Only a few months shy of his 100th birthday, World War II veteran Bob Pinckney recently spent a few hours reveling in the gracious hospitality and gorgeous October weather at the Miner Family Vineyard north of Napa.
Bob, a resident of the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, joined my family and me for a tour of the winery, courtesy of owner Dave Miner. While Dave and I share the same last name, any exact link between the Miners remains unclear. But on this afternoon, the group savored outstanding wines and conversation as Dave acquainted us with the history of the winery and Bob, the Navy’s Black Cats.
I had the pleasure of meeting Bob for the first time in 2014. He and my father, Howard Miner, flew together as part of VP-54, a squadron that gained their name from the darkened PBY Catalinas they flew at night, each painted entirely black.
The planes were nearly invisible in the night sky and proved very effective as search and reconnaissance patrol planes that could drop everything from bombs and torpedoes to beer bottles in an effort to locate, attack, and generally harass the enemy. Their stomping grounds extended from Guadalcanal northward, involving almost every island including the Philippines, and missions often lasted for 10 to 12 hours or more.
Like many WWII vets, my father didn’t tell us much about his war experiences. When I was quite young, he had showed me an old manila folder full of sketches and watercolors, wonderful images of planes, soldiers, and jungles. He had made them in quonset huts and tents between missions.
What we didn’t know until after his death was that he was also a prolific writer, photographer and collector and kept most everything in boxes for nearly 70 years. I had always wanted to see his artwork find its way into print, but it quickly became apparent that an entire wartime story was contained in all these papers and boxes — if I could only figure out how it all went together. A book called “Sketches of a Black Cat” was born.
Originally, I had expected the book to interest family and friends, but quickly discovered it had taken on a life of its own. It proved popular enough to gain traction around the Northwest, first in newspapers and then a few museums. By 2014, the photos, artwork, story, and a variety of keepsakes were at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas for a three-month exhibit.
Along the way, I was fortunate enough to meet my first Black Cat. Then another. Soon, I stumbled upon a clue to one of dad’s best friends still living in San Francisco, even though I had written in my “Epilogue” that he had passed away. Del Fager was doing just fine, thank you, and forgave me for the error. He had a friend just to the north in a town called Yountville. This brings me back to Bob.
As I continued to learn about the Black Cats, it became obvious that in spite of all Dad’s writing, there was so much I didn’t know and never had the luxury of asking him. The writing of the book had come the hard way with much scrutiny and research. So I relished the opportunity to speak with and interview several of his surviving squadron mates and ask them many of my questions.
I soon compiled some 14 hours of filmed interviews. Bob sat for two hours under the lights and patiently added vivid recollections of his two tours in the South Pacific. Combined with archival footage from the Navy and some sent to me by the son of a Black Cat, a documentary began to take shape.
Bob is an exceedingly modest man, friendly and engaging with a warm smile and wit. He lives in a second-floor apartment of a Veterans Home building where he routinely uses the stairs instead of the elevator.
When I first met him, he could still be found on the golf course getting in nine holes before dark. Unlike many seniors, he is quite active on the computer and we often trade emails. This is also where he continues to exercise his talents as a pilot, using a set of cockpit controls on his desk as he “virtually” makes takeoffs and landings and guides the airplane of his choice to faraway places. He even takes a spin in one of his beloved PBYs from time to time.
In the ‘40s, he completed flight school and headed to Guadalcanal by way of a Hawaii still stinging from the brutal attack on Pearl Harbor. The PBYs they flew where amphibious and perhaps better known for landing near enemy held islands and picking up downed airmen.
In one instance, Bob’s crew spotted a light below them in the darkness, and after discussing the risks of a night landing without knowing the condition of the seas, put their apprehensions aside and went in. They picked up three fliers in a two-man raft who had been stranded for days. While PBYs had early radar equipment, it was but a green, fuzzy blur that only hinted at what was around or below them.
As for parachutes, Bob says they felt it was safer to stay in their PBYs. The rugged planes survived violent storms, bullet holes, and popped rivets from rough sea landings. Golf tees were the preferred way to seal up the punctures.
Thanks to Bob and the others, Dad’s story has a happy ending. A new edition of “Sketches of a Black Cat” was released in July and now includes 100 pages of new material and stories about Bob and the largely unheralded squadron. I am continuing to contact museums around the country about the documentary, artwork and the Black Cat story.
Surviving Black Cats are increasingly hard to find, and my search for them is ongoing. An opportunity to interview, film, or simply delight in chewing the fat for a few minutes with a newfound friend is rewarding beyond measure.
Regrettably, time is not on our side, and the need to capture the narratives of veterans like Dad and Bob is becoming urgent. We are losing them all too quickly, and with them, their firsthand experiences. If you are lucky enough to have a loved one who is willing, I strongly encourage you to please ask the questions, or perhaps take on a project of your own. I have found most of them to be very forthcoming at this stage of their lives. Allow them to give the gift of legacy.