load 1460 gallons giving maximum endurance of about 24 hours or over 2000 nautical miles.
Crew 8. My duties in order of priority: First wireless operator, radar operator (when fitted), air gunner, responsible for operation and maintenance of all radio and electrical equipment, mooring and occasional second pilot. Rank: Leading aircraftsman.

25 January 1942

We evacuated the last of the civilians from Samarai (Milne Bay). I did not think it was possible to fit 42 people into a Catalina, but A24-10 did it. They were so crowded on the bunks that the supporting brackets were broken by the weight.

27 January 1942

Around midnight A24-10 approached our target, Rabaul which had fallen to the Japanese a few days earlier. We had taken off from Port Moresby at 5.22 pm and our mission was reconnaissance of New Britain and New Ireland and to bomb the enemy forces in Rabaul. The lead aircraft was over target, just a few minutes ahead of us, when I received an emergency message "enemy fighters over target". Shortly after I passed the message on to our captain, Squadron Leader Dick Cohen, we were attacked by three fighters almost simultaneously. Now the Catalina was designed as a reconnaissance aircraft and was poorly equipped for air combat. Our defences consisted of a couple of World War I vintage Lewis guns, while the open exhausts on our engines threw out plumes of flame which could be seen for miles. As the tracers streaked by, we escaped into a nearby cloud, so A24-10 lived to fight another day.

1 February 1942

Another trip to Rabaul. This one turned out to be a fight against nature rather than Japanese night fighters. As we headed out over the Solomon Sea we ran into a storm. This was the monsoon season so some bad weather could be expected. But we had never flown through a storm like this before; it was probably a cyclone. It seemed to be everywhere from sea level to 12 thousand feet. Being a seaplane A24-10 was reasonably well sealed; however, as we battled across the Solomon Sea water streamed in and everything was wet. For hours on end we saw neither the stars nor the sea and relied entirely on dead-reckoning for navigation. We must have run into the eye of the cyclone, because suddenly we found ourselves being lifted as if by a giant hand. The altimeter hands were spinning like mad and the G forces prevented me from rising from my seat. The pilot was battling to keep the nose of the aircraft down to avoid stall, but we continued to be forced up. We had been flying at about 10 thousand feet but this wild ride had taken us up to nearly 17 thousand feet. Our navigator was lucky, we found our target and returned to Port Moresby undamaged after a 16 hour round trip.

23 February 1942

Flying boats like the Catalina have limited ability to take off in rough seas. They are actually quite flat bottomed, the hull being shaped rather like a speedboat. To achieve enough speed for take off they have to rise on to the step and skim over the surface. Some wave motion actually helps this process; with a flat calm the aircraft tends to stick to the water. However as the wave height increases a stage is reached where the aircraft can becomes prematurely airborne, without enough airspeed to sustain flight. This can cause a dangerous situation.

We were operating from our Advanced Operational Base (AOB) at Vila in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and were searching for Japanese warships. On this day we had a full load of fuel and bombs. Our engines were getting a bit tired as they were nearing their 700 hour major overhaul. We commenced our take-off run in fairly calm water but as we approach the harbour entrance the sea got much rougher and A24-10 started to porpoise. Unfortunately after the first bounce we were unable to build up enough speed to remain airborne and we crashed back into the water. So, despite the efforts of our pilot Flight Lieutenant Thompson, to keep the nose down we were thrown into the air again at an even steeper angle. He knew that no Catalina had ever survived a third bounce, so he throttled back and we hit the water with such force that the hull buckled and water started pouring in. But we did stay there this time and at least A24-10 was still intact, though mortally wounded. After we taxied back to our mooring, we were able to survey the damage. The flow of water was under control so there was no danger of the aircraft sinking. The keel was bent into a zig-zag shape and many of the stringers which support the skin of the aircraft were bent. The top of the hull had ripples in it, indicating that the whole fuselage had been deformed and weakened.

This was our situation. With the Japanese advancing, most of the civilian population had left Vila. The AOB staff was small and had only a refuelling barge and a motorboat . But if we were to get ourselves and our aircraft back to Australia we would have to make it airworthy. From a carpenters shop in Vila we obtained timber, galvanised iron sheet, and bolts. By diving under the hull we were able to repair the skin with galvanised iron. A timber ridge was threaded through the main compartments of the aircraft and A frames built down to the floor. The twisted members were pulled up as straight as possible by clamping between pieces of timber. After three days we were ready to fly again.

At 5.20 pm on 27 February 1942, with just enough fuel for the 14 hour flight to our base at Rathmines on Lake Macquarie, we took off. We had timed our take off so that we would arrive at Rathmines just after dawn when the waters of the lake were usually very calm. F/Lt Thompson landed us ever so gently. A24-10 was passed to Qantas* for repairs. They were amazed that we had been able to repair and fly the aircraft home. Our flight engineer Johnny Dewhurst was the inspiration behind our repairs and he deserves recognition for his efforts. It took Qantas many months to carry out the permanent repairs.

*That is what I was told. However, I have since found out that A24-10 was rebuilt at Rathmines by Cpl Bert Jones and his team.

2 April 1942

In the early afternoon A24-21 glided into the calm waters of Trinity Inlet, Cairns. On the wharf to greet the crew, led by her captain Pilot Officer Terry Duigan, was a small group of officials including the mayor of Cairns.

A24-21 was a new aircraft having been commissioned only 10 days earlier at Rathmines, NSW. Our earlier aircraft, A24-10, had been almost written off a month before. Prior to landing at Cairns we had spent the last 10 days searching the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait for a submarine which someone had sighted in the Gulf. Typically we were up before dawn, patrolled at 300 ft for 10 hours, landed at dusk and then often had to do maintenance until late at night. Our temporary base at Horn Island had no facilities apart from mooring. The "submarine" turned out to be a huge tree that had floated down the Roper river. By the time we stepped ashore at Cairns we'd had it.

In welcoming us the mayor offered us the freedom of his town, adding that there was a dance in the School of Arts that evening and we were all invited. He seemed to have thought of everything. When it was pointed out that some of us would have to stay behind to guard our aircraft, he produced a smartly turned-out World War 1 veteran in full uniform with highly polished boots, rifle, bayonet and fifty rounds of ammunition to guard it for us.

So, as we all had a tremendous thirst and wanted to relax, we went straight to the bar at Hides Hotel. At the time we had no idea of the drama going on around our aircraft. Before leaving the wharf we had explained to the soldier how to enter the aircraft through the waist blister. However for some reason the motor launch took him to the nose of the aircraft, apparently in the belief that he could secure entry by unscrewing the nose gun turret. He clambered onto the nose and then, finding his entry attempts unsuccessful, decided to try and make his way along the fuselage and under the wing to the waist blister. Now we could have told him this was a hazardous operation; some one young and agile wearing rubber shoes and knowing that there was one small hole into which one could grip with one finger to swing oneself under the wing, could just make it. He had no chance and down he went into the water weighted down by his rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition. Fortunately they fished him out and he was able to carry out his duties.

It appears that ours was the first Catalina to land at Cairns since Pearl Harbour and one of our objects was to report on its suitability for a flying boat base. At that time our squadron's base at Port Moresby was subject to daily raids by the Japanese air force. In the event Bowen was chosen because Cairns was, in April, 1942, within range of long-range Japanese bombers. A few months later, Cairns did become a major Catalina base

However as we sat in the bar at Hides, (the one facing Lake St), we had little thought for such weighty strategic decisions. In fact we stayed there until about 10 pm and then, remembering the mayor's invitation, staggered upstairs to the School of Arts ballroom. Now in those days, Cairns was considered to be a war zone and we had to wear tin helmets when ashore. As we approached the entrance to the ballroom the music had stopped, the floor was empty and all the girls in their pretty dresses sat down one side and the blokes down the other. Unfortunately as I stepped on to the highly polished floor, I slipped and temporarily lost my balance. My tin helmet shot off and rolled in a wide trajectory around the hall - all eyes were on the helmet as it spiraled around, eventually coming to rest in the center of the hall. Quite clearly this was not one of my better nights.

With the rapid Japanese advance south, the people of Far North Queens land were understandably jittery about their prospects; I think our visit to Cairns helped to raise their morale. It certainly raised ours.

6 April 1942

We were on patrol over the Solomon Sea, searching for Japanese warships and troop transports, when I received an urgent Morse code message telling us to proceed immediately to Woodlark Island to pick up the crew of a US army B26, that had been damaged in a raid on Rabaul and had just made it to the island. As our search pattern had at that stage taken us quite close to Woodlark Island we were soon over the island and spotted the survivors in a rubber life raft on the lagoon. There were coral reefs everywhere, but our captain, Pilot Officer Duigan, managed to land between them and taxi to the life raft. We hauled the crew aboard without delay, as this was an area rapidly coming under Japanese control. To our surprise amongst the crew was our commanding officer, Wing Commander Thomas Mac Bride Price.

While Price was uninjured, some of the Americans were. We flew the crew back to Port Moresby. Until that day we had seen no Americans in New Guinea. Apparently a squadron had just arrived and decided to make an early strike on Rabaul. However they were unfamiliar with the area, and so our commanding officer went along to lead them to the targets. I believe this was the first air-sea rescue of the Pacific war.

9 April 1942

"All is fair in love and war"
But not for the loser. Some maintenance was due on A24-21. We were at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and had just completed a 10 hour patrol, so in the late afternoon we started our maintenance. I was responsible for all the radio and electrical equipment in the aircraft. For its time, the Catalina was a high technology aircraft; most of the control system was electrical rather than hydraulic, for example, the wing tip floats were raised and lowered by an electric motor. On checking the main aircraft battery, I found it to be in a terrible state and should have been replaced. But we did not carry a spare battery, so I had no choice but to attempt a repair. One of the lead connectors between the cells had melted and there was more acid on top of the battery than in the cells.

The marine section had some old truck type batteries, and with tools like a blow lamp and soldering iron, I was able to fashion a new connector and solder it in to the aircraft battery. Hydrogen gas was still seeping out, so had to take great care to prevent an explosion. We had no power, so had to work with Johnny Dewhurst, our flight engineer, holding a torch. It was very much a temporary job, but at least it would allow us to fly the next day. This was important because at that time Tulagi was being bombed by the Japanese and we did not want them to catch us stranded on the water.

By torchlight, I climbed up on to the wing and reinstalled the battery. On the side of the battery box was an electrical relay; this was the landing light relay and, after installing a battery, it was the custom to close the relay briefly, and if the landing light came on brightly, one knew that the battery connections and the battery were OK. To my surprise the landing light remained dark, instead there was a loud splash from under the wing of the aircraft. "You've dropped a bomb" said Dewhurst, "must have been a shark" I replied hopefully. We shone the torch under the wing and sure enough a 250 lb bomb was missing. Furthermore the arming wire was still attached to the bomb rack indicating that the bomb had dropped armed.

We worked out what had happened. A24-21 was a new aircraft just out from America and had obviously not been properly serviced on arrival in Australia. Hence the condition of the aircraft battery. However there were also some important hidden differences between A24-21 and earlier Catalinas. This new model Catalina had American style bombs and bomb racks, not British. Without warning us, the manufacturer had used the landing light relay as a bomb release relay. Furthermore no protective cover had been fitted, so the relay could easily be accidentally closed by someone servicing the battery. We sent an urgent signal to our base, recommending that covers be fitted to this relay in all new Catalinas. I felt terrible, having nearly killed Johnny Dewhurst and myself and destroyed one of our few Catalinas. Only the shallowness of the water under the aircraft prevented the bomb from exploding. I still don't know why it dropped in the armed state; this was like carrying round a loaded rifle with the safety catch off.

10 April 1942

After yesterday's drama with the aircraft battery, I thought we were going to have an easy day as we had no operational mission to perform; only to fly to the lagoon of a nearby island on dispersal so that we would not be a sitting target for Japanese bombers. When we arrived over the lagoon it was glassy smooth and the water was so clear one could see the detail of the reef bottom. This condition makes for a hazardous landing because it is difficult to judge how high the aircraft is, as it approaches the water. Unfortunately we made a very hard landing and although the aircraft was not damaged to the extent that A24-10 was*, it still required repairs that could only be carried out at Rathmines. So it was back to Rathmines for another new aircraft.

*One of our crew, Kevin Landers, recently reminded me that the damage was due to our scraping the reef, not the heavy landing.

A date in early 1942

I have no record of the date because there was no entry in my flying log book; we did not fly that day. Our base at Pt Moresby was being bombed at night, so, to hide our aircraft from the Japanese, we dispersed our aircraft usually to the mangrove swamps on the edge of the harbour: the aircraft camouflage blended with such areas and gave us some protection from attack.Only half the crew (4 airmen) were needed. Since we had no mooring buoy we deployed two anchors in a V shape ahead of the aircraft. Usually it was so hot in the cabin that we would go up on to the wing. If there was a slight breeze up there, it would help to keep the mosquitos away. When the air raids were over we went to bed in the cabin. On one such night I went to sleep, lulled by the gentle slap-slap of  water on the bows of the hull. During the night I woke up suddenly, realizing that the wind was howling outside, but there was no sound of the waves striking the hull. It was a pitch black night so I went out to the blister and put my hand in the water. The pressure of the water and the phosphorescent trail indicated we were drifting fast. I woke the other three. John Dewhurst started the engines and, with the landing lights on, Kevin Landers and I climbed out on to the bow. A gale had blown up and the two anchors ropes were stretched out taut horizontally and wound together: we were being blown at high speed towards the reefs at the entrance to the harbour. The thrust from the engines halted our rush but Kevin and I were unable to untangle the anchor ropes. Fortunately our landing lights had been spotted by the marine section and soon a motor boat appeared and towed us back to our dispersal spot. I suppose we were lucky that I was a light sleeper and woke up at the right time.

Qantas and the air link to Britain

During the thirties Australia had air links with both the US and Britain with Empire class flying boats to Britain, and the Clippers to USA. With the fall of Singapore in January, 1942 the air link with Britain was severed. In 1943 I found myself in a position to help restore that link.

Following a bout of dengue fever (dengue fever, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, was brought to Australia by the Americans from Hawaii) and tropical ulcers which refused to heal, I had been posted back to my home state of WA, presumably to recover from the debilitating illness. One day I received a call from the chief signals officer for Western area, Wing Commander Rose,. He told me that Qantas had obtained an extra long range Catalina from the RAF, in order to reopen the air service to the UK by means of a direct flight from Perth to Ceylon. But the Catalina radio transmitter was unable to tune to the frequencies required for the service, and also they were short of a wireless operator for the inaugural flight. Could I help?

To explain the radio transmitter problem I need to digress a bit. In 1942 the RAAF thought it had a problem with Catalina radios; the frequency of the transmitter was controlled by crystals, of which there were eight, so your options were confined to the eight frequencies. Air Board decided this was unacceptable as the enemy could discover these frequencies and listen to our transmissions. Crystals were manufactured in Australia, but unfortunately due to a lack of standards, Australian crystals could not be plugged into the Catalina transmitters. Air Board decided it was too difficult to modify Australian crystals to fit. At that time new radio equipment for the air force was being manufactured in Australia by AWA. This was the AT5/AR8. So Air Board decreed that the AT5/AR8 was to be fitted to all Catalinas. We were not consulted on this decision, which was wrong for several technical and operational reasons. So we hid our original Catalina radio equipment under our bunks and reinstalled it before returning to the war. Despite all the fuss we continued to use the same frequencies anyway.

So I had to adapt Australian crystals to fit the Catalina transmitter,with only a few weeks to do it. First problem, I had neither tools nor electronic instruments. At that time there was a US Navy Catalina base on the Swan river in Perth. So I went to see the Stores Officer there, and told him about my dilemma. Did he have a spare Catalina multimeter? No, he said, and Lend Lease did not apply to civil airlines. He would have to get permission from the President of the United States to help me. However, he said, there was a pile of unserviceable multimeters in the corner there, and I could take one if I could repair it. I picked the best one out; all it needed was new batteries. The local Qantas engineers were almost as badly off. They had no proper tools for servicing their newly acquired Catalina, but remedied this by going in to the American base at lunch time and walking off with the tools they needed. This threatened to cause a major upset between allies, until the American commander realised that his men had become too relaxed in the Perth way of life, and should have been guarding their base better. It is no exaggeration to say that we had to beg, borrow and steal for that inaugural flight.

So I designed a modification kit for the Australian crystals, found a local instrument maker to manufacture the kit and installed it in the Catalina's transmitter. This was a success, however Wing Commander Rose decided he needed to confer with the RAF authorities in Ceylon, so decided to make the inaugural flight himself, a decision he later regretted because he was not really qualified to operate the complex Catalina equipment. Qantas and the air force were grateful for my assistance. The 30 hour flight to Ceylon became routine. Rose offered to send me to Officer Training School (at that time I was a sergeant). I declined the offer because I wanted to go back to my Catalina squadron, an ambition never realised, although I did have another tour of duty in PNG.

Other Catalina tales


 

 
 
 
 
 

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