Consolidated PBY Catalina in US Navy Service

The Consolidated PBY Catalina was the main long range reconnaissance aircraft in use with the US Navy in the first half of the Second World War. The flying boat had the right combination of long range and operational flexibility to act as the “eyes of the fleet” in an age before radar, and in areas where the US Navy did not have a network of bases around the world.

During the war the Catalina would be superseded both by the development of radar and by the realisation that long range land based bombers could perform the same job, especially once the United States moved onto the offensive, capturing or developing a series of air bases across the Pacific.

The PBY-1 entered service with Patrol Squadron 11 (VP-11F) in October 1936, then with VP-12 early in 1937. By the middle of 1938 fifteen squadrons were operating the PBY, five at Pearl Harbor and three at Coco Solo in the Panama Canal Zone, and by December 1941 21 squadrons were operational with the PBY and two more in training.

The PBY Catalina played a vital part in the battles of 1942, perhaps most importantly locating the Japanese fleet at the battle of Midway. It remained in use throughout the war, but gradually lost its front line status, instead flying long air-sea rescue patrols, or delivering supplies to isolated bases. The biggest exception to this were the squadrons involved in “Black Cat” missions, attacking Japanese shipping at night

Deployment of PBY Squadrons, 7 December 1941


 Pearl Harbor


 Pearl Harbor


 Pearl Harbor




 Pearl Harbor


 Pearl Harbor, Johnston Island and Palmyra Island


 Pearl Harbor


 Various Caribbean islands




 Kodiak Alaska,




 Training at San Diego


 Training at San Diego


 Natal (Brazil)


 Argentia (Newfoundland)


 Argentia (Newfoundland)


 Reykjavik (Iceland)


 Key West, operating as training unit


 Rhode Island, converting to land planes




 Training at Norfolk, Virginia


 Cavite (Philippines)


 Cavite (Philippines)

Pearl Harbor

On 7 December 1941 Pearl Harbor contained the biggest concentration of PBY squadrons, with VP-11, VP-12, VP-14, VP-22, VP-23 and VP-24 all based on Oahu. Between them they were operating 68 PBYs, but despite the high level of tension no effort was made to mount regular long range patrols around Hawaii. Most of the PBYs were caught on the ground when the Japanese attacked and were destroyed in the initial attack.

Two squadrons – VP-11 and VP-22 – were caught on the ground, and had all of their aircraft destroyed or damaged beyond repair. VP-14 and VP-23 had some PBYs in the air, but still suffered heavy losses. Three VP-14 aircraft were patrolling outside the entrance to Pearl Harbor, and one of them was involved in the sinking of a Japanese midget submarine (with the destroyer USS Ward) in the first fighting of the day. Despite this success the squadron lost seven aircraft destroyed and three damaged. VP-23 

VP-23 had four aircraft detached to Johnston Island and Palmyra Island, where on the morning of December they were practising flying circular patrol patterns, but still lost eight aircraft in their hangers during the attack.

In contrast VP-24’s six aircraft were conducting a joint submarine exercise off the coast, and lost no aircraft, while VP-12 had four aircraft in the air and two on the ground, of which only one was destroyed.

Of the 68 PBYs on Oahu on the morning of 7 December all but a dozen were destroyed during the Japanese attack. VP-12 had five survivors, VP-14 had three and VP-24 had six. The four detached aircraft of VP-23 had also survived, as had all but one aircraft from VP-21 on Midway. 

The Japanese had successful blinded the US Navy’s patrol wings on Hawaii (although one aircraft from VP-14 did find the retiring Japanese aircraft 40 miles north of Oahu after the attack). The effect was short-lived. Four PBY squadrons were quickly transferred from the Atlantic to Pearl Harbor, while VP-22 completed its training at high speed.

The Philippines

At the start of December 1941 PatWing 10 was based in the Philippines, and had two PBY squadrons – VP-101 and VP-102, both based at Cavite. In January 1942 VP-22, having completed its training, left Pearl Harbor on the first stage of its long journey to join PatWing 10 via Australia, a journey that would end in the Dutch East Indies.

The Japanese quickly established air supremacy over the Philippines, eliminating the threat from the USAAF’s 24th Pursuit Group. This left the PBYs operating in hostile skies, where they very quickly proved to be highly vulnerable against modern fighters.

The first clashes between the PBYs and the Japanese came on 10 December 1941. On this day aircraft from VP-102 found the heavy cruisers Ashigara and Maya. Five PBYs armed with bombs became the first US Navy aircraft to attack a Japanese surface ship. Four PBYs armed with torpedoes were less successful, being attack as they were taking off. Of these four aircraft one was destroyed and two were badly damaged, although not before successfully shooting down one Zero, the first of many shot down by Naval aviators during the war.

PatWing 10 was soon forced to flee the Philippines. On 12 December seven of their aircraft were sunk while anchored in Subic Bay, and the surviving eleven aircraft were ordered to fly south to Ambon, in the Dutch East Indies, leaving on 15 December.

This did not end the PBY’s involvement in the Philippines. A long range attack on ships off Jolo Island on 27 December ended with the loss of four out of six aircraft involved. A more successful return came on 29-30 April, when as part of Operation Gridiron two PBYs (Boat 1, piloted by Lt(jg) Tom Pollock and Boat 7, piloted by Lt(jg) Leroy Deede) were sent to fly supplies to Corregidor. Both aircraft reached their destination, flying via Lake Lanao on Mindanao, unloaded their supplies and took on a number of evacuees. Boat 7 took off safely and returned to Australia as planned. Boat 1 hit a submerged rock and was delayed until it could be made watertight, but also escaped safely.

The Dutch East Indies

PatWing 10’s first wing was south west, to Balikpapan on the east coast of Borneo. This was followed by a move east to Ambon, in the Maluku Islands, on 23-25 December. There VP-101 and VP-102 merged their assets, operating together until 18 April when all four PBY units in the area merged into VP-101. The wing moved back west to Surabaya on Java on 16 January 1942. Finally on 14 February the wing moved to Australia, first to Darwin (with only four aircraft remaining) and then in early March to Perth. PatWing 10 had also been joined by VP-22. This squadron arrived at Ambon on 20 January, before moving to Darwin on 5 February, to Surabaya on 25 March (with only three aircraft!) and finally to Perth at the start of March.

Over the three months between leaving the Philippines and moving to Perth the wing lost 60% of its personnel and all but four of its PBYs. The PBY crews had fought with great bravery, but the Catalina was too slow, too lightly armed and too lightly armoured to survive against the hordes of Japanese fighters that supported the invasion of the Dutch East Indies. Japanese aircraft were free to roam wherever they wanted, and more of PatWing 10’s aircraft were lost while on the ground or sea than in the air. The PBY was simply not designed to operate in such difficulty circumstances.

Fleet Battles – Coral Sea, Midway, East Solomons, Santa Cruz,

What it was designed to be was the “eyes of the fleet”, and during 1942 the PBY squadrons would be given a series of chances to perform their primary role. At this stage each PBY could only scout the area visible from the cockpit, and so to cover as big as area as possible individual PBYs were sent off in different directions, like the spokes of a wheel.

The most famous use of the PBY in the scouting role was during the battle of Midway. Thirty PBYs from four squadrons (VP-24, VP-44, VP-51 and VP-23) was based on Midway, while VP-91 operated from Kauai.

Boat 4 of VP-44 was the first American aircraft to discover part of the Japanese fleet, when they found the invasion fleet heading for Midway just before noon on 3 June. At 5.30am on the following day a PBY of VP-23, flown by Lt Howard Ady, made the first contact with the main Japanese carrier force. These sightings allowed the American carriers to attack and sink the four irreplaceable Japanese fleet carriers. In the aftermath of the battle the PBYs rescued 41 American airmen shot down over the sea.

In 1942 the Catalina also operated in support of the landings on Guadalcanal. VP-23 would operate from the tender USS Mackinac off Malaita Island, while VP-11, VP-14 and VP-72 all operated from Espiritu Santo. On 12 August a PBY-5A became the first aircraft to land on Henderson Field, the crucially important airfield whose construction had triggered the American invasion.

The fierce fighting on Guadalcanal was mirrored in a series of naval battles fought in the seas around the island. As at Midway the PBYs played a vital part in this fighting, locating the Japanese fleet on 25 August 1942 at the start of the battle of the East Solomons.

A portent of things to come came on 25 October 1942, at the start of the battle of Santa Cruz. This time the first contact with the Japanese was made by a B-17 of the USAAF, operating from Henderson Field, although a PBY of VP-91 was only ten minutes behind. Despite this the PBY, now radar equipped, still played the main part in locating and identifying the Japanese fleet during this battle.

From 1943 the PBY began to lose its central role as a fleet scout, as longer ranged land based aircraft took on the job. It remained in use in the Pacific throughout the war, often serving in unglamorous roles, but it retained a combat use in the “Black Cat” operations.

The Aleutians

Catalinas of PatWing 4 over the Aleutians
Catalinas of PatWing 4 over the Aleutians

The PBY was present in Alaska before the Japanese attack on the Aleutian Islands. On 7 December 1941 VP-41 was in place on Kodiak Island, while VP-42 was refitting at Seattle. They would be the first of seven PBY squadrons to operate from Alaska and the Aleutians (VP-41, VP-42, VP-43, VP-45, first VP-62 and second VP-62). Numbers peaked in 1942-43, with five squadrons in the area at the end of 1942.

All the way through the war the Alaska weather was the biggest enemy faced by squadrons based on the Aleutian. The terrain was mountainous, the weather cold, cloudy, icy, foggy and landing fields either snow-bound or muddy.

The Japanese added to these dangers in June 1942, when as part of the wider plan that led to the battle of Midway they occupied Kiska and Attu, at the western tip of the Aleutian chain. Fighting began on 3 June, when two PBYs were shot down, with one crew surviving. During this early period the PBYs were operating from three flying boat tenders – USS Gillis, USS Casco and USS Williamson, giving the flexibility to move west along the Aleutian chain to grapple with the Japanese forces on Kiska.

On 10 June a PBY of VP-41 discovered the Japanese presence on Kiska, triggering the start of the “Kiska blitz”, a series of determined bombing raids on the Japanese base that lasted until the Gillis was discovered on 13 June.

A period of aggressive patrolling followed, with the PBY squadrons carrying out regular attacks on the Japanese base, and attempting to block the enemy supply lines. During 1943 land based aircraft took over the main attacking role on the Aleutians, and later against the Kurile Islands, but the PBY remained in use in the North Pacific, carrying out anti-sea rescue and general utility work, delivering supplies and mail to isolated units. 

Black Cats

The PBY Catalina’s most effective offensive role developed as a reaction to its vulnerability to Japanese day fighters. While other squadrons operated the PBY at night, the “Black Cat” operations really began in December 1942 after VP-12 moved to Guadalcanal. VP-12’s PBY-5As were equipped with radar (used to navigate through the landmark rich island chains) and with radio altimeters, essential for safe operations at night, and were painted entirely in black. From late December until March 1945 the five aircraft of VP-12 flew 236 sorties, firmly establishing the “Black Cat” concept.

Black Cat missions took advantage of the Catalina’s long endurance. The aircraft would fly all night, attacking anything they found. By the start of 1943 the Japanese had been forced to move supplies onto Guadalcanal by night, and so the “Black Cats” found plentiful targets. The success of VP-12 encouraged VP-11, VP-51, VP-91 and VP-101 to join in, while VP-54 moved to the Solomon Islands specifically to operate at night. 

“Black Cat” operations continued longer than other PBY offensive missions. Catalinas prowled the night skies of the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines throughout 1943 and 1944. Only at the end of that year did they finally run out of suitable areas to operate, and the last “Black Cat” missions were flown in February 1945.

Dumbo – Air Sea Rescue

The PBY had always been used for Air-Sea Rescue, but at first these were somewhat impromptu missions, carried out by any available PBY. This changed at the end of March 1943, when VP-24 became the first dedicated “Dumbo” squadron, followed in June 1943 by VP-44 (the name came from Disney’s flying elephant). As time went on the “dumbo” missions became increasingly professional. A key development saw the PBYs patrol the route being used on an airstrike, to make sure that they would be in place when needed. When used like this the Catalinas were often protected by a squadron of fighter aircraft. Thousands of Allied sailors and airmen were saved by the “Dumbo” units, and the PBY remained in use throughout the war.  

Atlantic – Neutrality Patrol

Consolidated PBY Catalina over Greenland
Consolidated PBY Catalina over Greenland

The US Navy’s Catalina squadrons went onto a virtual wartime footing over the Atlantic in September 1939. President Roosevelt’s proclamation of neutrality was followed by the establishment of the Neutrality Patrol. At first this covered an area running down the US East Coast, past Trinidad and down to the coast of South America. Six Catalina squadrons took part in the early days of the patrol, operating from bases in Virginia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Over the next two years the Neutrality Patrol covered an ever increasing area, and its Catalinas began to operate from some very widespread bases. By December 1941 five Catalina squadrons were still involved in the patrol – two based at Argentia (Newfoundland), one on Iceland, one scattered around a number of Caribbean islands and one operating from Natal in Brazil!

Atlantic - Warfare

One immediate result of the attack on Pearl Harbor was that VP-51, VP-71, VP-72 and VP-91 all moved west from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Of these squadrons VP-71 and VP-72 had been flying from Newfoundland while VP-91 had been in training.

Thirteen different Catalina squadrons operated over the Atlantic and Caribbean from 1942-45, although as with RAF Coastal Command only one squadron spent the entire war in that theatre – VP-31, which operated in the Caribbean from 1940-43 and then in the North Atlantic until 1945. The general trend was towards the use of longer range land based aircraft, especially Consolidated’s own Liberator as anti-submarine patrol vessels. The Liberator could match the range of the Catalina while carrying a heavier payload and flying at higher speed. By the end of the war in Europe only VPB-6 and VPB-84 were still operating the PBY over the North Atlantic.
US Navy PBY Catalina Units of the Pacific War, Louis B Dorny Osprey Combat Aircraft 62. This entry in the Combat Aircraft series looks at the varied uses of the Catalina in the Pacific theatre, where it served as successfully as a long range reconnaissance aircraft, a night bomber (the "Black Cat") and on air-sea rescue, or Dumbo duties. The text is well supported with first hand accounts, contemporary photographs and full colour illustrations. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (31 August 2008), Consolidated PBY Catalina in US Navy Service ,

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