Rathmines Catalina: Stories
1). Non-routine repairs in the field:
A Cat with a Broken Back!
As written by W.E. Graham
It was about one week before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and thereby officially entering the war in the Pacific. A24-12, an RAAF PBY-5 Catalina, returning from patrol made a heavy landing coming in to the A.O.B. at Rabaul.
The Captain of the aircraft was Sqdn. Leader Davies, who was subsequently lost with the rest of his crew some weeks later at Kavieng.
(A24-11 crashed on take-off, Kavieng Harbour, 15th January, 1942.)
First inspection of the Catalina’s hull indicated serious damage, the repair of which was beyond the scope of the engineering members of the crew and their limited facilities.
A signal to Port Moresby requesting technical assistance was sent off immediately and a work party under W/O Jack Morris and Sgt. E.A.Watson was hastily despatched to the scene in a C Class Short Empire Flying Boat, piloted by F/O Norm Fader, complete with beaching gear and other equipment considered necessary.
The damage was bad alright – the aircraft had a broken back – and things looked very grim. Fortunately, the water she was taking was controllable.
Where to repair and more importantly, how to repair was the next consideration.
It so happened, that not far from the A.O.B. was a small tidal creek which looked to be the most likely place for the purpose intended.
The beaching gear was quickly installed and with the help of native labour from the local prison, A24-12 was manhandled ashore sufficiently enough for the hull to be completely out of the water at low tide.
‘Wilbur’ Watson was a member of the permanent RAAF and also an aircraft specialist with a great deal of knowledge and experience with flying boat hulls.
A man of particular resource, Sgt. Watson had earlier made a hull repair virtually under water on A24-3, which had the misfortune to strike a nigger head whilst taxyng on the water at Buka Passage.
A24-12’s condition became an immediate challenge to Watson, who believed he could install a false keel into the ship and make it airworthy enough to get back to a repair depot for permanent repairs.
With the assistance of a tradesman carpenter serving with the Army Garrison at Rabaul, Wilbur mounted a solid flitch of 12”x3” Oregon in the hull above the broken keel, extending from the bulkhead separating the Navigator and Engineers compartments, back to the Tunnel.
He then caused chine pieces to be made and fitted into the hull and fixed these firmly with timber struts back to the false keel.
Skin repairs were made where necessary and sprung rivets were replaced the hard way. Subsequently the hull was made as watertight as possible.
All in all, it looked a good workmanlike job.
The big question was how she would fly? Was the structural damage such that it would seriously upset the trim and make any long flight a hazardous proposition?
Well, the only way to find out any of these things, was to put the aircraft back into the air and give it a thorough workout.
We heaved and struggled to get the craft out of the creek – again with the help of natives – and after about 20 minutes she was afloat and being towed to the re-fuelling buoy by the marine section tender.
The skin repairs were good. No water was being taken and the lie of the aircraft was such that no one would have suspected it had been so badly damaged.
The crew came aboard to carry out the usual pre-flight checks and sufficient fuel was taken on for a local flight.
With the skipper aboard and ready to go, the engines were wound up for a start. They clicked without fuss and A24-12 was taxying, warming up the donk’s preparatory to takeoff.
The water in Rabaul harbor was quite still, almost glassy, with little or no breeze. These conditions are not unusual in that part of the world in December.
Ashore, we watched and waited. The final engine run-up had taken place and the Cat was now being positioned for takeoff.
A flurry of spray, the tail went down and then the howl of the engines responding to full throttle reached us. The moment of truth was at hand. A few moments more, she was on the step and then gracefully coming unstuck, rose gently into the air.
The pilot flew carefully gaining height, and then put the big flying boat into a low climbing turn as he lifted her higher up into the sky.
He made a couple of passes over Rabaul township and then turned in for a landing.
The second moment of truth was imminent. After all, it was this sort of event that caused all the trouble in the first place.
In she came, gradually losing height, lower and lower in a well controlled descent, down onto the step and finally settling right into the water. A perfect landing.
The Captain reported that the ship flew normally, no undue trim was necessary and in his view, completely airworthy for a long flight. All concerned heaved a sigh of relief.
It was originally intended that the machine should proceed to Port Moresby for more effective repairs prior to going on to Rathmines. However, after the test flight and the response to the repairs both on the water and in the air, it was so ordered that A24-12 should fly direct from Rabaul to Rathmines non-stop.
This flight was accomplished without incident.
On arrival at Rathmines, the engineering group on base was so impressed with the ingenuity of Sgt. Watson’s system, and the quality of the workmanship, that it became the standard repair procedure for damage of that nature sustained by Catalina aircraft.
Ironically, after months of hard work by the riggers of 2 F.B.R.D. culminating in the permanent restoration of A24-12’s hull, she was moved from the hangar without engines, on beaching gear and picketed on the old wooden slipway at Rathmines.
Work for the day had been completed and at about 7.20pm, the base was struck by a violent storm. It didn’t last long and property damage didn’t amount to much, but sadly, the strong winds lifted A24-12 off the slipway and she finished up in the water, on her back – written off!
So who was Wilbur Watson?
Wilbur standing on the wing of a Supermarine Stranraer at Point Cook
Known as Wilbur, a name given to him by an RAAF instructor at Point Cook, whilst undergoing his initial training, due to his knowledge of aircraft and flying, (after Wilbur Wright).
He was posted to Rathmines on the 1st March, 1940, whilst the base was being constructed, and apart from 14 months service in New Guinea, (1941/42), remained at Rathmines till discharge on 7th September, 1947.
When A24-12 arrived at Rathmines from Rabaul, Wilbur’s effort on the repair was viewed with amazement.
Bert Jones, an Engineer on the base at the time, and who took over the repairs on A24-12 at the base confirmed the description of what Wilbur had done.
As well as the main spine he put in this plane, he made frames to attach it firmly to each bulkhead it passed through. Bert told that Wilbur had attached a note requesting the framing be removed carefully, so that it could be used again if required, but the problem was, no one could work out how to do so without cutting the main beam! (What was not realised, was that Wilbur had, with some help, forced the aft end of the craft upwards to facilitate feeding the beam in!)
This verified the story as told by Wilbur, years later.
Wilbur said the hull, aft of the step, where the break had occurred, was not quite in line after the temporary repair so there was a twist in the hull, putting the tail plane at an odd angle, but the pilot was happy to give it a go. Fortunately, no Health & Safety in those days. (Strengtheners were placed in the hulls of other Cats at Rathmines subsequent to this, to lessen the likelihood of further heavy landing damage.)
After the storm, and the boat being declared not repairable, A24-12 was used for airframe fitters to practice their skills on, so it did do further useful service.
Wilbur carried out other clever repairs to aircraft under challenging conditions. Wilbur blamed his first repair, patching a hull of a Cat underwater on a buoy at Buka for his CO keeping him in New Guinea so long. He remained in New Guinea till the Japanese approached the area, with the responsibility of demolishing equipment when they came into view, before making his way back to RAAF Rathmines.
Wilbur at Melbourne in 1938
2). THE DABSTER A24-64, and the tragic loss of its crew
RAAF Catalina PBY5, A24-64 flying over Lake Boga, Vic., Australia, November 1944
(from Philippines Veterans Affairs Office release, 24/4/2015).
Governments of Australia and the Philippines marked the possible crash site in Brgy. Alas-Asin, Kamaya Point Road, Mariveles, Bataan of the Royal Australian Air Force, (RAAF), Catalina aircraft that planted mines in Bataan Peninsula in World War II but disappeared after the risky mission.
His Excellency Bill Tweddell, Ambassador of Australia, and Undersecretary Eduardo G. Batac of the Department of National Defense led the wreath-laying ceremony at the newly installed marker in memory of the nine crew of the aircraft who were believed to have perished while doing their operation.
Mrs Wendy Duke, daughter of 37766 SGT James ‘Jim’ Robert Robinson, crew member of ‘the Dabster’ and her three children graced the event that was attended by officials of the Australian Embassy, Australian Defense Force, and Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific.
The Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) also participated in the event, with MGen. Raul z. Caballes, Deputy Administrator; Col. Agerico G. Amagna III, PAF (Ret), and Ms. Cherry Mae Lacbawan in attendance.
Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Catalina A24-64 The Dabster (meaning ‘the best’) had just returned to Darwin from a mine-laying operation at Morotai, when the crew were told they would be going to the Philippines. Their last mission, to mine the Balabac Strait and the mouth of Manila Bay, commenced on the night of 14 December 1944 and was intended to deny Japanese Naval forces the ability to attack allied forces who were to land on the island of Mindoro the next day (Source: Australian Embassy).
Twenty-four RAAF Black Cats (as the Catalina’s were known) from 11, 20, 42 and 43 Squadrons participated in the Operation. However, “The Dabster” never returned, and to this day, neither the aircraft nor the remains of her crew have been located (Source: Australian Embassy).
The target area was known to be well defended, although exact details of gun emplacements were unknown at the time. Philippine military historians have since discovered that the Japanese had established an anti-aircraft gun emplacement along Kamaya Point Road in Barangay Alas-asin, Mariveles (the current site of the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific) as early as 1944 (Source: Australian Embassy).
It was reported during post-mission debriefing that “a flash or explosion was observed in approximate position of the target area that may have some relation to a 43 Squadron aircraft (the Dabster) which failed to return from the operation”. After numerous searches in subsequent years, by early 1949 the Secretary for the Department of Air had concluded that there was “no likelihood of recovering the crew’s bodies and that it was probable that the aircraft and crew were lost at sea”.
A number of factors suggest that the pilot may have attempted to exit through the northern channel, passing closer to the Bataan Peninsula, to avoid observation from Corregidor. In doing so the aircraft is likely to have passed within 1,000 metres of the anti-aircraft emplacements along Kamaya Point Road in Barangay Alas-asin, the fire from which could explain the “flash or explosion”that was observed following subsequent reports of heavy anti-aircraft fire in the target area (Source: Australian Embassy).
Following this hypothesis, it is highly probable that RAAF Catalina A24-64 was struck by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and now lies in the waters off Alas-asin Point. MAAP is therefore considered a most appropriate location to dedicate a memorial to the still missing crew of The Dabster.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.
Pilot: F/Lt Herbert Cunningham Roberts, RAAF 406368 (MIA / KIA)
Co-Pilot: F/Lt Frank William Silvester, RAAF 411054 (MIA / KIA)
Crew: F/O Robert Carlisle Barbour, RAAF 419949 (MIA / KIA)
Crew: F/Lt James Henry Cox, RAAF 411867 (MIA / KIA)
Crew: F/O Raymond Harold Bradstreet, RAAF 406824 (MIA / KIA)
Crew: Sgt James Robert Robinson, RAAF 37766 (MIA / KIA)
Crew: F/Sgt David John Albert, RAAF 37077 (MIA / KIA)
Crew: Sgt John Charles MacDonald, RAAF 15882 (MIA / KIA)
Crew: Sgt Harold Stanley Goodchild, RAAF 82777 (MIA / KIA)
3). An Easter Tale – 43 Squadron
As written by Richard (Dick) Udy, ex. 43 Sqdn RAAF, in April 1994.
Donated to Association collection by Dick Udy, May 2014.
Exactly 50 years ago this Easter, on 6thApril 1944, this incident happened.
We were members of number 43 Catalina Squadron, based in Darwin at the time with our flying boats moored in Doctors Gully in Darwin harbour. Over recent months we had been flying anti-submarine convoy protection patrols, occasional bombing raids to West New Guinea and New Britain and air-sea rescue patrols when the Liberators went out from Darwin. These flights could be anything from five to fourteen hours long, maybe by day for convoy protection, maybe by night for long range bombing or mining sorties. It was taken for granted that we were always on hand for emergency rescues in the open sea if any of our planes crashed. To prepare for such eventualities at the end of our operational training programme we would go to do rough water landings in Broken Bay, (NSW). This was tricky business because instead of flying onto water with a great skid, peacefully, as we usually did, in rough water landings we had to gradually lose flying speed as close to the water as possible and then, when the plane stalled, fall with a crash on top of a swell. The strain on the thin metal skin of the plane and the battering we all had on impact meant that we would only do this in really desperate situations in the open sea – nowhere else. The very week we arrived at Rathmines for our training, our first duty was to act as pallbearers to a crew who had died doing this very thing at Port Stephens, (NSW)*.
*RAAF PBY-5 Catalina, A24-39 (USN 0826), of 3 Operational Training Unit Rathmines crashed during a landing in rough seas opposite Wonderrabah Knob, Port Stephens, New South Wales at 0915 hours on 24 May 1943. The flight was part of an inspection of the Broken Bay and Port Stephens areas. F/Lt Higgins had flown to Port Stephens to see if the water was rough enough to carry out rough water landings as laid down in No. 3 OTU training. The OTU course had been extended by one week so that the pilots could get training in rough water landings. F/Lt Higgins had apparently decided that Broken Bay was not suitable for the training and proceed to Port Stephens where he crashed on landing. Seven of the nine crew, incl F/Lt Higgins, were killed, a gunner & armourer survivied. (Ed)
We were hoping for a quiet Easter, a time to rest up after all the flying of the past weeks. At dinner time came the message that we were required as soon as possible for an air-sea rescue, not a patrol, but the real thing. It happened to be the Thursday in Holy Week, and knowing what happened on the first Good Friday there was passing thought, maybe this will be another “life giving” experience in every sense of those words. We were told we were going to Cartier Island, 490 miles due west of Darwin and 160 miles South of Koepang in Timor. What added to the dicey nature of this exercise was that we would be flying in broad daylight at about 110 knots into a place where the hornets were already aroused and within range of Japanese fighter planes. We were told that there was a cover of Beaufighters for us but we could not see them.
What was the cause of this emergency, you may ask. It appeared that a Beaufighter from 31 Squadron based at Drysdale (in the Northern Territory) had gone with seven others to Semau Island, on the southern tip of Timor on a shipping strike. An oil tanker was sighted in Pelican Bay and was attacked by two of the group, one of them piloted by F/O Stahan and F/Sgt Brassil as wireless navigator. As they attacked the enemy tanker, Strahan’s plane was caught in intense 20mm anti-aircraft fire and within minutes the starboard engine failed. Still flying low after the attack the port engine coughed and began to lose power. The crew jettisoned all the unused ammunition and fuel but it was clear that on one engine and with cross feeding problems in the fuel tanks, they could not possibly make it back to Australia. Accordingly a course was set for Cartier Island, a tiny little sandpit as big as a showground with nothing but sand and reef. As the photo shows, the plane barely had room to skid to a halt. This area is close to the present Jabiru and Challis oil fields in the Timor Sea.
F/O Strahan had been a pilot instructor previously and his great skill was certainly shown in the remarkable belly landing he did on the sand. Now this crash landing was at 1345 hours. Almost within the hour our crew had been briefed, prepared and raced to the wharf at Doctor’s Gully. Such speed meant there were a few hassles with the wireless codes of the day but by soon after 1400 hours we were airborne and heading due west. Four hours of daylight flying square in the eye of the setting tropical sun lay before us.
While this flight grinds on, I should introduce the crew. F/O Reg Marr D.F.C. was the skipper, F/O Crews second pilot, F/O Baker the navigator, F/Sgt King and F/O Udy wireless operators, F/Sgt Hines engineer, F/Sgt Gannon engineer, Sgt McDonald fitter. (Ranks are as at the time of the action). It happened that our own navigator, F/O Raynor was medically unfit when we were detailed for this job. Broken crews were not keenly welcomed by some RAAF flyers. F/O Baker proved his spot-on navigational skills when four hours later we came to where the tiny atoll in the Indian Ocean was supposed to be . . . there it was, a speck in the wide ocean. As we approached at last we saw one of the our Beaufighter cover and there on the sand, as in the photo, what appeared to be a perfectly preserved plane, as far as we could see. Actually the crew had examined the Beaufighter after landing and found the hole from the ant-aircraft fire in the starboard engine. Clearly, nothing could be done to revive her. They dismantled all the gear they could from the plane and packed it ready in their dinghies ready to take off with them. While they waited, they had a swim in the channel.
We had chosen A24-44** as the plane to use for the job even though we had been recently doing a conversion course on an amphibian Catalina for such work. Number 44 was lighter and a well-proven machine. As we approached the island there was enough light for the landing, as the photo indicates. The swell was not too great and the conditions quite reasonable. The crew of the crashed plane would have to walk quite a distance to rendezvous with us on the leeward side of the atoll. They dragged their dinghy after them but as they came to the end of the reef, walked off the edge and lost some of the booty. Now for the tricky bit; getting down on the water with them. Reg came up wind, judged the swell and the position perfectly, pulled off the engines, a second or two or eerie silence, then CRASH! We were down on the rolling waves, tossing about.
He taxied as close to the two airmen as he dared with the reef always on his mind, then – “Who can swim and take our dinghy to pull the others?” To be quite truthful, I was glad to get out of the tossing plane and man the dinghy with one of the other boys. We took the others in tow and paddled like fury to get alongside the moving plane, making for the blister in the tail where we had some chance of getting in. Finally, we all clambered aboard awkwardly while some of their precious gear could not be hauled in so it sailed off into the Indian Ocean on its own.
Now to get off! Reg had kept the engines ticking over to have control over the plane, so now with all hatches closed, with a mountain of spray and bounce we were on the take-off. Airborne one minute, dropping back onto the water to be sucked downwards the next as we hit the crests of the waves, but at last back in the air where we belonged, and heading for home. The cover Beaufighter shot up the damaged plane to set it on fire so that it would be of no use to the enemy and then they sped off home ahead of us.
Before long there were worried looking faces trying to come to terms with the facts of life and flight. We had set out with as little fuel as necessary for safety because the lightest landing on the sea would be best if that was so. Exact judgments had to be made to have enough fuel however for a return journey of nine hours. What now transpired was that a headwind not in the forecast had blown up for our return flight of 500 miles and we would be lucky to make landfall with the precious cargo we had gone out to rescue . . . . . as well as ourselves. On into the increasing darkness, skipper, navigator and engineer compared notes on our progress and fuel remaining, and we waited, ready to flash another emergency message of our own should the flow stop. Wireless silence meant that we could not discuss our dilemma with base, just wait and hope. The euphoria of the successful rescue had an ironic twist to it now. We might finish up in the sea ourselves.
As it came near to 2200 hours we knew we should be in the vicinity of Darwin. No lights of course were allowed in the city with the likelihood of returning Japanese air attacks being real. All we hoped for was to see a feeble line of flickering oil lamps on the surface of the harbor. These should be put out when our return was expected. Once again the navigational skills of F/O Baker were precise and as we peered from every vantage point in the plane, suddenly someone saw the dim little parade of lights, down there, right ahead. The fuel meters had stopped measuring, but the engineer assured us that this plane did have a bit more capacity, so down in a direct approach, Reg took A24-44. The swishing sound of a perfect landing in calm water re-assured us we had made it home. Only thing left now was to taxi to the buoy. At that moment all silence broke loose, the engines coughed a little then stopped dead. It was true: we were out of fuel. Now people started shouting to the crash boat tender to come over quickly and take us in tow before we drifted onto other planes. Finally, the sound of a strong boat pulling us to safety.
The nine and a half hour journey ended at last, we reached our mooring under tow. Now intensely relieved and euphoric, we climbed on the back of the earth-bound truck and went out to the Darwin drome for a de-briefing, a meal and some quiet thanksgiving for the double safe delivery. Quite rightly, Reg was decorated with the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and the rest of us had a cable of congratulations from the Area Officer Commanding N.W. Area, Air Vice Marshall Cole. Most of those who took part in this escapade are still around. (At time of writing.)
Reg Marr in Sydney, Dave Strahan in Melbourne, Jack Brassil in Terrigal, Kevin King in Brisbane and Dick Udy in Sydney. The propeller of the Beaufighter was taken from the wreck on 7 December, 1968 by the crew of HMAS Advance and now is mounted as a memorial on the wall of the Alice Springs RSL building.
Easter had again lived up to its name: a resurrection event.
**A24-44, PBY5, Bu.8207, delivered 20 Sqdn. 19 April 1943. To 43 Sqdn September 1943, Coded OX-K. Survived the war and sold to Kingsford Smith Air Services January 1948. (ADF Serials).