When Japanese warplanes swooped down on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941—a surprise attack that would draw the United States into World War II—some of the marauding planes split off and aimed their guns and bombs at the facilities of the Navy’s Patrol Wing One, nestled on the edge of Kaneohe Bay on the opposite side of Ohau from Pearl Harbor.
Patrol Wing One’s dozens of Catalina flying boat—elegant, twin-propeller machines that launched and landed on water—were the eyes of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. To ensure their own ships could escape after attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese needed to wipe out the Catalinas, also known by their official designation “PBY.”
The flying boat crews and maintainers fought hard 74 years ago on Dec. 7. No fewer than 17 Patrol Wing One seamen died and many more were wounded. And until the summer of 2015, the fate of at least one Catalina crew remained a mystery. In June, student divers from the University of Hawaii, coordinated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), closely inspected, photographed, and mapped the wreckage of a crashed Catalina for the first time.
“The new images and site plan help tell the story of a largely forgotten casualty of the attack,” Hans Van Tilburg, a NOAA archaeologist and leader of the June expedition, said in an administration statement. “The sunken PBY plane is a very important reminder of the ‘Day of Infamy.’”
The exact identity of the derelict aircraft, which is now covered in living coral some 30 feet below the surface of Kaneohe Bay, remains unknown, Van Tilburg said. But the archeologist said that it’s possible the flying boat crew of up to eight people died trying to take off in the middle of the attack. According to the Pearl Harbor-based Pacific Aviation Museum, of the 61 Catalinas on Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941, 50 were destroyed by the Japanese.
Patrol Wing One actually fired some of the first shots of the Pearl Harbor battle early on Dec. 7, when one of its Catalinas helped a Navy destroyer sink a Japanese miniature submarine trying to infiltrate the harbor. Later that morning, the wing’s crews and maintainers were caught off-guard by the follow-on aerial assault.
“All attacks were directed at the planes on the ground, in the water and at the hangar,” Knefler McGinnis, the wing commander, wrote in his official statement following the raid. “There was some strafing of cars and quarters incident to the main attack. The first attack set on fire all planes on the water and some of those on the beach. The second attack hit additional planes, setting them on fire.”
“At the very beginning of the first attack there was immediate action on the part of the personnel to get machine guns in action against the attacking planes,” McGinnis added. “This was done before the completion of the first attack and on the first attack at least two enemy planes had their gas tanks punctured. Immediate action was taken to save the planes no then on fire and those not too far gone. Personnel attempting this were severely strafed. During both of the above attacks, personnel were strafed on the road in automobiles attempting to get to the hangar area.”
It’s not clear at what point, and under what conditions, the crew of the recently photographed Catalina tried to take off. But the aviators’ courage is indisputable. “The conduct of all the personnel was magnificent,” McGinnis concluded in his report.
Divers have known about the Kaneohe PBY flying boat since at least 1994, when murky water prevented a University of Hawaii team from photographing the wreck. Fourteen years later, another group of divers tried to document the crash site but had “limited success,” according to the NOAA.
In any event, the federal Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004 prohibits unauthorized disturbance of derelict military vessels or planes in U.S. waters. The NOAA’s assistance made the student divers’ exploration possible, Cynthia Hunter, director of the University of Hawaii’s marine program, said in the administration statement. “Partnerships like this provide a means by which forgotten history is remembered, and stories like those of the PBY fleet can be shared with new generations.”
We might not know which of Patrol Wing One’s sailors died in the Kaneohe flying boat, but thanks to the haunting and beautiful new photos, we can at least commemorate their sacrifice 74 years ago.