PBY CATALINA PILOT
Patrol/Bomber Squadron 34 (VPB-34)
Jim Harbilas was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts to Nicholas and Angelika Harbilas. He and his siblings, William, Julie, John, and Sophie were the first generation to be born in the United States after their parents immigrated from Kouteli, Kalavryta, Greece. After graduating from Holyoke High School, Jim joined the US Navy as an Apprentice Seaman on May 28, 1940, and was selected to receive pilot training at Pensacola in 1942, joining the ranks of enlisted aviators known as Mustangs in a program entitled Silver Eagles which was an experimental pilot training program to train enlisted sailors as pilots, due to extreme war needs. He was designated as Naval Aviation Pilot on May 18, 1942, and although most of the enlisted pilots either left the Navy or were rated as Warrant Officers, Jim became a Commissioned Officer and was named a Naval Aviator on December 23, 1943. He was assigned to VPB-34 Squadron while operating under Fleet Air Wing Eleven, based at Guantanamo Bay from October 1942 to June 1943. The core of the squadron's operations was training in a low altitude bombing at night, radar search and navigation, night operational flying with a heavily loaded airplane, and antisubmarine warfare missions in the Caribbean area. During this period not more than two or three submarine sightings were obtained and only one attack occurred although without success. Jim was part of the crew which made the attack. From June VPB-34 prepared to move on the Pacific, under the Seventh Fleet. The Squadron began long-range operations from NAS Kaneohe, Hawaii with detachments in Midway Island, Johnston Island, Canton Island, and Funafuti Island. On December 18 the VPB-34 relocated to Palm Island in Queensland, Australia under Fleet Air Wing 17, and on the 26th relocated to Samarai in Papua, New Guinea where it began flying offensive combat operations against enemy shipping as a “Black Cat” squadron.
The Greek American pilot was assigned to Lt. Ellis Fisher's crew who led his PBY-5 Catalina #74 BuNo.08496 in numerous attacks on Japanese shipping in the Bismarck Sea. During the nights of December 31, 1943, January 4, 1944, January 15, 1944, and February 15, 1944, Fisher with Harbilas acting as one of his co-pilots participated in attacks on heavily escorted enemy convoys, sinking a large merchant ship, heavily damaging another, and aiding in the destruction of a large tanker. On January 18 and February 2, 1944, Fisher and his crew damaged a large merchant vessel and sank a medium-sized tanker. On February 13 they successfully strafed and destroyed an armed enemy vessel, sank five motor launches, and probably damaged a midget submarine. For his actions, Lt. Ellis Fisher awarded the Navy Cross and the rest of the crew, the Air Medal with Jim Harbilas being among them. He was assigned to the South Pacific flying PBYs as a proud member of the famed 'Black Cats' VPB 34 squadron. Promoted up through the ranks, he became an officer and went on to a distinguished naval career, receiving numerous service awards and commendations, and attaining the rank of Commander. Jim was never happier or prouder than he was while he was serving as a U.S. Naval Officer and he often spoke of 'going back in, if they would let me' every time a crisis arose through the years. He married Dorothy McGrath Harbilas, and the couple was blessed with three children, Jim, Joanne, and Michael. After a 20+ year career in the Navy, he retired on September 1, 1960, and continued as a Flight Test Systems Engineer with Grumman in Beth Page, New York. While at Grumman he was involved in several development projects, ultimately working as a member of the team that sent the first manned Apollo mission to land on the moon. In 1971, Jim moved to Laconia, New Hampshire to open the Boot-n-Wheel, a specialty bicycle/sporting goods business that operated successfully for the next 25 years. He retired again and eventually moved to Sarasota in 2007. James 'Jim' N. Harbilas, 93, passed away peacefully in his sleep on August 25, 2015, due to natural causes.
James N. Harbilas as an Enlisted Naval Aviator. (Jim Harbilas)
A PBY-5 Catalina of Patrol Squadron 34, one of the “Black Cats” night patrol squadrons, at rest at Samarai Island, New Guinea, Jan-Feb 1944. (ww2dbaseUnited States Navy via the Bobby Rocker Collection)
ELLIS FISHER CREW WRECKING JAPANESE SHIPPING
VP-34 crews began their familiarization flights with VP-52 the day after Christmas and conducted their first independent operations on the 31st. One of the aircraft that went for hunting that night, was #74 of Lieutenant Ellis Fisher and Ens Harbilas with the task to search the area around the Admiralty Islands for enemy shipping. Fisher flew clockwise around the islands and at about 0200 on January 1st, Ellis Fisher came upon a 9,000-ton cargo vessel at anchor in Hyane Harbor on the east side of Los Negros Island. It was an easy mark, and he sank it with little difficulty, thus claiming the first Japanese ship destroyed in the new year. He topped it off by strafing a smaller ship also moored there, causing an undetermined amount of damage with his fifties. On the afternoon of January 15, information reached Samarai that a large enemy convoy from Truk had entered the Bismarck Sea and was headed toward Rabaul. Six Black Cats took off at 1800 including Fisher’s crew. Contact was made with the enemy at 0108 northwest of New Hanover. Ellis Fisher moved in first and made a torpedo run on the lead cruiser coming in from the ship’s starboard side. Because torpedo attacks are best made from a beam aspect, the target has an opportunity to bring to bear all its guns on one side on the attacking aircraft. And this is exactly what happened in this case, with the second cruiser also pumping out rounds to augment the firepower of the first. Fisher bore on. Positioning himself at about 100 feet off the water at 105 knots, he waited for the right moment and squeezed off the drop. Nothing happened. Fisher moved out of range and circled around to try again. This time even the merchantmen and another small escort vessel were firing at him, but he continued on, getting even closer to the target before he attempted manual release. Again, the torpedo hung up in its mounts. By this time, the cruisers had the picture. The Cat was after them. They appeared to forget about their slow-moving charges in the convoy and concentrated their efforts on saving themselves. Again, the Cat dove leveled off at 100 feet and zeroed in on one of the big warships. For the third time, the obstinate weapon refused to drop. A serious oil leak had now developed in the starboard engine. Reluctantly, Ellis Fisher and his crew departed the area and headed for home.
Three nights later on the 18th Ellis Fisher swept the area between New Hanover and the Admiralties. Admiralties. Then, in a careful search of Manus and Los Negros Islands, he contacted a 2,500-ton tanker entering a narrow passage near the town of Papitalai at the eastern end of Seeadler Harbor. He dove into the target which fired back at the plane as it made its attack. Fisher dropped one 500-pound bomb which hit the vessel amidships. All firing ceased, and the ship stopped dead in the water and took on a noticeable port list. Fisher circled and made another attack, this time missing the target by about twenty feet. But there was no need for further attacks. The vessel settled quickly in the shallow water and when the plane left the area only the mast could be seen. night. Ellis Fisher destroyed a tanker, a small submarine, and five boats on the 13th of February, and teamed up with Harold Dennison and Lieutenant Ross Vandever on the night of the 15th to nail a large cargo vessel. For his actions as the Commander of the PBY #74 Fisher was honored with the Navy Cross, while Harbilas and the rest of the enlisted crew with Air Medals.
James N. Harbilas in his flight suit standing below the wing of his primary flight trainer (an N3N, also known as a “Yellow Peril”, because of its all-yellow color scheme). The N3N was a tandem-seat open cockpit bi-plane ( built by Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the 1930s and early 1940s. The Greek American pilot entered the Naval Aviation through the Silver Eagles program. The story of Naval Aviation's enlisted pilots, the last of whom retired from active duty in 1981, is one of widespread accomplishment. Designated Naval Aviation Pilots (NAP) when they received their wings, the select group of Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen included three Medal of Honor recipients and many others with notable accomplishments. Enlisted aviation pilots were critical to the war effort during World War II, providing the personnel needed to defeat Axis forces. (Jim Harbilas, further info via https://www.history.navy.mil/)
VP-34, PBY-5 Catalina 'Black Cat' Bu.No 08496 #74 flown by Lt Ellis J. Fisher crew, in which James N. Harbilas was one of his pilots, in Samarai, Papua New Guinea, February 2, 1944. It was that specific Catalina in which Ellis and his crew gained their victories against Japanese shipping. During the Guadalcanal campaign, some U.S. Navy PBYs were painted matte black and sent on night bombing, torpedoing, and strafing missions against Japanese supply vessels and warships, including conducting interdiction raids on the Tokyo Express. These PBYs were later called "Black Cats". Subsequently, special squadrons of Black Cats were formed, commencing in December 1942 with VP-12, with an additional thirteen squadrons coming into service thereafter. Flying slowly at night, dipping to ship mast height, the Black Cats bombed, strafed, and torpedoed all kinds of Japanese vessels, sinking or damaging thousands of tons of shipping. The Black Cats also performed bombing, strafing, and harassment regarding land-based Japanese installations, as well as conducting reconnaissance and search and rescue operations. The Black Cat squadrons continued to be active into 1944 with the PB4Y-2 beginning to come into service in greater numbers and replacing the PBYs, the last Black Cat squadrons returning to the U.S. in early 1945. (Copyright Bertrand Brown, further info via Wikipedia)
These two photos were taken by an official US Navy photographer, probably after Lt. Ellis Fisher and his crew achieved the first Japanese ship sunk in 1944. James N. Harbilas had both these photos in his archive and handwritten the name of the crew above. Unfortunately, because these can not read well we traced the names of the pilots from the official copy of the photo on the left. These brave men who wreaked havoc on Japanese shipping in just two months are Lt. E. J. Fisher, Ens. J. M. Habilas, Ens. L. D. Herman and Ens. J. D. Moore. (Jim Harbilas)
James and his wife Dorothy "baby shitting" their friend's dog. As anyone can see by her uniform, his wife was in the Navy as well. (Jim Harbilas)
This photo was taken in May 1944, on Manus Island, which belonged to the Admiralties. (Jim Harbilas)
This a typical shot for a PBY pilot who operated in the Southern West Pacific. When the heat inside the plane raised high during the long hour patrols, the formalities went away as can be seen in this photo with Jim flying the Cat. (Jim Harbilas)
According to what is written upon it the time is November 1943, in Perth Australia, a few days before the VPB-34 deployed to the war zone. (Jim Harbilas)
James N. Harbilas after Holyoke High School graduation in 1939. (Jim Harbilas)
Bootcamp Graduation in 1940. James N. Harbilas is standing first from the left holding the Class Flag. (Jim Harbilas)
According to James' son, Jim Harbilas: "I had never seen before (this photo), but I can identify Dad’s older brother Bill (top row, far right), my Dad (bottom row, far right), next to him are his sisters Sophie, Julie, and then his younger brother Johnny. The woman in the middle of the top row (with the pearl necklace) was their Mother, my YiaYia." (unknown)
James N. Harbilas during his training in Victory Field, Class 43-I. (USN)
1. Jim Harbilas Archive
2. VPB-34 War Diaries
3. Knott, Richard C. Black Cat Raiders of WWII. Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.
Special Thanks to Jim Harbilas for helping us tributing his father, his daughter Tracy Harbilas for scanning documents for us, and finally Elaine Harbilas for helping us in the first stage regarding James' tribute and most important for getting us in contact with the Greek American Naval Pilot family.