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The Cat’s New Colours – The Background Story

By David Legg (updated August 2011)

After its arrival in the UK from British Columbia in the early-Spring of 2004, our Catalina, then still registered in Canada as C-FNJF, continued to fly in its yellow, red and green livery.

These colours had been applied some years ago by the Province of Saskatchewan who had operated it, and two other Catalinas, in the water bombing role, fighting forest fires. Although it was intended to repaint the aircraft in a wartime scheme, there was no opportunity to accomplish this during 2004 as it was too busy flying at air shows! The unusual colours were, however, the subject of much interest to air display visitors and a few even hoped it might remain in those colours. However, the owners had different ideas!

Our Catalina in the 8th Air Force Colours of 44-33915 landing at Rougham in the Summer of 2005. Photo: John Allan.

Our Catalina in the 8th Air Force Colours of 44-33915 landing at Rougham in the Summer of 2005. Photo: John Allan.

Most air show organisers prefer ex-military aircraft, or ‘warbirds’, to be painted in a military scheme and there are few around that have operated in commercial schemes. So, in order to gain bookings, Plane Sailing needed a distinctive livery. Our previous Catalina had operated in two military schemes, the first representing 210 Squadron’s JV928/Y in which Flt Lt John Cruickshank earned his Victoria Cross and the second a Canadian Canso A. The latter aircraft commemorated Canso A 9754/P of 162 (BR) Squadron, RCAF, the aircraft involved in the action following which Flt Lt David Hornell was also awarded the Victoria Cross, although, sadly, his award was posthumous. The reason for choosing the latter scheme was that it was white overall which suited the operational requirements for our Catalina. Being basically white, it could be adapted to carry sponsors logos or liveries if the need arose and these could then be temporarily sprayed over with white paint, removable when required. This flexibility served Plane Sailing well when operating its first Catalina in the 1980s and 1990s and became a logical step forward for our new aircraft, by now registered G-PBYA. But which scheme to use?

Initially, it was thought that G-PBYA would be painted as Hornell’s aircraft, like our previous ‘Super Cat’ but this may have caused some confusion. Firstly, our old aircraft is still extant at Lee-on-the Solent, albeit dismantled and nowhere near flight, and some people may have thought it was airworthy again in the same colour scheme as before. Secondly, since the accident that befell our old aircraft, the Canadian Warplane Heritage have re-painted their own airworthy former RCAF Canso A as Hornell’s aircraft and it was felt that having two Cats flying in the same colours, even if on opposite sides of the Atlantic, would be confusing.

So, the search was on for another overall white livery and your Editor did some digging with surprising results. Having hit on an idea, I consulted with Ragnar Ragnarsson who was able to provide not only a photograph of the original aircraft but a copy of the incident report that described its demise. Ragnar had originally received these from Billy DeMoss whose stepfather is John V. Lapenas, Jr., the son of J.V. Lapenas whose role in this story will become evident. Add to that the fact that the featured aircraft had an East Anglian connection and was white all over and it did not take too much lobbying to persuade Paul Warren Wilson to give the idea his blessing! So, in early-June, G-PBYA was transformed into a United States Army Air Force OA-10A Catalina, serial 44-33915, as operated by the 5th ERS (Emergency Rescue Squadron), 8th Air Force from Halesworth in Suffolk in early-1945!

The original 44-33915 was built by Canadian Vickers at Cartierville, Quebec with the construction number CV-400 and the designation OA-10A-VI, the VI suffix denoting that it was built by Vickers as opposed to earlier USAAF machines built by Consolidated that had the designation OA-10A-CO. In due course, this Catalina found its way to the United Kingdom where it joined the 5th ERS at Halesworth.

The background to the USAAF operating Catalina amphibians in the UK was as follows. The USAAF had used Catalinas for air-sea-rescue work in the Mediterranean but had relied on RAF aircraft to rescue downed airmen around the UK’s east coast. However, the Americans wanted to use their own aircraft in the North Sea and so, in August, 1944 General Spaatz requested that Catalinas be provided for the 8th Air Force. Some delay ensued but, eventually, six OA-10As were ordered to the UK under Special Order 223 dated December 9th, 1944 from the US Army Air Force HQ at Keesler Field, Mississippi. The Catalinas were delivered by the South Atlantic route from Keesler AFB, Biloxi, MS through Morrison Field, West Palm Beach, Florida and on via Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Dutch Guinea, Belem and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Ascension Island, Roberts Field in Liberia, Dakar, Marrakech and an unknown airfield in Cornwall with the first four arriving at Bovingdon on January 17th, 1945. Two further aircraft were delivered a few days later. The six were serialled 44-33915 to 44-33917, 44-33920, 44-33922 and 44-33923. After being evaluated, all six Catalinas were flown to Halesworth where they were to be based for their ASR work. However, before they could enter operational service, they had to be modified and this work was carried out at Neaton in Norfolk. The Canadian radio equipment was removed and replaced with SCR-274N Command and SCR-287 Liaison radios, and SCR-269 radio compasses and AN/AIC-2 interphone equipment were substituted for the original fittings. In addition, the SCR-521 radar was removed and replaced by AN/APS-3 sea search radar and SCR-729 Rebecca equipment. The driftmeter and all armour plating was stripped out, the flooring around the blisters was modified to ease access for rescued airmen and some hull glazing adjacent to the navigator’s position was plated over to prevent glare. Stewart-Warner heaters were installed to make rescued crews more comfortable once inside the Catalinas and some modifications were carried out to the bomb aimer’s position, sea anchor and control locks. All of these modifications inevitably led to a delay in the six Catalinas entering service and operational flights did not commence until the end of March 1945.

In due course, further OA-10As were received at Halesworth in the form of 44-33987, 44-33991, 44-33995, 44-34003, 44-34005, 44-34013, 44-34017, 44-34028 and 44-34067. Another OA-10A that may have operated with the 5th ERS was 44-33913.

The 5th ERS had previously operated from Boxted as the Air Sea Rescue Squadron, 65th Fighter Wing, Detachment B having been formed in May 1944 with a complement of war-weary P-47D Thunderbolts equipped with dinghy packs and sea-marker equipment. At the beginning of 1945, the squadron had been re-named the 5th ERS and moved to Halesworth where it continued to fly P-47s in addition to its new Catalinas and B-17s. So it was that 44-33915 was operating over the North Sea on March 30th, 1945 on a mission that was to prove its last and which, sixty years later, was to be commemorated by our own airworthy Catalina!

A rare photo of the original OA-10A Catalina 44-33915

A rare photo of the original OA-10A Catalina 44-33915

As mentioned earlier, our Society member Ragnar Ragnarsson had already carried out some research and had a copy of the Air Sea Rescue Mission Report for the events that were to end in the demise of 44-33915 and he happily supplied a copy when he discovered that, coincidentally, I was also researching the same event! The report is reproduced in full below.

It is dated April 10th, 1945 and was compiled for the Headquarters, 5th Emergency Rescue Squadron by the captain of 44-33915, 2nd Lt John V Lapenas. His aircraft’s callsign for the mission was Teamwork 75. The type of mission was quoted as Patrol, Search and Rescue Attempt, the dates covered as 30th March to 5th April, the time mission start as 12.25, the position 53-31N, 06-12E, the conditions hazy and the number of other aircraft involved 2, possibly 3. The report continues as follows:

“March 30th: Took off at 1225 and proceeded to patrol area ‘B’ for Baker. In position at 1245 and notified Colgate. At 1430, was instructed by Colgate to proceed to position 53-27N, 03-46E where Teamwork 71 was down and in trouble (Teamwork 71 was another 5th ERS OA-10A Catalina, serial 44-33917 – Ed.). Over Teamwork 71 at 1500 and started circling; a Warwick was already circling Teamwork 71. Attempted to find out his trouble by V/X and R/T and W/T with nil results. Teamwork 71 instructed us to ‘stay up’ by V/S. No attempt was made to land due to high seas. At approx 1700, Colgate relay informed us that fighter escort (P-51s) of two ships will rendezvous at our position over Teamwork 71 to escort us to fighter pilot in dinghy at 53-31N, 06-12E which was approx 3 to 5 miles off the Dutch Island of Schiermonnikoog. At approximately 1800, Teamwork 74 arrived to relieve me. At approx 1825 my escort of two P-51s arrived and we proceeded for the aforementioned position. Arrived over the area at 1855. It was getting dark, vis was very poor and did not sight dinghy until flares were sighted. Sighted and lost dinghy twice in process of getting ready for landing. Landed at 1905 in a sea of approx six feet. Man in dinghy was sighted approx 100 feet of starboard side and to the rear. Attempted to turn around but discovered my starboard engine was dead. Further inspection showed that the oil was pouring out. Sea anchor was put out to facilitate turning but the wind was strong and we kept weather cocking into it. Attempted to drift back to dinghy but darkness had settled and we lost sight of him. An inspection was made of the ‘ship’ and the findings were six rivets out in the navigator’s compartment. After landing on the water the engineer noticed an immediate drop in oil pressure on the starboard engine and the oil pouring out. Soon after the engine froze. He was unable to contact me due to my conversation with the P-51s on VHF. Immediately on finding my engine out I notified my escorts to tell Colgate I was in trouble and unable to take off. Radioman sent out an SOS on the W/T and tried to destroy radio equipment in event of capture. Started left engine and taxied for 1 ½ hours on a heading of 320 degrees to get further away from the shore. Kept radio silence throughout the night. Sea calmed down some but around 0300 it picked up again. All members of crew got sea sick except pilot. Diagnosis of engine was that one of the main oil lines had burst and the oil had leaked out completely. Hull was sound except for small leak in the navigator’s compartment.

March 31st: At 0750, sighted two Warwicks and 3 P-51s and fired red flares. VHF contact was made with fighters but receiver went out shortly (after) and was only able to transmit. At 0900 lifeboat was dropped. The drop was excellent. Attempted to bring the lifeboat alongside ‘ship’ but sea was rough and the lines kept breaking in our attempt to get it alongside the plane. The lifeboat began to break up due to contact with our plane. Radio started working again. NOTE: at approx 1150, a P-51 aircraft notified us in the clear that we would be without cover for approximately ten minutes. In eight minutes, they were back and notified me. At 1200 hours, two ME210s (sic) came out of the sun at approx 500 feet and strafed our plane, making two passes. The tail was completely shot off, the port float practically shot away and the port wing damaged. Numerous holes were in the plane and it started to leak profusely and settle in the water. The left float gave way and the plane listed to port. The co-pilot claimed he saw a Me109. No one was injured in the strafing. We proceeded to abandon ship taking with us all emergency equipment and supplies possible.

This amazing photo, although of poor quality. Note the badly damaged tail.

This amazing photo, although of poor quality. Note the badly damaged tail.

I think Society members will agree that there are more than adequate reasons for painting our Catalina as 44-33915

David Legg

Left ship at 1225 in three dinghies, two men in each, dinghies tied together. At 1350, a lifeboat was dropped by a Warwick. It landed a long way off. Took message out of lifeboat before leaving and it read steer 264 degrees, 130 miles. It also gave co-ordinates of our position. At 1750, sighted one of our B-17s with lifeboat. The ‘boat was dropped at 1750, the line shooting out directly over our heads and landing between the dinghies. We kept shooting flares while the B-17 was on the run so that he could line up with us. All aboard the lifeboat at approx 1805 and underway at 1820 steering a course of 270 degrees. The Warwick stayed with us for an hour. We estimated our distance as about eight miles from shore and a tower could be seen. The enemy fired flak at the planes helping us during the afternoon. The sea was getting very rough and the swells were about ten feet high when we got under way. The pilot got sick immediately after.

The crew of 44-33915 sit it out in their dinghies and await their eventual rescue

The crew of 44-33915 sit it out in their dinghies and await their eventual rescue

April 1st: We were steering 240 degrees. The weather was terrible. Estimated wind was 40 knots with very low ceiling and rain. The sea was running very high and I estimated the waves at 20 to 25 feet high. No aircraft were sighted. We fired a couple of flares just as a possibility. Position unknown, estimated headway at 2 knots per hour.

April 2nd: The weather continued the same throughout Sunday and so did the sea. Everyone and everything was soaking wet and it was impossible to keep dry. It was bitter cold and some of the men started to worry about their feet. They were numb. The ‘tour’ at steering was one hour on and five hours off. There were no more cases of seasickness. At approx 0600 Monday morning, the engines stopped. Repeated attempts to start them brought nil results and we started to drift. An exceptionally large wave half tipped the boat over and tossed the co-pilot and radioman into the North Sea. My co-pilot swam back but the radioman had to be hauled back in. He was attempting to get the Gibson Girl (emergency transmitter – Ed.) rigged up at the time and it was strapped to his knees. The kite had broken due to the strong wind. The centre board also snapped off. The sea started to calm down after 1200. At approx 1800, we sighted two Warwicks and three P-51s three miles north of us. Fired flares but they did not see them.

April 3rd: The sea calmed down considerably during the night. Set up the Gibson Girl with kite, sent signals at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour. At 1050, we sighted two Warwicks with fighter escort and fired flares. They spotted us. Left the kite up to be used as a target for the planes. The Warwicks kept sending V/S. Very difficult to make out due to parts of the plane blocking out letters. The Warwicks dropped two more boats during the day along with Lindholme gear and gasoline containers with flares. Lifeboats dropped a long way off. We were all too weak to attempt to row to them. Managed to get the Lindholmes and two containers of gasoline. Attempted to start engines again with new gas but with no results. Salt water had leaked into the gas we already had in the tanks the day before. There were no messages tied to the Lindholmes. Position still unknown. We were all weak from pulling in the supplies. A plane stayed overhead after dark and dropped a couple of flares. Kept blinking lights when plane was overhead with flashlights.

April 4th: At approx 0745, sighted two RMLs and fired flares. Were aboard RML (Rescue Motor Launch) #498 shortly after. Reached St (sic) Yarmouth March 5th at approx 1015.

Suggestions: Messages to be tied to Lindholmes. They are easy to get. V/S is very difficult. The lifeboat (American) is excellent and can take terrific punishment. Suggest they be painted yellow on top. Bilge pump be moved to another position or angle for easier pumping. Water-tight sleeping bags be included in lifeboat equipment – preferably the ‘suit’ type. Detailed message should be in the boat and standard signals of some kind be arranged so that some contact can be made with planes.”

In addition to the most interesting mission report reproduced above, the following information has also come to light. The two Me262s (not Me210s as mentioned in the report) that attacked 44-33915 were flown by Lt. Hans-Dieter ‘Haddi’ Weiss and his wingman, probably Oblt. Hans Grunberg, both of the I./JG7 based at Wittmundshafen, some 30 miles south-east of the OA-10A’s position. Lt Meyers, the P-51 Mustang pilot that the crew of 44-33915 had set out to rescue, was washed ashore and taken PoW by the Germans. The Catalina’s captain, John V Lapenas, passed away ten years or so ago and some of the photographs that accompany this article were obtained from his grandson. Ironically, 44-33915 was not John Lapenas’s regular aircraft. He normally flew on 44-33923 whilst 44-33915 was the normal mount of 1/Lt. William C Thatcher and his crew.

The other crew members on board 44-33915 on the day it went down were 2nd Lt Theodore J Langan, 2nd Lt Charles V Buffington, Sgt James A McMullin Jr, Cpl William F Dotson and Cpl Daniel Hochstatter.

Reference to Roger A Freeman’s book Mighty Eighth War Diary provides further information on the events of the March 30th and 31st, 1945. On March 30th, the 5th ERS despatched twelve P-47 Thunderbolts and three OA-10A Catalinas over the North Sea on rescue missions and patrols. Specific reference is made to one OA-10A (this being 44-33917) being lost when unable to take off after rescue of bomber crewmen and being taken under tow by launch and later sinking. The reference to towing is disputed by Bill Harrington as mentioned below. The entry for March 31st says that the 5th ERS despatched twenty-five P-47s, two OA-10A Catalinas and one B-17 on ASR patrols and SAR flights. One OA-10A (44-33915) was strafed by Me262 while on sea and eventually sank.

Some time ago, the PBY Catalina International Association newsletter also included some information on the attempts to rescue the crew of 44-33915 (although it incorrectly speculated that the aircraft involved was 44-33923). The notes were provided by PBYCIA members Donald Hicks and Francis Glasser, both formerly belonging to the 5th ERS.

“On Friday, March 30th, 1945 a Catalina was disabled in rough water in the North Sea whilst trying to rescue a bailed-out P-51 pilot. Bringing their Catalina down within range of German shore batteries, the airmen were unable to reach the Mustang pilot because of a severed oil line which prevented taxiing in swelling waters. Several Mustangs flew cover while another (Major Robert W Foy of California) flew back to England for help. On Saturday, March 31st, the Catalina was being strafed by enemy jet planes until returning P-51s drove them off. The Catalina crew left their sinking plane, lashed their dinghies together and awaited aid from others.” USAAF Captain Dabarn subsequently reported that an airborne lifeboat had been rigged up to be suspended beneath a B-17 Flying Fortress at Halesworth for inspection by Generals Doolittle and Spaatz. “The Generals had not left us for more than five minutes when we got a call that six men were down in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark (sic). We immediately went to work like fiends, cutting holes in the bomb-bay doors for the support cables, fuelling the boat’s tanks, deflating the self-righting chambers etc. In a little more than an hour, we were on our way to the call site. I noticed as we were over the North Sea six pursuit planes serving as our escort and protection from Germans sent out possibly to interfere with our mission. Two hours later, we spotted the men in a raft. Here was a 35 mph wind blowing with white caps all over the area. It’s hard to describe how helpless and pathetic they were under those circumstances. Their raft was bobbing like a cork in those rough seas and the temperature was about 40 degrees F. We made one dry run after dropping smoke flares then, at 1,200 ft, dropped the boat. The ‘chutes opened and in a few seconds the boat was in the water about 100 ft from them. In a couple of minutes the men were in the boat and within 12 minutes from the time we had dropped it, they had it under way. They got in the boat a few minutes before six that evening. By the time we got back to the ‘field storm warning gales went up the coast. A torpedo boat sent out to retrieve the men reported winds of 60 mph with sea waves over 20 ft high which, reportedly, was the worst North Sea storm of the year.”

Contemporary newspaper reports state: “..while RAF and American planes circled the six men in day and night vigil, another flying boat and several small launches tried to reach them but mountainous waves prevented rescue. On Tuesday, April 3rd, the party was sighted by planes and food and water were dropped. The next day, British Navy launches picked up the exhausted airmen and, on Thursday, April 5th, they were landed and taken to hospital where they were treated for frostbite and exposure and given time to recover.” Captain Pete Dabarn stated; “I met them at ‘Yarmouth when the boat got in. They had nothing but praise for the boat. The tethering rocket lines had gone right to the boat. They got both engines going in about six pulls on the starter rope. As the storm came up they headed right into it with both engines at full throttle and as they rode over each wave the engines raced as the stern lifted out of the water. Both engines ran for 32 hours without stopping until both fuel tanks were empty. One inlet line broke soon after starting, possibly due to poor welding, but one of the men had the presence of mind to plug the line so the engines were not flooded.

When they ran out of fuel the boat swung abeam to the seas before they could get the sea anchor out. A tremendous wave hit the boat, throwing three men into the water, snapping off the centreboard completely and flooding the boat until nothing but the self-righting chambers and one gunwhale were above water. One of the men still in the boat threw a toss-line to the men in the water, demonstrating good head work considering the conditions they were struggling under. The three men got back aboard, the sea anchor was deployed, the boat baled out and the Gibson Girl radio homing device put into operation. As the wind conditions permitted, the antennae kite for the radio was flown. Thirty hours later, a torpedo boat reached them. Four of the men had to be bodily lifted out of the lifeboat into the rescue boat. Since the sea was so rough, the lifeboat could not be taken in tow so it was shot full of holes and sunk. It was a Higgins Airborne Lifeboat No.25. When the rescued Catalina crew got ashore, they told Captain Dabarn the whole story including how the first British lifeboat to be dropped was swamped by heavy seas, the parachute did not open for the second, the parachute release did not work on the third resulting in the boat being dragged until it capsized whilst the fourth was smashed and sank on landing.”

The successful lifeboat drop from the 5th ERS B-17 was the first operational use of the Higgins Airborne Lifeboat in the UK or, indeed, overseas.

At the beginning of the official account quoted above, it is stated that 44-33915 and crew were circling above another 5th ERS OA-10A Catalina 44-33917 when they were called away to search for Mustang pilot Meyers. The two Catalinas have occasionally been mixed up but the above report proves that it was ‘915 that was lost on March 31st to the guns of the Me262s. 44-33917 was being flown by Captain Hicks and co-pilot Bill Harrington on March 30th although, again, this was not their normal plane but one assigned to Captain Peterson. On that day, ‘917 was landed on a rough sea to rescue a B-24 crew from the 491st Bomber Group but the landing was so rough that the bottom of the hull was damaged and began to take on water. The navigator and co-pilot bailed out sea water for several hours and, at about 23:00 hours, they were hailed by a British rescue launch. The Catalina crew and two of the rescued B-24 crew were transferred to the launch. The launch’s captain declared that he was unable to take the Catalina on tow and, after conferring with Bill Harrington, instructions were given to another launch to open fire on the aircraft and sink it as it was already badly damaged and still taking on water.

I think Society members will agree that the above story is more than adequate reason for painting our Catalina as 44-33915. It pays tribute to a unit that carried on vital, mainly unsung, work rescuing downed airmen and a crew that ultimately had to be rescued themselves as the result of enemy action. What is more, the events described involved an aircraft relatively local to our base at Duxford and are commemorated on Duxford’s glass memorial to the 8th Air Force at the American Air Museum as indeed is the loss of 44-33917 on the day before.

The loss of OA-10A Catalinas 44-33915 and 44-33917 is commemorated on Duxford's incredible Counting the Cost memorial Photo: David Legg

The loss of OA-10A Catalinas 44-33915 and 44-33917 is commemorated on Duxford’s incredible Counting the Cost memorial Photo: David Legg

Acknowledgements are due to Ragnar Ragnarsson, Billy DeMoss, the PBYCIA Newsletter and the books of the late Roger Freeman.