Nat’s South Pacific

(Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the published The Battalion Artist)

On July 13, 1943, after four weeks at sea, the 78th Construction Battalion debarked at Noumea, New Caledonia—its first Island X. About 900 miles off the coast of Australia, this sleepy colonial port was rapidly being transformed into a base that would serve as headquarters for the South Pacific Command (SOPAC). Camp Magenta, jumping off point for thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines heading to duty at forward areas, was just beginning to take shape on the low rolling hills that surrounded the little city.

The men of the 78th would join other Seabee units working to expand this camp. They would grade landing strips, build warehouses, administration and hospital buildings, construct storage tanks and plants for filling fuel drums, and install pipelines.

On a rare afternoon when Nat had some free time, he set up his easel. What caught his eye was a PBY Catalina parked on the hardstand beside the airstrip, its crew nearby. These versatile planes, when painted black, were deployed, usually at night, to stalk enemy shipping. In addition to reconnaissance, they were also sent to rescue downed American flight crews. Sleek, silent, and stealthy, they were given the nickname Black Cat.

After finishing his painting of PBY 50, Nat decided he’d like to get the skipper to sign it. He walked over to the plane, and found Lieutenant Merle Schall, happy to oblige. While his crew was getting the Cat ready for takeoff, Schall chatted briefly with Nat, who promised to get a photo made of the painting for the pilot to keep. They shook hands all around and said they hoped to meet up again. It was August of 1943. The 78th remained at Noumea until late November. Throughout those months, Nat kept an eye out for PBY 50. But it did not return.

Fifty-five years would pass before he learned how an ironic chain of events had sealed the fate of his Black Cat.