Consolidated PBY-5A / 6A "Catalina"
The United States Coast Guard first commissioned the Consolidated Catalina flying-boat in March 1941, and, by the end of the war, was still operating 114 Catalinas. Capable of carrying an airborne lifeboat under one wing, a majority of the Catalinas operated air/sea rescue until phasing out of use in 1954. The Consolidated Model 28, designated XP3Y-1, became the most famous and most produced flying boat over the ten years it was built. Several features made the Consolidated Model 28 distinctive. It had a parasol mounted wing with two small supporting members. It also used retractable stabilizing floats, which folded upwards to add to the aerodynamics of the wings. The model could mount several .30 machine guns and up to 2000 lbs of bombs.
On 22 November 1939, six years after the initial prototype, the first amphibious version of the Catalina design flew. The XPBY-5A had a retractable tricycle undercarriage offering so much versatility that the Navy had the remaining thirty-three built to the same standard. In 1940 an additional 134 PBY-5As were ordered and by December 1941, the Catalina was the principal patrol bomber flying-boat.
The outset of WWII saw additional contracts placed with Consolidated, including 782 PBY-5As, constructed in New Orleans and several factories in Canada. Another product from New Orleans was the PBY-6A, an improvement upon previous versions with increased fuel capacity and search radar in a radome above the cockpit and amphibious undercarriage. The U.S. Navy received 112 PBY-6As while the US Army Air Force got seventy-five.
On 5 October 1943, the US Navy established Patrol Squadron Six (VP-6 CG) home based at Narsarssuak, Greenland, code name Bluie West One (BW-1) as an all-Coast Guard unit. Thirty officers and 145 enlisted men were assigned to the squadron under the command of Donald B MacDiarmid, USCG. The hostile environment of the North Atlantic provided an elaborate mission for the VP-6: anti-submarine patrol, air support for convoys, search and rescue, condition survey and reporting, and mail/medical supply delivery. Although they had many responsibilities, the high number of convoy sinkings made rescue duties an elevated priority for the squadron.
As more Catalina aircraft became available, more units were established at more locations including Reykjavik, Iceland, the Canadian Arctic, and Newfoundland. In addition to the North Atlantic patrols, the status of Coast Guard aircraft in 1944 showed the PBY-5As stationed in North Carolina, Washington, Florida, Massachusetts, and California.
On 5 January 1944, a USCG PBY-5A from VP-6 directed the rescue party for an Air Force Beechcraft AT-7 wrecked on the edge of the Sukkertoppen Ice Cap. In May of 1944, Commander William I Swanston, USCG relieved Commander MacDiarmid as commanding officer of VP-6. That busy summer, the squadron became responsible for expanded ASW operations in the Arctic to protect ships transporting cryolite for US aircraft production. The North Atlantic U-boat activity stopped at the end of the war in 1945, and administration of the VPB-6 was transferred to Commandant U.S. Coast Guard and remained an active non-combat squadron. In August 1945 the VPB-6 received a directive to transfer its headquarters to the Navy facility in Newfoundland where it was disestablished as a Navy squadron in January of 1946.
In 1941 the Coast Guard started an air station in Kodiak, Alaska. It was established with one PBY-5A along with seven pilots and thirty enlisted men. The Coast Guard also purchased and modified the PBY V189 from the Navy for the purpose of aerial mapping. The aircraft and crew were based at Kodiak and Dutch Harbor and were assigned the mission of aerial photographing the Gulf of Mexico, the east coast of Florida, and up the coast to Maine.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the PBY V189 was transferred to a Navy Patrol Squadron operating out of Alameda, California with a duty involving patrolling to a distance of 800 miles off-shore in search of Japanese submarines or surface vessels. In 1942, the PBY V189 was assigned to complete the mapping of the Alaskan Peninsula. While mapping in Alaska, George Olson and Fran Isaccson were lost in a crash of a PBY-5A on Adak Island. Two men survived and were saved by a quick acting Army patrol unit.
In 1943, the “Queen Bee” as its crews endearingly called the PBY V189, was ordered to Alaska to aid in the highly classified operation of installing the LORAN system, an aid for navigation. In addition to mapping, assisting with the LORAN system, and mail delivery, SAR operations were a major part of the PBY V189 missions. In 1944, the PBY V189 was assigned to the South Pacific. Here, they established the LORAN service in the Pacific war area.
In total, the PBY-5A saw wartime service with the United States Coast Guard from 1942 to 1945 by which time 114 were in service. In 1945 six improved PBY-6A models were acquired. In total, eight PBYs crashed while the remainders were returned to the Navy except for 19, which went to Mutual Defense Assistance, and one to the Air Force.
Researched & written by Sami K. Seeb, Intern, U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office.