Into the South China Sea

1-hour film documentary by Robert Cockburn.

Into the South China Sea (aka The Plane that saved Australia) reveals the incredible lost history of Australia’s WWII RAAF Catalina flying boat crews and their secret missions for America's legendary General Douglas MacArthur. Their mission was to stop Japan. And they did it in antique aeroplanes saved from the scrapyard and going slower than a family car. 

Tragic, comic, subversive, the last surviving RAAF Catalina airmen tell how they succeeded against all odds on dangerous and improvised missions to stop the Japanese Navy on flights up to 24 hours all the way to China - only to be forgotten in an ocean of official files.

Version One of Into the South China Sea is a private film made for RAAF WWII Catalina flying boat airmen, their families and supporters. It is not perfect.

Eighty years before today’s Superpower arguments over the South China Sea, America sent an appeal to Australia. In the darkest days of WWII General MacArthur was desperate for airmen – to fly a job no one wanted in an aeroplane no one wanted.

His outrageous top-secret plan was lay mines right inside Japanese-held ports using Catalinas on 24-hour missions all the way to China. Nicknamed ‘MacArthur’s Navy’, the unsuspecting RAAF airmen were suddenly flying for the US Navy 7th Fleet - ordinary Aussies who somehow achieved the impossible.

We discover their lost wartime documents in a detective story that restores their incredible history. Some now say the men did more to stop Japan in their antique flying boats than the Atomic Bomb.

Into the South China Sea is a highly original mix of observational documentary and investigative journalism - told by veterans and families who match memories with wartime documents with startling results, including General MacArthur's appeal to Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, for Aussie airmen.

Yet the Catalina crews' achievements were all forgotten after the war. Men like Cyril Payne, above, in the flying boat's blister window in 1942, and below back in his old seat decades later.  

 ‘They got more recognition from the Japanese,’ says Bob Cleworth, who campaigns with flying boat veterans for recognition. ‘They saved Australia,’ says WWII Australian intelligence officer Philip Dulhunty as he tries to get a Catalina to fly again from Sydney’s Bankstown Airport to publicise their wartime success. The RAAF Catalina veterans are truly Australia’s “Few”.

Into the South China Sea Copyright Robert Cockburn 2022