Black Cats and Dumbos : WWII's Fighting PBYs
Marvin Lafayette " Mel " Crocker ( September 8th, 1924 - February 25th, 1989 ) was born in Loraine ( Texas, United States ). At that time, his parents used to live and work there, about midway through their decade - long westward trek across the country. Mel spent his teenage years in Southern Oregon, as the family struggled through the Great Depression.
On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany armed forces invaded Poland. This sudden act of aggression marks the outbreak of the Second World War. Two days later, both United Kingdom and France, along with their Empires, declared war on Nazi Germany. Despite their material support to the Allied war effort, The United States, on the other hand, remained neutral... until December 7th, 1941 ( " ... a date which will live in infamy ", Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8th, 1941 ). Following the surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor ( Hawaii, United States ), what the British Prime Minister Sir Winston L.S. Churchill ( 1874 - 1965 ) was expecting for so long finally happened. The United States declared war on the Empire of Japan. Three days later ( December 11th ) came the joint declaration of war by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy against the United States.
Mel entered the U.S. Navy in July 1942, at the age of 17 ( before his senior year in high school and with his father’s permission ). He was then trained as a Radio Operator ( Aviation Radioman 3rd Class ), with the aim to be operational on Consolidated PBY Catalina, a flying boat and amphibious aircraft. Since he had not finished high school, he later was given credit for his diploma based on his Navy training.
His training completed, he was posted to Patrol Squadron 12 ( VP - 12 ), and sent to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific ( December 1943 ). From Guadalcanal, Mel flew in night bombing raids, open sea rescues, hauling of freight and long over - water patrols as the Allies worked their way up the Solomon Islands driving back the Japanese. While in Guadalcanal, both he and his pilot were infected with malaria. During their stay in the hospital, the rest of the crew crashed into the side of a mountain ( Choiseul Island, native name Lauru, Solomon Islands ) during a storm. All aboard perished.
Mel served with his unit until the end of July 1944. When he returned to the United States in August 1944, he was assigned to the U.S. Naval Station Tongue Point ( Astoria, Oregon ). There, he met a young woman named Doris who he would later marry. The war ended as he was completing further training at the Naval Air Technical Training Center ( N.A.T.T. ) within Naval Air Station Memphis ( Millington, Tennessee ), making further overseas duty unnecessary. Mel was discharged in early 1946, with the rank of Aviation Radioman 2nd Class, and he and Doris began their family in Medford ( Oregon ). They would eventually have five children.
After the war, Mel and his brother Glenn were the core of a popular barbershop quartet in Southern Oregon : the " Novelaires ". They moved to Southern California in the mid - 1950s, hoping to make it in the entertainment industry. They were hired by Douglas Aircraft as entertainers, performing at lunch and for special events as the " Douglas Novelaires Quartet ". They won the weekly competition on the " Rocket to Stardom " TV show, which got them gigs, but never got them into the " big time ". Several years later, with a new group, they recorded Drums in My Heart and Bowie Knife as the " Crocker Boys ". This was well received in Southern Oregon, but got little, if any air time in areas that could have made either side a hit. They later learned that the record label had been blacklisted.
Mel's interest in aviation developed out of his service aboard PBYs during the Second World War. In 1966, he began to seriously pursue a lifelong interest in writing, and enrolled in The Famous Writers School's correspondence course ( he also took courses through the local community college ). In the late 1960s, Mel and Doris were divorced. Sometime later, he met Rockina, and they married in 1970.
Mel wrote a novel, Roanne, that was never published. However, his brother encouraged him to write about the aircraft that he was always talking about : the PBY. After many years of research, contacting all the living PBY pilots and crewmembers that he could locate, he assembled their stories into Black Cats and Dumbos : World War II's Fighting PBYs ( 1987, published by TAB Aero Books ). It went out of print in 1989 and was republished by Crocker Media Expressions, the multimedia business of his eldest son, Gary and his wife Lynda.
Mel died of complications after heart surgery, in Cypress ( California, United States ), at the age of 64.
( sources : Gary D. Crocker, crockermediaexpressions.com, Wikipedia, uniform-reference.net )
I would like, from the bottom of my heart, to thank Mister Gary D. Crocker for his enthusiastic reply, his trust, his kindness and his precious help in sharing documents to prepare his late father's short biography. Without his dedicated involvement, this would not have been possible at all. Last but not least, I must thank him and his wife Lynda for their corrections and suggestions as well. I am deeply grateful to both of them.