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Naval Aviation Through the Decades: Catalina Rescue

100 Years of Planes, Progress, and Personal Narratives: Part 5

Another of naval aviation’s countless heroic actions of World War II began Feb. 11, 1944, when a PBY-5 Catalina broke through a layer of cumulus and descended toward Kavieng Harbor, New Ireland. At the controls of the high-wing, twin-engined flying boat – callsign Gardenia Six – Lt. j.g. Nathan G. Gordon was peering out and listening to his radio operator on the interphone. Gordon had gotten a call that an Army A-20 Havoc light bomber had crashed in the water, and its crew needed rescue. “They say he’s right inside the harbor,” Gordon’s radioman told him. In the partly cloudy sky nearby, four Army P-47 Thunderbolts were escorting Gardenia Six, but Gordon wasn’t sure they could help much. Gordon knew that to achieve a rescue within range of Japanese guns he would have to return during the nocturnal hours when weather and sea conditions were right.

Gordon had been practicing law when he accepted a Navy commission in 1941. He became a Catalina pilot. He was a lieutenant junior grade when called in to clean up after the bombing mission to Kavieng on Feb. 11, 1944, “went to hash,” as Barrett Tillman wrote in Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).

More was involved than one A-20. Three B-25 Mitchell medium bombers had ditched at sea within 1,000 yards of shore, within easy range of Japanese artillery.

“Gordon knew something about Kavieng, a notoriously well-defended Japanese base,” Tillman wrote. “The harbor was almost fully encircled by land with no breakers or seawall. Consequently, waves inside the harbor could reach fifteen feet or more. It was going to be hard on the Catalina – and Gordon’s nine-man crew.”

At night on Feb. 15, in driving rain and under intense Japanese gunfire, Gordon made three separate landings in tumultuous seas to snatch up A-20 and B-25 survivors from their life rafts. “He set his plane down with such force that rivets popped and welded seams began to come loose,” wrote Matt Schudel in the Sept. 14, 2008, issue of The Washington Post. “He had to shut off both engines to keep the plane steady amid the 18-foot swells, as [his] crewmembers pulled the fallen airmen out of the sea with ropes.”

Gordon called his plane the Arkansas Traveler, a reflection of his lifelong association with his state. He and his PBY-5, Bureau No. 08434, belonged to Patrol Squadron 34, the “Black Cats,” renowned for daring exploits during the nocturnal hours. But not even other Black Cats could match Gordon’s audacious courage: After he’d completed three rescues under the most difficult circumstances, and with nine rescued airmen, some of them injured, weighing down his Catalina, he was called upon to attempt a fourth – one that was even more perilous.

An official citation described it: “With his cumbersome flying boat dangerously overloaded, he made a brilliant takeoff despite heavy swells and almost total absence of wind and set a course for base, only to receive the report of another group stranded in a rubber life raft 600 yards from the enemy shore. Promptly turning back, he again risked his life to set his plane down under direct fire of the heaviest defenses of Kavieng and take aboard 6 more survivors, coolly making his fourth dexterous takeoff with 15 rescued officers and men.”

Gordon may or may not have known that the Japanese in this region sometimes executed captured American fliers, but he’d saved 15 from such a fate. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Combat experience in the early days of the Pacific war resulted in development of aircraft capable of night operations; the first carrier-based night intercept attempts were initiated from Enterprise during the Gilbert Islands campaign in November 1943.

TBF-1 Avengers of VT-30 and F6F-3 Hellcats of VF-30 prepare for a raid on the Gilbert Islands aboard the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey (CVL 26) in late 1943. The Japanese could not replace materiel or personnel losses as World War II went on, while the U.S. Navy only grew in strength and capability. National Archives photo

As the war progressed, the Navy introduced newer carriers in the Essex (CV 9) and Independence (CVL 22) classes. Cmdr. Hamilton “Mac” McWhorter III’s mount, the Grumman F6F Hellcat, shot down a remarkable 19 Japanese aircraft for every loss in battle. Navy patrol planes, ranging from Gordon’s old Catalina to the four-engined PB4Y-2 Privateer, carried out long-range missions throughout the Pacific islands. All this time, of course, other naval aviators were at war in the Caribbean and the Atlantic. From Operation Torch – the invasion of North Africa – to dreary submarine patrols over coastal waters, these Navy fliers took risks every day and fought valiantly.

The turn of the tide in the Pacific saw Navy fliers supporting the landings at Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. The F4U Corsair fighter proved especially adept at supporting ground troops and was more than able to fight its way out of a jam as well. As Americans landed in the Philippines and on Okinawa, moving closer to the Japanese heartland, the primary threat to the fast carriers came from suicide aircraft called kamikaze – the name of a “divine wind” that had saved Japan from invaders centuries ago. The kamikaze inflicted terrible casualties, but this time there was no salvation.

In 1944, the Navy’s sole air ace from the previous world war, David S. Ingalls, was serving as a commander and working on navigation and communications issues with other aviators, including Charles Lindbergh and Pan American World Airways President Juan Trippe.

Ingalls helped establish Naval Air Transport System operations in Hawaii. He then went to Guadalcanal, where he directed air transport in the southwest Pacific. Ingalls served until war’s end, when he retired as a rear admiral. Just as Medal of Honor recipient Gordon did, Ingalls served as a lawyer after the war and piloted his own private plane.

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...