PBY Catalina International Association
1990 Volume 2, Number 3 (p.06)

I've made minor corrections. Click here to see the original Search


is going to attempt a take-off"! According to recognition information, this Martin Mariner-type seaplane had a carrying capacity of about THREE tonnes, but with at least 40 men aboard it would likely be about 1-1/2 tonnes above its max take-off weight. As it rode a swell, it was obviously given all the power available and headed into the wind quite nicely, altering direction slightly to port, perhaps to favor the damaged wing tip float and with a white foamy trail, it lifted ever so labourously aloft. Then weather/intense rain, prevented any thoughts of successful search, so proceeded to Tonga and arrived there at 1730 and secured to a buoy. A "double ender" motor-whale boat arrived from the American flying-boat facility. After discerning our needs, a sailor told them that the OinC (Officer in charge) is away, so whatever you guys want, it's yours! After the plane was refueled, the people fuel consisted of the standard "Spam and dehydrated this & that". Then the spent depth charges previously dropped randomly, to hopefully cause the sub/s to respect the PBY's presence, were replenished at the buoy from a motorised barge. This was a clever challenge by all of us, as six-foot swells and increasing winds had to be contended with! The connections of the hoist was the easiest but as tension was taken on those 250-pound depth charges, a wave would pass under the boat, slamming it up against the suspended "mass", endangering both men and boat and no! the PBY's movement was not on the same wave/s; that compounded this loading process problem. As these depth charges were being "bashed about", the thought of "how sensitive are these things?". Finally the traumatic drama was over and two depth charges were properly secured under each wing. It was dark by departure time, so the American sailors strung out some dinghy-type boats with battery lamps attached on top of about a five-foot pole in the boats; they served as a "flare-path" from which a take-off was achieved at 2210 this day. Within half an hour, the burning, torpedoed "San Juan" was sighted. The job still remained to perform search patterns for any subs with our radar and either keep it/them down, or better, "to sink this target". Again and again we would return to that "beacon" ship to commence another sector. Farmaloe became an integral part of his wireless equipment as various coded messages were being transmitted, until he notified us that a destroyer and two sub-chasers were enroute to the area. At the first light of dawn, a voice on the intercom announced that off the starboard quarters were black spots. As we headed in that direction and reducing altitude, it became obvious that the spots were men in rafts. Noting their location, altitude was gained again with the reward of following a "blip" on the radar that within 20 minutes confirmed to be the destroyer and the subchasers. The 2nd wireless operator, "Heath", set up the Aldis lamp in the "blister compartment" and signalled spotted survivors' location to them. The reply was "affirmative", then we headed back in the direction of the rafts. We approached them at 3000 feet, then noticed they were spread out in approximately a five-mile area. We flew around the perimeter, then went to the center where there were a great number of life rafts concentrated together. As this sight was being viewed, Melville spotted sharks in first one pack, then another. The first pack was estimated to consist of 25 to 30 sharks near the surface and heading toward once cluster of rafts. By this time, we were down to 500 feet and to my horror, I saw one surfaced pack frenzied in the water where two men in life jackets had been. The plane was lowered to about 100 feet and directly over one cluster of rafts with lattice bottoms and netted sides. Each raft was packed with men standing shoulder-to-shoulder in waist-high water. We all counted 20 rafts in this area and observed the men wave thanks to us, we presumed! Suddenly, the Flight Commander came on the intercom with the notice: "Air Gunner, standby with the -05s, will you? We'll give the sharks something else to occupy them". Quickly, I secured the bulkhead hatches, opened both blisters and switched on the reflector sights. The plane was banking left, so unclipping the port Browning machine gun and swinging it over the side (just the barrel, you wise guys!) breached the rounds with armor-piercing bullets, then braced myself into position as the plane was positioned in a near-vertical circular pattern. As I pressed the trigger for short bursts into the shark-pack, I was immediately pleased to see one or two stricken sharks leap out of the water, then at once be set-upon by the rest of the frenzied pack. We continued on to ten other packs with the same results. In the course of attacking these shark packs, I noticed a single man clinging to a plank or duck-board. His torso was high on the board with his feet dangling below in the water. He too offered a wave; I had an immediate emotion of empathy with this man and felt that, perhaps the preoccupation of the sharks