When pigs flew
The Catalinas, dubbed the "pregnant pigs", were plane squadrons that flew missions out of Cairns. Bernard Harte is one of the last survivors.
Possibly the last survivor of the Catalina squadrons that operated out of Cairns has a fondness for the seaplanes despite them being dubbed the “pregnant pigs”.
“They called them that because they were so ugly – in the water they looked terrible,” says 94-year-old Bernard Harte, who lives at Herberton.
“But I had a lot of affection for them. I am still here. We crashed about four times, but here I am. I was one of the few who survived the war in a Catalina.”
Many others were not so lucky flying in a hybrid half-plane, half-boat that was not best equipped for a fire fight with enemy aircraft.
“Our aircraft was vulnerable to attack throughout the war but we had better fire power after 1941 when the Americans came in and we were issued with Browning sub‑machine guns and we were less vulnerable,” says Bernard, who had previously been based in Port Moresby.
“It was out of Cairns that we lost most of our crew – about 300 airmen operating from Cairns.”
With the passage of time, the ranks have been thinned out even more.
“I am one of the last survivors, if not the only one,” says Bernard, who entered the service in 1939, becoming a wireless air gunner.
Veterans Affairs says a total of 168 Catalina aircraft were delivered to the RAAF during the war, the last being withdrawn from the RAAF in April, 1950.
Martin James, the RAAF’s senior historical officer, says with the recent death of Catalina pilot Sir Richard Kingsland, Bernard could well be the last remaining Catalina airman.
The Catalina was one of the few aircraft Australia had at its disposal to carry out reconnaissance and offensive operations against the Japanese, its long-range flying‑capability being a particular strength.
Martin describes the Catalina as a potent aircraft in terms of its offensive capability‑bombing, mine-laying, dropping torpedoes and surveillance, but defensively it was somewhat vulnerable because it was slow and not very manoeuvrable.
“Against a modern fighter like the Zero, they were always going to come off second best,” Martin says.
Jack Riddell, in his book on Catalina Squadrons – First and Furthest: Recounting the Operations of RAAF Catalinas, has estimated that 320 airman were killed on Catalina operations in the south west Pacific theatre, most of those based in Cairns.
A memorial to the Catalinas stands on the Cairns Esplanade near the hospital.
Cairns, which was the main operational base, was at the forefront of Australia’s battle to stave off an invasion by Japan and the Catalinas were in the thick of the action, flying some 3000 sorties out of Cairns deep into enemy territory.
Sometimes they were used to install and rescue special forces behind enemy lines. They were armed with bombs, depth charges, mines and torpedoes, and were also used on secret missions into the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies and later in the waters of the Philippines, Formosa and southern China.
Catalinas bombed and mined Japanese‑occupied harbours, escorted naval convoys and rescued soldiers and sailors from allied ships, which had been attacked by enemy planes and submarines.
Dozens of enemy ships were destroyed or damaged by Catalinas flying out of Cairns.
Bernard reached the rank of Flight Lieutenant and held the rank of acting Squadron Leader at the end of the war. Ironically, the RAAF made him a gunnery leader, the person in charge of the squadron’s guns.
“I never liked guns to start with. I hated them,” says Bernard, who says he has never really fired a gun in anger.
“I don’t think I shot at anybody. We weren’t caught by an enemy plane.
"Unlike the 300 who were lost, I was very lucky.
“The Catalina would not last very long in the air under firepower from another aeroplane.”
Bernard, who was based in Cairns from 1942 to 1943, says he was with 20 Squadron, which flew Catalinas, while 11 Squadron, another Cairns-based seaplane unit, flew a combination of flying boats.
Their primary function was search and rescue and bombing missions all over the Pacific, using advance operational bases in Noumea, the New Hebrides, Rabaul, the Solomons and elsewhere.
They had a 17-hour flying range and obviously could alight on water.
“We had a base in Cairns but we never stayed in Cairns, except overnight, because we were flying.
“We stayed at the British Empire Hotel,” Bernard says.
“I never went ashore much to socialise. I just went ashore and stayed in the hotel and took off the next morning, so I never saw any social activity in Cairns.
“It was a quiet spot – the population wasn’t so high to start with.”
Elsewhere in the Pacific, the crew would bunk down on the canvas beds aboard.
Bernard says they went on a lot of bombing missions but one of their “stickiest” jobs was in Japanese-held Portuguese Timor in 1942.
“We were sent in to bring out 13 wounded and sick Australians. They were members of the Independent Company of commandos."
A rope was tied to the flying boat, which was anchored offshore, and the other end was tied to a tree.
“We worked all night using the rope to bring the wounded out one by one in a little ‘rubber ducky’,” Bernard says.
“We had to be off the water by 5am because the Zeros did patrols.
“We started one engine, but the other would not work."
Sitting ducks in the water, the crew worked for four hours before the misbehaving engine fired into life. But luck was with them.
“Fortunately, they (the Japanese) didn’t do a patrol that morning, because we could not get off the water.
“That was a rather sticky job because of the time taken,” Bernard says.
“I have never heard whether the 13 are alive today. It would be interesting to know whether any of those chappies are still alive.
“We got the lot out but we could not have taken any more.
“We were flat out getting off the water.”
Though he hated guns, Bernard was very pleased when the initial WW1 Lewis guns were replaced with American Browning sub-machine guns.
“The old ones were no good at all,” he says.
After the war Bernard returned to managing radio stations in Port Macquarie and Kempsey, and went into newspaper ownership.
He wrote a number of books of short stories, drawing from his wartime experiences, and designed antennae for radio stations.
While his office is festooned with memorabilia from his radio days, he took no souvenirs from his time on the Catalinas.
Of the aircraft that survived, some went to private air operators or were scrapped.
“One person was using one to house chooks on his farm in NSW,” Bernard says.
A somewhat inglorious end for the flying boats also nicknamed the “Maids of All Work”, which played such an important part in retaking the Pacific from the Japanese and protecting Australia’s northern shores.
NEW CAIRNS.COM.AU COMMENT POLICY
We welcome your comments on this story. Comments are submitted for possible publication on the condition that they may be edited. Comments submitted without a full name and suburb/location will not be considered for publication. Please read our full comment policy and publication guidelines.
Share this article
Bernard Harte, 94, is still fond of the Catalina seaplanes, which he flew during World War II. photo // mike watt