While a multitude of aircraft took part in the action, there was one class of plane that may very well be the most-recognized of all World War II flying machines. The PBY Catalina, otherwise known as the Flying Boat, served a multitude of uses during World War II, having taken part in anti-submarine warfare, convoy escorts, search and rescue missions, cargo transport, and patrol bombing.
First introduced in October of 1936 by the US Navy, the PBY quickly became a “craft of the world” and was later integrated into the United States Air Force, the Royal Air Force, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, among others. Six variants of the US Navy’s PBY-1 were produced, but overall, between every nation that used it, there were over 25 different variations on the successful Catalina.
The PBY served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters and played vital roles in conflict with German U-Boats, the Battle of Midway, and even had a hand in rescuing sailors stranded in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. By the end of the war and, ultimately, the end of the craft’s production, the PBY had proven itself as a worthy wartime machine, capable of service where other aircraft fell short.
The PBY at Pearl Harbor
Despite the early warning systems that should have caught sight of the Japanese assault, it was a PBY patrolling the entrance of the harbor that revealed the attack. Leading the charge of Japan’s strike force were mini-submarines that attempted to enter the harbor and release a volley of torpedoes. Overhead, a PBY caught a glimpse of an approaching Japanese sub and dropped depth charges on the position of the vessel.
The crew of the PBY alerted the United States Pacific Command with a coded message, but by the time the code was deciphered, the bombs had started falling.
During the initial assault, the PBYs were rendered useless, but after the two-hour attack, their usefulness came into play. With the Navy crippled, it was up to the flying boats to seek out the position of the Japanese fleet.
One pilot is said to have spotted the ships and reported their location back to command, but likely due to the chaotic nature of the events at Pearl Harbor, there was no pursuit. When the United States sought revenge for Pearl Harbor, a PBY craft was enlisted to assist in preparation for the American retaliatory strike.