Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Aircraft Carriers of Lake Michigan

 Early in 1942, Navy Commander Richard Whitehead endorsed a proposal to train naval aviators in the Great Lakes. The idea made sense. The nation’s few carriers were occupied with front line duties, and training on the oceans required destroyer protection from hostile submarines. The proposal found little interest until the attack on Pearl Harbor. Then it was fast tracked.

The Seeandbee, which became the Wolverine.

Starting from scratch would use resources needed for combat ships, and ocean-going vessels were too wide to fit through canals to reach the Great Lakes. Therefore, two luxurious passenger excursion ships that had fallen on hard times during the Depression were acquired. These lake steamers were coal-fed side wheelers. Their finery was stripped, and flight decks added.

The Wolverine is fitted with a flight deck. US Naval History and Heritage Command photo

The SS Seeandbee had provided luxury overnight service between Cleveland and Buffalo, New York. It featured 510 rooms that accommodated 6,000 passengers. Sixty-two rooms had private toilets and twenty-four were suites. Its accouterments included a book shop, flower booths, men’s and women’s writing rooms, balconies, and an orchestra that could be heard throughout the parlors, salons, and atrium. The Seeandbee became the USS Wolverine.

The SS Greater Buffalo had been a palatial steamer providing overnight service between Buffalo and Detroit for 1,500 passengers. In 1936, it had been docked in Cleveland as a floating hotel for the Republican Convention. It became the USS Sable.

USS Sable

After flight training, pilots came to Glenview Naval Air Station west of Chicago for carrier qualifications. Day one took place in a classroom. Day two saw them practicing on “bounce fields” where they had to land in small, designated areas. On day three, they had to land and take off on one of the “postage stamp sized” carriers. After eight landings and take offs, they became carrier qualified.

The carriers were dangerous. Not only were the pilots trainees, but also the deck crews, sailors provided by the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. Arresting wires snapped, planes crashed and burned, deck crewmen would be hit by spinning props, even snow squalls in winter.

Even calm days presented problems. If the carriers couldn’t generate sufficient “wind over deck,” certain types of aircraft couldn’t take off. Instead of using the aircraft they would fly in combat, pilots had to use lightweight training aircraft.

These lake carriers were not true aircraft carriers. They lacked elevators, hanger decks, and armaments. If too many damaged aircraft cluttered the flight deck, flight operations had to be curtailed. Because the carriers were coal-fired, dense smoke might hang over the deck.

The decks of the lake carriers were 550 feet long. Combat carriers had 800’ decks. The navy reasoned that pilots who managed with shorter decks that were also lower to the water would have no trouble with the combat fleet.

A Wildcat mishap on the Wolverine.

The Wolverine began its navy career in January of 1943. The Sable joined it at the Navy Pier in May. Over 15,000 carrier pilots trained on the two ships. There were between 130 and 150 crashes, with eight pilots killed and more than one hundred planes sunk.

With the end of the war, both lake carriers were decommissioned in November of 1945. Both were sold for scrap.

See last week's post on Submarines in Lake Michigan. 

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