As a result of the industrial age, machines of war have often garnered as much fame as man himself. In the case of the airplane this proved to be no truer than in the Second World War. Names like Spitfire, Mustang, Flying Fortress and Messerschmitt earned their place in history as legends in their own time.

Then there were the others. Unsung, underappreciated workhorses that, in some respects, changed the course of battle, singlehandedly. But, they always fell victim to the more glamorous looking mounts that shot the enemy from the sky or rained bombs on his cities. Few of their crew ever made the papers, or posed for photographs, instead they plodded on as just another cog in the gears of the armed might humanity, content with their role.

For men who flew the PBY Catalina for the U.S. Navy, this was almost a certainty. An amphibious twin engine patrol aircraft with a boat shaped fuselage and wide squared wings, they spent many a day spanning the far reaches of the world’s oceans, ducking in and out of clouds to find signs of an enemy before anyone else, report him, shadow him, and hope no one, especially a fighter, spotted them.

They had some marvelous successes, though. In 1941, a PBY discovered the feared German battleship Bismarck, which unfolded a chain of events that led to her sinking, and little more than a year later, they found the Japanese fleet approaching Midway, which culminated in turning the tide of the war in the Pacific. Reliable and long ranged, they proved indispensable to commanders who needed timely intelligence.

Yet there were others, a few squadrons, in fact who managed to do things with this aircraft that defied logic. These were the stand outs. They painted it, armed it and sent it off to strike an unsuspecting enemy in the dead of night, often using only the dim lights shining on their instrument gauges to guide them. In the course of their history they built up a formidable reputation and proudly called themselves the ‘Black Cats.’ And in their playground of the Pacific Ocean, they proved more than just a scourge.

Their earliest operations began during the Guadalcanal campaign which started in August 1942. Here the Japanese undertook a massive resupply effort to keep the island from falling, with hopes of retaking it. They sent streams of convoys down the narrow channels of the Solomon island chain and became known as the Tokyo Express. And more often than not, these were run at night, and included warships heading to bombard Guadalcanal’s prize, Henderson airfield.

Since night operations were much too dangerous to involve large numbers of aircraft, a decision was made to use unorthodox methods to harass the Japanese. They came up with the idea of using the PBY, which was found that after some aircraft modification and daring by the crew, might be the perfect answer.

The most visible modification made was its color. From nose to tail every part of the plane was painted matte black. Even the national emblem was darkened (later reversed) to prevent a target for searchlights to focus on. Later on, to keep with the moniker, some sported eyes and whiskers daubed on the nose. For electronics, radars and radio altimeters were installed to ensure navigational safety, and weapons of various types were hung under the wings. Now, with their once clumsy looking ocean blue albatrosses looking more like menacing vultures, the first official Black Cat missions commenced in December flown by crews from Navy squadron VP-12 under Commander Clarence Taff.