Eleven days ago, Americans commemorated the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and a few days after that anniversary, I learned of a fascinating new discovery concerning the Pearl Harbor catastrophe of Dec. 7, 1941.
This discovery relates to the Japanese bombing of six U.S. air bases on Oahu a few minutes before the main attack on Pearl Harbor at 7:48 a.m.
One of these six bases was the Kaneohe Naval Air Station (it became a USMC facility in 1952) on the far northeast side of Oahu, where 27 long-range PBY-5 “Catalina” seaplanes or “flying boats” were based. Virtually all of the PBYs, which were either on runways or moored in the waters of Kaneohe Bay, were destroyed, heavily damaged or sunk during the raid. The Japanese strike on the seaplane base was a major loss, as the patrol bombers could have shot down some of the Japanese aircraft or even chased a few of them out to sea.
A few days ago, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Hawaii released never-before-seen videos and photographic images of one of the PBYs that had been sunk.
These images were the result of a third attempt to photographically record the sunken aircraft. In 1994, Kaneohe’s murky waters blocked the first try, and a second attempt in 2008 provided only limited success.
But six months ago, with much better visibility and improved camera equipment, a team of students from the university’s Hawaii Marine Option Program returned to the underwater wreckage and successfully conducted a documentation of the entire site with coordination and historical advice provided by Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, a marine archeologist with NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries in Honolulu.
Earlier his week, I spoke by telephone with Van Tilburg, whose office is located on Ford Island near Pearl Harbor, and he told me that it is possible the crew of the PBY was killed while attempting to take off from Kaneohe Bay during the attack
The wreckage, which lies about 30 feet below the surface, was discovered approximately 100 yards from shore. The aircraft, as were several other PBYs that were moored in the bay, was attached to a heavy steel cable anchored in the seabed. A crew member always was aboard each plane to prevent non-authorized personnel from climbing aboard and to keep the aircraft from drifting away should its cable be severed or come loose, Van Tilburg said.
When I asked him how many other PBYs were moored in the bay, he stated, “We don’t know. Perhaps one, two or even six.” Questioned as to what can be seen in the just-released video and photo images, he replied:
“We can see the mooring cable that is still attached to the airplane, a starboard wing and part of the forward section of the fuselage.” Van Tilburg also said that the PBY, which had a crew of eight, could carry four 500-pound bombs or torpedoes and had a range of about 2,000 miles, may have been attached to the Navy’s VP-12 Patrol Squadron at he Kaneohe USN base.
Van Tilburg also said that here are no plans to transport the wreckage to shore for further analysis. The plane, which was constructed of aluminum, is too fragile to be disturbed and would fall apart if moved. “It will always remain in its present location,” he said.
The two-engine PBY “Catalina,” I’ve also learned, had a 100-foot wingspan, a maximum speed of about 190 miles per-hour, was armed with four machine guns, and was in the WW II inventory of all the U.S. military branches as well as those of many foreign nations. The aircraft served as a patrol bomber, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, convoy escort and provided search and rescue and transport roles. More than 3,200 PBYs were built, beginning in the late 1930s, and following the end of WW II they continued in military service until the 1980s. Some have been restored and may be found in several military and air museums.
Even today, a few remain in civilian service as transports or firefighting aircraft.
During the attack on the six U.S. air bases and Pearl Harbor, 2,333 American military personnel and about 1,000 civilians were killed, 188 aircraft destroyed and 18 warships destroyed.
Of the 15 men awarded the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism during the attack, only five survived the bombings.
One of them was 32-year-old Chief Petty Officer John Flynn, who was assigned to NAS Kaneohe Bay. Upon learning of the attack, he raced to the base from his home and manned a machine gun. Wounded several times by Japanese aircraft strafing the field, he continued firing at the approaching enemy planes until transported to a hospital.
Presented the Medal of Honor by Adm. Chester Nimitz in 1942, Flynn remained in the Navy until 1956, retiring as a lieutenant senior grade. He died at the age of 100 in 2010 at his home in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb.
Because the attack on NAS Kaneohe Bay was several minutes before the Pearl Harbor raid, Flynn is considered to be the first Medal of Honor winner of World War II.
Readers interested in viewing the video and photographic images of the sunken PBY in Kaneohe Bay may access the link http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/pby-5.