“Katie” the PBY Catalina of Diego Garcia!

“Katie” the PBY Catalina of Diego Garcia! To those of you who have served on the tropical island of Diego Garcia, you may have seen Katie… She is one of the most photographed birds on Degio and this is her story…

Diego Garcia is an atoll located south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean and the largest of the 60 small islands comprising the Chagos Archipelago. Discovered by the Spanish explorer Diego García de Moguer in the 16th century, then in the service of Portugal until it was settled as a French colony in 1793 and was transferred to British rule after the Napoleonic Wars. It was one of the “Dependencies” of the British Colony of Mauritius until 1965 when it was detached for inclusion in the newly created British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).  Between 1968 and 1973, the population of the BIOT was removed (controversially) to Mauritius and The Seychelles. Soon after, the United States built a large naval and military base on Diego Garcia which has been in continuous operation ever since. As of 2015, Diego Garcia is the only inhabited island of the BIOT; the population is composed of military personnel and supporting contractors. To many who have served there it is also known as “The Rock” or “The Footprint of Freedom”.  (And many other creative names to say the least…)

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Diego Garcia is one of the most beautiful islands on Earth. Located in the middle of the Indian Ocean (appx 7 deg south of the Equator) It’s a coral atoll, which forms a U-shape around a lagoon. Three channel islands guard the north end of the lagoon, which gives the island the overall shape of a footprint.

This wrecked aircraft of an old  Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat, was torn from its moorings on 9-16-1944 when a cyclone struck the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.  Damaged beyond repair, the American-built Catalina which at the time was was serving with the Royal Air Force, was stripped of any useful parts and abandoned on the beach.  Named “Katie” by her pilot (21-year-old Pilot Officer James Park), it is still visible on the island today after more than 75 years.  

Katie - the PBY of Diego Garcia

The most interesting thing to visitors who have the of privilege touring the old coconut plantation side of the island is the PBY “Catalina” just west of the pier along the beach.  The Consolidated PBY first flew in the 1930s and was the definitive air-sea rescue aircraft of the age.  During World War II, PBYs were used in anti-submarine warfare, patrol bombing, convoy escorts, search and rescue missions (especially air-sea rescue), and cargo transport. The PBY was the most numerous aircraft of its kind and the last active military PBYs were not retired from service until the 1980s. In 2014, nearly 80 years after its first flight, the aircraft continues to fly as a waterbomber (or airtanker) in aerial firefighting operations all over the world..  The PBY of WWII did everything at 100 miles an hour, and could stay aloft for up to 30 hours with full tanks and when the engines were leaned out properly. The official nickname of the PBY was the “Catalina”, though she was more commonly known as the “Cat”, “P-Boat”, or “Dumbo” to some.

The PBY on the beach at Diego Garcia was British, from RAF Squadron 240, and therefore is a “Catalina” (the Brits didn’t give complicated designations to their aircraft).  She was flown by 21-year old RAF Pilot Officer James Park.  Her registration number was VA718, and Jim called her “Katie” since K was the squadron letter. On the 16th of September 1944, Jim took off at night from Madras and flew Katie south to Diego via Kelai in the Maldive Islands.  They tried to refuel at Kelai, but the bowser refueling tanker had sunk due to a storm, so they had to make it from Kelai to Diego Garcia – a 10 1/2 hour trip, on the fuel remaining in Katie’s tanks (the trip to Kelai had been 8 1/2 hours through severe storms).  At Diego Garcia, they would be based for missions looking for a reported Japanese submarine.

After landing in the lagoon at Diego Garcia, Katie had no fuel and was light in the water.  It was not an amphibious version of the PBY, and with no beaching gear it couldn’t be pulled on land.  Jim left a night watch (one of his crew members) on Katie, and the rest of the crew went off to bed in a Basha hut, dead tired from the trip down from India.

  … And then the storm hit! The wind blew that night to cyclone strength and sprung the aircraft from it’s mooring buoy. The night watch on the PBY couldn’t start any engines because the tanks were completely empty. If there had been fuel in the tanks, he might have been able to keep Katie turned into the wind to save her. Unfortunately all the night watch could do was to fire Very pistol shells (British flare gun) into the night sky. He stayed on board, feeling completely helpless until the plane went aground. Finally someone from the island garrison shook Jim awake and said “Wake up, your Katie’s on the beach!”

They got to Katie and found a palm tree that grew over time bent vertical, then horizontal and then vertical again. In the wind, the craft was rubbing along the trailing edge of the wing and had taken off the aileron and the rear portion of the wing, rendering Katie un-flyable. Jim and his crew salvaged as much as they could by hand. The first thing they removed was an 8 day clock (very valuable to aviators of the time). They removed cases, dingys, lifejackets, parachutes and the stove. Everything else was left on board. The engines and other parts were in time, removed by other crews.

Jim waited 9 days until the 25th, when PBY no.VA720 came from 240 Squadron at Madras. On board was the Squadron Leader – Parry. They inspected Katie, determined she was lost and then flew back to base at Redhills Lake in Madras. There was a ‘Court of Inquiry’ held (a military court set up to inquire of failure of equipment, procedures, or a member of the military) at Koggala several weeks later. No blame was apportioned to Jim or his crew as Katies loss was judged an unfortunate accident.  It took about three months before Jim got another plane.

Top Row, Left to Right – Watson (?) (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner – WO/AG) – may not have been at DG;  unremembered name (WO/AG) – may not have been at DG; LeFevre “Leafy” (WO/AG); Venny Gough (WO/AG) – “Crazy ex Chindit, spent time blowing up palm trees at DG”;  Jack Freel (now deceased) (Fitter – engines and airframes).  Bottom Row, Left to Right:  Chessels (Aussie) (Navigator); James Park (Captain – Age 21); Ron Tench (2nd Pilot) – not at DG; unremembered name (Rigger – airframes/cook/air gunner – on board when Katie beached). 

      

To those of you who have served on the tropical island of Diego Garcia, you may have seen Katie. She is one of the most photographed birds on Degio. When I was there in 1979 serving in a U.S. Navy Construction Battalion (CB’s), I always wondered what was her story, what happened to her and her crew? Back then we were tasked with building the runway, concrete buildings and most everything on the island. With the runway completed there was no more need to land flying boats in the lagoon

Katie is stuck there (like most of us at the time) to greet ever new guests to her permanent nest. However we who served there, would all eventually fly away… back home.

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See our Diego Garcia Poster Art and the story of the SeaBees HEREour PBY Art HERE, and our CB Metal Nose Art HERE.

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