Into the South China Sea DRAFT

Into the South China Sea

Copyright Robert Cockburn 2022

Eighty years ago, facing their greatest wartime peril, Australia and America created a secret air force to stop Japan. Unlike today, there was no time then to wait 30 years for new nuclear submarines as tensions rise in the South China Sea. Instead, antique flying boats were saved from the scrapyard and given to a group of Aussie airmen for an astonishing mission. They changed the course of WWII… and somehow were forgotten.

‘If this could be made to fly again, I’d break up and cry,’ Philip said. Philip Dulhunty was working in the searing sun on a 1940s Catalina flying boat in a corner of Sydney’s Bankstown Airport. ‘The Catalina was the plane that saved Australia from the Japanese in the war. But nobody knows because it was all top secret.’

With it, Philip and friends were also trying to restore the lost history of WWII RAAF Catalina crews called the Black Cats. Still virtually unknown to the public, these are the men who flew in secret for America’s legendary General Douglas MacArthur in planes painted black for nightly missions. Missions so secret, their wartime flights that stopped one third of Japanese naval and merchant ships, were buried and forgotten in official files despite their astonishing successes.

Why the secrecy? Why use antique flying boats? And where were the men who did it?

Stories of 24-hour flights as far as China in slow old flying boats saved from the scrapyard were ridiculed by doubters. But, Philip, a WWII veteran with irrepressible humour and enthusiasm, was undeterred.

Catalina Flying Memorial

‘Australian Catalinas were outstanding amongst all the other Catalinas,’ he said, ‘They flew the longest distances, did the most difficult jobs, had the most terrible weather, mountainous terrain to get around. And it’s never really been told - the way the Spitfire saved Britain.

‘We’re going to get this plane to fly again to tell everyone what these Catalina boys really did.’

This is the Catalina Flying Memorial club. Worn by 75 years of a working life, their PBY 6 Catalina, VH-CAT, was being used as a fire-fighting water bomber when Philip and Neville Kennard found it in Portugal. Half boat, half plane, the magical Art Deco craft is a survivor from a past age: its great curved blister windows for wartime guns were gone. But it was otherwise original, with nautical mooring cleats intact along its beautifully sculpted hull.

In the cockpit, Philip slid back the pilot’s window. ‘This is the window so you can wave to all the girls.’ The instruments and controls are factory originals. ‘It is hard to steer on water because its two engines are so close together.’

‘It’s a very charismatic aircraft, an ugly duckling,’ Neville said, ‘It’s slow, it’s got many, many drawbacks, but it’s got character.’

Something else drives Philip: ‘I was in New Guinea during the war. I was one of the ones saved by the Catalinas.’ An infantryman and anti-aircraft gunner, Philip learnt Japanese and served in Australian army intelligence, working with Catalinas. He was posted to Hiroshima shortly after the atomic bomb was dropped, obliterating the city. He was 22.

Rathmines WWII Catalina base
[l to r]: Noel Lyons, Rob Cockburn, Bob Cleworth, Dick Ud

Philip Delhunty in Hiroshima

From the cover of his novel: Never a Dull Moment

The Bankstown Cat became a catalyst for investigation and historic change. I was asked to make a short video about the men about their Cat. It turned into our one-hour film Into the South China Sea, link:


That day they were attaching the newly restored starboard wingtip float. Volunteers included Len Linfoot, Bill Anderson, Malcolm Burns, Patrick O’Hara, Dave Sieber, Roger Matthysen, Colin Cool, Spencer Ferrier, John Goldsbrough, whose father Stanford flew on Cats. And Bob Cleworth, a retired Sydney lawyer, joined to pursue his own mission. In 1944, Bob’s brother Reg was lost in mysterious circumstances on a RAAF Catalina mission to China. Bob’s efforts to end the secrecy would open up the lost official Black Cat history the men had lived.


In 1942, in the darkest days of WWII, Australia faced its greatest threat. After Singapore and the Philippines fell, Japanese forces swept south to Australia, the last southern outpost. Around a third of Allied aircraft and airfields were destroyed.

‘The Japanese bombed all the airports in Guinea then in Australia, Darwin and Broome. So, we had to have flying boats,’ Philip explained.

The Catalina was slower than most planes of WW I. Already written off as obsolete, the recalled flying boat was mocked in US Navy newsreels: ‘What is this Super Plane? An aerial antique. Her speed less than some cars can do.’


Yet, during the war it is officially estimated that the RAAF Cats stopped one third of Japanese naval and supply ships from ever reaching the front line – which records state made them ‘100 times more effective’ than fast land-based bombers for the job. Only now the records are coming to light after years of campaigning by Catalina airmen, family and friends. Citizen history.


How in Aussie hands did the Cat become a war-winner? It is now asked if the crews of these old flying boats did more to stop Japan than the atomic bombs.

The Catalinas were mocked for the very qualities that made them perfect for MacArthur’s outrageous plan: to starve Japanese forces of supplies across the South Asia/Pacific region by mining all of its major ports right up to China. Weapons, munitions and supplies would be stopped before putting to sea.

It was the brainchild of Australian Navy LCDR Palgrave ‘Pally’ Carr, who served with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, then the RAAF.


Until then, American bombers scattered mines from 1,500 up to 10,000 feet, with no record of co-ordinates, a hazard for when the Allies retook these locations later. MacArthur wanted mines placed and recorded with pin-point precision inside Japanese-held ports. Aircraft would fly deep into enemy territory, low, slow, at night, under fire - and without the Japanese realising they were mining. The highest flying and navigation skills were demanded for up to 24-hour missions. Approach was at 200 feet. We later found mission orders to go in at just 10 foot.

No U.S. air commanders would cooperate. Ultimately, it fell to RAAF Catalinas to do a job no one wanted in a plane no one had wanted. It was the most fortunate outcome.

The Black Cats flew for MacArthur under the US Navy 7th Fleet of Admiral Nimitz. It was a US/Australian coalition. The RAAF were called ‘MacArthur’s Navy’.


Built of metal, wood and canvas, the first Consolidated Aircraft Corporation PBY Catalina flew in 1935. Between 1936-45, over 2,800 of the long-range patrol aircraft were made in across the US from Buffalo, New York to San Diego, California, and more in Canada and Russia.

Designer Isaac Machlin Laddon gave his Cat a unique ‘parasol wing’, not mounted directly to the fuselage: this was instead suspended from the wing by struts. Fuselage and wing were joined by a pylon that housed the engineer between the two engines. The 100-foot wing was covered in canvas as one giant fuel tank. This gave its range and endurance to stay aloft for over 24 hours. Built as a short-term stop-gap, the Catalina’s brilliant design made highly versatile, had great longevity and today, legendary status.

Its crews always knew that.


I found some of the last surviving RAAF Black Cat airmen on the shores of Lake Macquarie north of Sydney, at their old Rathmines wartime HQ. It was ANZAC Day when Australian and New Zealand veterans gather to remember. [Old and new portraits]

[Old and new portraits]

‘Did we like it? Doug Nolan laughed, a Black Cat navigator, ‘We worshipped it! We started off at 95 knots and by the time we were going home after 22 hours, going like a bat out of hell doing 105! I had 1,500 hours in Catalinas. Lovely. Such a reliable aircraft. I only had one engine failure.’ He later flew Qantas Boeing 707s.

Doug was with the Rev Dick Udy and Noel ‘Tiger’ Lyon. ‘One good feature was a little electric stove,’ Noel said, ‘We carried a couple of meals for each us on the mission.’

Dick, a Cornishman, said: ‘If I hear any engines from DC2s or DC3s, I rush out to see if it’s a Catalina. Pratt & Whitneys. Very addictive. There were ten in the crew and there was a really strong feeling of togetherness.’

The three men suddenly linked shoulders, laughing. They could have been 20 years old again.

‘The Japanese at the end of the War admitted that one third of the Japanese maritime fleet was constrained because of the deep-sea mining we did,’ Dick said, ‘General McArthur recognised that when he interviewed our Catalina crews at the end of the war. He said, three things allowed him to win the war: the Jeep and the Dakota…’ Doug and Noel joined in, ‘And the Catalina!’

Led by Dick, they were trying to win long-denied recognition for their wartime achievements. But it was a race against time – the eternal enemy.

Dick explained repeated rejections by the Australian War Memorial: ‘The War Memorial in Canberra hasn’t caught up with the fact of what Catalinas did. A disgrace really. It’s the one thing in Australian aerial history that made all the difference in the world.’

MacArthur quickly saw the value of RAAF Catalinas. He appealed to Australia’s Prime Minister John Curtin for airmen to form a new defense air command, in a secret September 1942 letter: ‘Due to unavoidable conditions, however, the majority of the units comprising this command will be Australian…. Catalina squadrons are rendering magnificent service in long-range reconnaissance and long-range night bombardment missions.’ [Doc PIC]

[Doc PIC]

RAAF Cat crews rescued sailors and airmen; flew supplies and medicines and landed agents behind enemy lines; did bombing and torpedo raids.


‘Very good blokes the Catalina crews,’ said Cyril Payne wearing an American Stars and Stripes baseball cap. Cyril was a Black Cat gunner on the first mining missions. We met at the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) at Albion Park south of Sydney where Pilot Gordon Glyn and engineer Jim Mitchell restored Australia’s only flying Catalina. It gleamed black in the sun.

‘You had to have confidence in your pilot,’ Cyril, from Leicester, said, ‘The bloke I had, Bill Minty, was not recognised as the number one pea in the pot. But I’d have gone anywhere with Bill.’

Cyril flew in the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, and on mining missions to Kavieng, and the old Dutch New Guinea ports of Makassar and Balikpapan. He laughed: ‘We were flying along and one of the pilots came out and said, “Have you pooed?”. Lenny said, “Yeah. I lifted up the bloody hatch and let it drop down.” Once you lift the hatch up the wind comes up! All his poo was all scattered all through the plane. Poor old Lenny when he got back to Cairns, he spent a couple of hours scrubbing.’ Cyril paused. ‘Nice bloke, Len. Unfortunately, he got killed.’

Back in his old starboard gunner’s seat, Cyril stared out of its blister window: ‘We flew with this open. Oh, I loved it.’ Breaking rules, Cyril took his camera on missions. He brought his album [PIX]. ‘Flying on the Sepic River (in New Guinea) there were logs and stuff all over the place. We’d fly in, drop the supplies, and get the hell out,’

Cyril said, ‘We used to have those 10lb bombs and chuck ’em out.’

Extraordinary to think they still threw them as the first atomic bomb was being built.

He, too, questioned the lack of recognition. ‘I was talking to a Yank and he said, no bloody way would we go,’ Cyril said, ‘And us silly buggers were going out. Jesus, our guys were flying day and night, and no one even gave us a mention.’

Surviving airmen and families dug up wartime logbooks and photographs to prove their claim. But without documentary evidence, one of aviation’s most extraordinary campaigns was nearly lost.


Enter Sydney barrister Bob Cleworth who joined them. Bob’s older brother Reg, a navigator, was lost with skipper Ross Shultz and all crew when RAAF Catalina A24-203 vanished without trace in the South China Sea on March 7, 1945. He was 22. Officially, bad weather was to blame.

Years later, John Gibson, a gunner in another Cat on that fatal mission, phoned. Bob recalls: ‘He said, ‘I just wanna let you know that A24-203 went down due to bad weather, is a lot of bullshit.’ In a video account John said: ‘I was in the crew of Catalina A24-65 over the Pescadore Islands. Search lights came up and just missed our tail. It picked up an aircraft that was just following. I assumed it was Ross Schulz’s aircraft. All of a sudden it got hit. There was a terrific explosion.’ John’s skipper, Len Fletcher, confirmed it. Yet, the men’s account was not recorded.

The lack of information only made Bob more curious. He said: ‘It wasn’t until I started tracing my brother’s steps that I realised just what sort of work they were doing. The problem is, everything is so secret.’

[PIX Gibson and Ross in Cat crew boat]

[PIX Gibson and Ross in Cat crew boat]

Bob searched out long-ignored wartime documents in Australia and America. The Black Cats’ work is detailed in the official Commonwealth War History, Australia in the War of 1939-4: The role of science and industry by Prof D. P. Mellor. It details RAAF Catalina Mining Missions from 1943 to 1945:

  • 1,130 sorties over 281 nights

  • 2,512 mines laid in 52 ports

  • 60,000 tons of shipping sunk

  • 75,000 tons of shipping damaged

The 1944 Phoenix Report puts the Black Cat success into startling perspective: ‘The minelaying operations have inflicted 40 times and probably 100 times as much damage as bombing missions for half the cost in aircraft…. Minelaying is of the order of 100 times as effective as attacks on land targets.’

The Phoenix Report estimated that if the blocked supplies reached Japanese front lines, it would take 12,000 sorties by 20 land-based bomber squadrons to destroy them there. Black Cat mining was calculated to be 40 times more effective than land-based aircraft for the job, and 100 times more effective when the loss of Japanese war production was factored in.

Countless lives and property were saved by using Black Cats.

None of this got Bob closer explained his brother’s loss, but it justified the men’s claims in a strange secret war. Crews operated out of separate seaside hotels in northern Australia and from jungle inlets. It was a different way to fight a war. Yet, crew independence – each was left to plan its own missions - and constantly evolving and daring improvisations helped shape the air transport we have today.

At this time Qantas was flying its 24-hour ‘Double Sunrise Catalina service between Perth and Ceylon – the Allies sole air link to Australia. [PIX]

Four RAAF Catalinas squadrons - 11, 20, 42, 43 – were mine-laying.

‘We’d do this quickly at tree-top level then get out,’ Dick said.

‘200 feet was just two wing-spans above the water,’ Doug added.


The first test was to Kavieng Island, a Japanese base north east of Guinea, on an 18-hour round trip. ‘The Japanese thought it was one of their planes it was so low,’ Dick said, ‘The first plane was given a green light to land! Tokyo Rose, the Japanese propaganda woman, reported: “The enemy attacked us but all their bombs fell in the water.”

The Japanese hadn’t realised what had happened. Kavieng began over two years of missions. But, how long could the secret last?

Success and survival were down to the pilot and navigator. They flew over Bali, Java, Sumatra, the Spice Islands and places hardly known today: the Helmaheras, Pescadores, and places not on maps.

Crews were left to work out their own routes. ‘We used astro-navigation, a sextant on the sun, moon, stars and planets,’ Doug said.

At times they flew lower than the 5 or 6,000 feet. ‘There were many unmarked high-rise little islands with huge shafts of rock,’ Dick remembers, ‘Quite uncharted territory. One of our planes hit a mountain that was discovered 20 years after the war.’

Some of our planes did not return because of the weather. I had more concern going through really rough cyclonic weather,’ Dick says, ‘A very a disturbing context to be flying through.'

Under each wing they carried a 1,000lb mine with an advanced timing system to delay detonation. ‘The Japanese never knew how those mines got there,’ Philip said, ‘Mines were set to explode after a different number of ships passing. It would not at first go off.’

Precision was vital. The Allies later had to retrieve mines that hadn’t gone off. But a mining run demanded a split-second 3D juggling act between pilot and navigator, in the dark while getting shot at. It didn’t always go right.

‘We had to fly right over this ship,’ Doug laughs, ‘He opened fire. We got a few hits. We went out to do our timed mine-laying run. There was no time on the clock. I said to the pilot, ‘Sorry Bluey. I must have forgot to press the button. We went round again. The same ship opened fire, hit us again, and we made the run successfully.’

Was he afraid? Doug laughed, ‘No, a funny thing, I crossed my legs that’s all.’

The plan relied on secrecy. Doug said, ‘My nav log got Nav of the Month that year in the Nav Bulletin, but due to the secret nature of the mission they could not publish it.’

Cyril recalls it differently: ‘Everyone knew! We were living in a hotel. We’d come down for breakfast and the waitress would say, “No flying today, fellas.” Next day they’d say, “You’re off to Kavieng at 10 o’clock.” It was common knowledge around Cairns. All this bullshit about secrecy.

But Cyril added, crews rarely met: ‘Everyone lived in hotels and no two crews lived in the same hotel. Half the time you wouldn’t even know who they were.’

Does this help to explain the secrecy? Everyone knew their own part – including the waitress – never seeing the whole plan. But how long could the secrecy last?

Black Cat successes brought longer, more dangerous missions. More defences were stripped away. Heavy wheels and armour plating were removed for greater range. Crews were ordered to fly below 200 feet to evade new Japanese radar. The casualty list grew.

[Pix Chessel armour]

[Pix Chessel armour]

‘Our armourer gunner got a Jap bullet in the right buttock because he partly turned away from the scenery.’ Noel said, ‘The tracer coming up at us was a bit like fireworks, very beautiful, but very frightening.’

‘Some of us did get wiped out,’ Cyril said, ‘The last raid I did, the bloke behind us let off a flare and he was lit up like Luna Park. The Japs got stuck into him. Two of his guys got killed. Oh, yeah.’

‘There were 322 aircrew who didn’t come back,’ Dick said, ‘At Balikpapan I lost my best friend.’

The climax of Cat skills was in December 1944 when MacArthur turned to the Black Cats before retaking Manila. First, he sent in 24 RAAF Cats to mine Manila Harbor, blocking in the Japanese Navy. It was the Black Cats biggest operation. Noel Lyon was on the raid. ‘I was on the radar that night. No mine was more than a yard outside its plotted position.’

A Catalina called ‘The Dabster’ was lost without trace on the raid. [photos].

By then the mere sight of a Catalina could close a port without dropping a mine. ‘Just flying over ports could shut them for weeks,’ Dick smiled. This vindicated a young MacArthur who, taking his Lieutenant exams in Manilla in 1904, was asked how to defend the harbour without troops or resources. He said he would make signs saying BEWARE THIS HARBOUR IS MINED to float at the entrance. He passed.

The secrecy couldn’t last. Inevitably, the Japanese realised the Catalinas were mining. Their notoriety brought brutal reprisals. Cyril recalled, ‘A few of our blokes had their heads cut off. When they captured by the Japs, it was ‘chop’.’

[PIX Hugh Banville and Hemsworth who were beheaded]

PIX Hugh Banville and Hemsworth who were beheaded]


The Aussies got far more out of Catalinas than anyone thought possible. But as technology advanced the Cats stayed the same, getting more vulnerable and ever more asked of them.


Grim proof was revealed when Bob and I made a last visit to the National Australian Archive in Canberra. In a breakthrough, NAA staff had found Reg Cleworth’s previously unknown RAAF Casualty File with details of that last flight. It held several shocks.

Flight details were kept in American records. A worn buff file marked ‘SECRET’ had reports from the US Navy’s 7Th Fleet on RAAF minelaying operations in the S. W. Pacific. A flimsy slip of pink paper headed ‘Armed Forces, WESPAC, San Francisco, California, USA’ reported A.24-203 missing. A USN 7Th Fleet report revealed crew orders that night to fly at “10 feet above sea level” to “defeat enemy radar.”

[Doc PIX]

Bob sat stunned. ‘Ten feet? They were almost like a suicide mission,’, he said, ‘I remember the last time he was home, he said “I don’t know whether I’ll be back.” These guys were really pushed to the limit, in some cases beyond the limit.’

[PIX Reg Cleworth]

PIX Reg Cleworth]

‘The American’s absorbed our efforts into their history,’ Bob said. By solving a family mystery, he found how Black Cats crews lost recognition. ‘They got more recognition from the Japanese after the war than the Americans.’

‘It is history, Australian history,’ Neville Kennard reflected, ‘I’ve been to quite a few aircraft museums in the United States. They have preserved their aviation history very well. I don’t think we’ve done it so well here.’

His years of research won Bob a Masters degree. He’s written several books about Cats.


The last Catalina mine was laid on July 31, 1945. Six days later, August 6, America dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, followed by the second, August 9, on Nagasaki.

I asked Bob if it was possible an old flying boat was more effective than the atomic bomb. Bob didn’t hesitate: ‘I’m convinced the RAAF Catalina mining missions did more to stop Japan than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’

‘Yes, I think so,’ said Philip, who saw the horror of Hiroshima shortly after the bomb was dropped, ‘I was devastated by the wreckage. We were going to win the war anyway.’


The men’s work gives some hope to families haunted by the loss of loved ones still missing from Black Cat operations. Missing is a fate worse than death as families long for information. I met Rhonda Stuart who visits veteran events with a photograph of her father, Cat navigator Marshall Bouness, asking if anyone met him. ‘He’s still missing,’ she said. Noel and Doug say they never knew him.

Finding a lost Cat is extremely rare. In 2018, Susan Pearson was overwhelmed when villagers in West Papua discovered the wreckage of 11 Squadron Black Cat A24-50 in mountainous jungle. It vanished in 1943 with all crew, including her uncle, crewman Mick Tyrrell. A RAAF team recovered parts [RAAF PIX of machine gun, mines, tail fin].

[RAAF PIX of machine gun, mines, tail fin].

How many more like Reg lay lost in the records because officials won’t look?

Dick Udy achieved his goal to publish details of all wartime RAAF Catalina crew who died in his book Catalina Crews Memorial Book.

The Australian War Memorial finally held a ‘Catalina Week’. Dick and Philip were guests of honour. Bob was the main speaker. By then Cyril, Doug and Noel had died. Philip and Dick died not long after.

Sadly, Catalina VH-CAT never received the funds its final restoration needs. It was recently towed to sit on the grass at Bankstown Airport. Its fate remains unknown.

END 19/9/22

Copyright Robert Cockburn

HARS Cyril Payne with restored flying Black Cat

Cyril Payne, 1942, on patrol at his Catalina gun post

Cyril Payne returns to his old Catalina gun post

Bankstown Catalina [l to r]: Noel Lyons and Dick Udy [pic Daily Telegraph

RAAF Catalina ‘The Dabster’ lost in the raid on Manila

Bankstown Catalina and Dick Udy [pic Daily Telegraph

Bankstown Catalina [l to r]: Noel Lyons and Dick Udy [pic Daily Telegraph]

WWII RAAF Catalina crew: lower left, Navigator Reg Cleworth, lower mid, Captain Ross Schulz

RAAF Catalina loading a mine

Rathmines WWII Catalina base [l to r]: Philip Dulhunty, Rob Cockburn, Dick Udy, Noel Lyons seated, Bob Cleworth

RAAF Catalina running repairs at sea

Qantas Catalina, 1943 [courtesy Qantas]