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A Rare Glimpse of a US Seaplane Lost In the First Minutes of the Pearl Harbor Attack

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For the past 20 years, divers have unsuccessfully tried to explore and photograph a PBY-5 Catalina seaplane shot down during Japan’s opening salvo of the Pearl Harbor attack. Now, some 74 years after that fateful day, archaeologists have finally accomplished the task. Here’s what they saw at the bottom of Kāne‛ohe Bay’s murky waters.

Just minutes before its devastating attack on the US military base stationed at Pearl Harbor, aircraft from the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed a nearby US Air Station on the east coast of Oahu.


A PBY-5 coming in for a landing. (Credit: USN)

The results were catastrophic: 27 Catalina PBY “flying boats” were destroyed on the ground or while they were moored on Kāne‛ohe Bay, while another six were damaged. It was a devastating and sudden loss of airpower; these long-range patrol bombers could have followed the Japanese planes back to their carriers. It’s for this reason that the Japanese chose to strike here first on December 7, 1941—an attack that resulted in the United States’ entry into the Second World War.


The starboard engine nacelle, or housing, extending into the silt.

Back in 1994, a team of archaeologists failed to photograph the wreck of one of these Catalina PBY-5 planes. A second effort in 2008 achieved limited results. But this past June, a team of archaeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Hawaii returned to the wreck and managed to conduct a detailed survey. The team, led by Hans Van Tilburg of the NOAA, was assisted by improved visibility and camera equipment.

The tail section structure.

“The new images and site plan help tell the story of a largely forgotten casualty of the attack,” noted Van Tilburg in a statement. “The sunken PBY plane is a very important reminder of the “Day of Infamy,’ just like the USS Arizona and USS Utah. They are all direct casualties of December 7.”


The PBY anchor in its anchor well, and the cockpit (upper right).

The precise identity of the plane, which rests 30 feet below the surface, is still unknown, but it’s possible the crew died while trying to take off during the attack. The plane is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004, which strictly forbids the tampering of military vessels or planes owned by the US government, as well as sunken military craft belonging to those of other nations.


A tear in the port hull and mid-fuselage break.

“This sunken flying boat is a window into the events of the attack, a moment in time that reshaped the Pacific region,” added June Cleghorn, senior archaeologist at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. “Understanding this site sheds light on the mystery of the lost PBYs and honors the legacy of the Navy and Marine Corps Base in Hawaii.”


Upper wing surface, leading edge to the left.

[ NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries ]

Email the author at and follow him at @dvorsky. All images: UH Marine Option Program