The Mystery of the Sunken PBY-5 Flying Boat

April 27, 2017

At the onset of the attack on Pearl Harbor, American sailors stationed at the naval base were quick to react to the sounds of gunfire and explosions echoing from Battleship Row. While many of the men were without a means of fighting back, save for rifles that would prove futile against Japanese fighters and bombers, the nearby airfields housed the nation’s greatest defense against the aerial attack.

Unfortunately, before many of the American aircraft could take off and defend Pearl Harbor, Japan’s pilots grounded nearly all of the aerial fleet, guaranteeing an even weaker resistance during their two-hour raid. Not all of the planes were completely disabled, however. It's known that Second Lt. Kenneth Taylor and George Welch led a small aerial defense, but the discovery of a peculiar wreckage over 50 years after the attack shows that another crew of American flyers attempted to stave off the Japanese onslaught.

PBY-5 wreckage

Starboard wing. Credit: UH Marine Option Program

In 1994, the wreckage of a PBY-5 Catalina flying boat was observed near Kane’ohe Bay. The rough waters of the bay made it difficult for the small dive team to capture decent photographs of the vessel, and, despite another attempt in 2008, it wasn’t until 2015 that clear images of the wrecked plane emerged.

What happened to the sunken Catalina is lost in the history of Pearl Harbor, but it’s believed that the PBY-5 was downed within the opening moments of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The haunting photographs capture the lost beauty of the World War II craft, which launched and landed on water, and hint at the story of the crew’s efforts during the attack.

Covered in coral and sunk 30 feet deep in Kaneohe Bay, the identity of the flying boat remains a mystery and likely will remain that way for years to come. As of 2004, the Sunken Military Craft Act prohibits any unauthorized handling of a derelict military craft in United States’ waters. Considering that the vessel was discovered in 1994 and still hasn’t been properly documented save for a diving exploration by a team of students from the University of Hawaii, it would appear that there’s no urgency in determining which PBY it is and which crew members were lost when it was destroyed.

The Catalina and Pearl Harbor

Though the Pacific Aviation Museum lacks a PBY-5 in its collection of military aircraft throughout history, the efforts of the crewmen of the 61 Catalinas stationed around Oahu can be explored within the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

The “Road to War” and “Attack!” exhibits detail the efforts of the United States naval fleet during the attack, from those who lost their lives trying to protect Pearl Harbor to those who refused to give up despite the terrible odds against them.


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