Not So “Super” Carriers

So, at the deactivation of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) the Secretary of the Navy announded that the third ship of the Gerald R. Ford class of carriers will also be named Enterprise. Good news. And there are any number of former US carriers that have names that resound through the history of the fleet. Ranger, Constellation, Hornet, Yorktown, and Lexington all have proud heritages.

But not every carrier has a lineage like that. Many of the escort carriers of World War II served in relative obscurity. And then there were the two carriers that are the subject of this post.

If I told you the US Navy once had a carrier fleet on the Great Lakes, would you think I was nuts?

Carrier aviation was important and growing more so even before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the attack the growth of naval aviation could only be described as explosive.  The losses of trained aviators in early campaigns and the expansion of the carrier fleet meant trained aviators were critically needed. A fleet that would grow to over 90 fleet, light fleet*, and escort carriers would require thousands of naval aviators.

Flight school for these aviators was, for the most part, similar to that of pilots of the Army Air Forces. But the key thing distinguishing Naval Aviators from mere pilots was their ability to take off from, and more critically, land aboard a carrier at sea.  The problem was, what carriers there were didn’t have time to train fledgling birdmen. They were already locked in battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy, and fighting for their lives. Losses of carriers at Coral Sea, Midway and the Solomon Islands meant that new construction carriers just entering the fleet couldn’t be tasked to training aviators, but instead had to be deployed overseas almost as soon as their paint was dry. Something had to be done, however, to provide those new carriers with aircrew to turn them from transports to fighting warships.

To be sure, as each new carrier was commissioned, it too its “turn in the barrel” serving as a platform for carrier qualification. This helped qualify aviators, but it also helped train each ship’s flight deck crew in its duties. But still, the backlog of aviators needing qualification would grow. Further, using fleet and escort carriers for this job meant they needed heavy escort, particularly in the waters of the Atlantic, where German U-Boats were taking a heavy toll on coastal shipping. No sub skipper in the world would pass at a chance to sink a carrier.

Very early in the war, the idea of a dedicated training carrier on Lake Michigan surfaced. And this idea had a lot going for it. First, the chances of a U-Boat attack on the lake were zero**. Secondly, any such ship would almost by definition have to be a conversion from an existing merchantman. But since it would be strictly a training carrier, other than providing a flight deck and arresting gear, almost no other carrier specific modifications, such as a hangar deck, ammunition magazines, aviation fuel supply, radars, or extensive ready room facilities would be needed. Operating daily from Navy Pier in Chicago, such a ship would be able to leave most functions to the shore side establishment. Navy planes would fly from NAS Glenview (near Chicago) out over the lake, practice landings and takeoffs, and then fly home to NAS Glenview at the end of the day.

Most of the existing merchant ships on the Great Lakes were either desperately needed to support the war effort, or were pressed into service on the open ocean. But the Navy found two ships ill suited for either of those tasks and hence available. Both were coal fired, side-paddlewheeled ships.

The Seeandbee had been built in 1913 to provide passage between Cleveland and Buffalo.

SS Seeandbee before conversion to a training carrier.

In March of 1942, the Navy bought the Seeandbee, began the conversion process by razing her to the main deck and adding a flight deck. By January, 1943, she had been converted, renamed the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and was operating out of Chicago.

USS Wolverine (IX-64) on Lake Michigan, circa 1944.

The other training carrier began life as as the SS Greater Buffalo, providing overnight service between Buffalo and Detroit.

SS Greater Buffalo, as built.

Built in 1924, she was acquired by the Navy a few months after the Seeandbee. During her conversion, she was named  and commissioned as USS Sable (IX-81). Unlike the Douglas Fir plank flight deck of Wolverine (and all other US carriers of the time) she was given a steel flight deck. Sable entered service on Lake Michigan in 1943 as well.

File:USS Sable (IX-81).jpg

USS Sable (IX-81) underway on Lake Michigan.

During the course of World War II, these two ships qualified almost 18,000 Naval Aviators, an astonishing number given their short careers. Future President of the United States, George H.W. Bush qualified aboard the USS Sable.

Both ships had top speeds of 18 knots. But when landing aboard a carrier, the ideal was to have 30 knots of wind across the deck. As long as there was a breeze of 12 knots or more to steam into, there was no problem. But if winds were calm, operations aboard the ships, especially by heavier aircraft such as the TBM or SB2C, could be problematic. And given the neophyte nature of the aviators landing aboard, it’s hardly surprising that accidents happened quite often. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 aircraft found their way to the bottom of Lake Michigan during the war. Many others suffered varying degrees of damage while landing aboard. But operating from Lake Michigan was far more benign than the open sea, so while there were deaths, the total loss of life was a quite small. 

Spending the war shoveling coal on a converted steamer might not have the elan of a destroyerman, nor the dash of a cruiser or battleship sailor, but apparently, spending almost every night in port, with liberty in downtown Chicago was pretty popular with most of the crew.  Today, Navy Pier is a major tourist attraction in downtown Chicago.

As soon as the war ended, the need for aviators fell, and thus the need for the Wolverine and Sable. By 1947, both ships had been decommissioned, struck from the Naval Register, and disposed of.

As for the 130 or so airplanes that sank to the bottom of the lake, that’s something of an ongoing story. These days, restoring warbirds to either museum display or flight is a big business. As it turns out, the cold fresh water of Lake Michigan provided for good preservation of airplanes that sank.  But the Navy has long held that they still retain title to those planes, and forbids salvage of them. In recent years, however, the Navy has begun to allow limited salvage of some aircraft, while still claiming title, provided the recovered aircraft are restored and place on display in areas open to the general public.  One such salvaged example is an F4F-3 of the type used by CDR Butch O’Hare. It’s displayed at O’Hare Airport, which was named in his honor.

Friend of the blog Jason Camlic passed along a couple of fascinating links. A&T Recovery specializes in salvage operations in the Great Lakes. Over the last thirty years, A&T has worked with the National Naval Aviation Museum to recover lost aircraft from the lake. Click on through to visit their very informative site and see some great pictures of the Wolverine and Sable conducting operations, as well as some neat information on their other discoveries.

Similarly, Jason passed along this link to the Pritzker Military Library’s presentation on the freshwater carriers and the lost aircraft of Lake Michigan.

*Light fleet carriers were nine ships laid down as light cruisers, but converted on the ways into aircraft carriers. They were very much compromise designs, smaller than regular fleet carriers, and with correspondingly smaller airgroups. But they were available, had speed enough to keep up with the fleet, and a compromise carrier beats the heck out of no carrier at all.

**Well, actually, there was one German U-Boat in the Great Lakes, and I’m not talking about U-505.

6 thoughts on “Not So “Super” Carriers”

  1. In regards the radar, I have seen photos of both, where there was an SG at the masthead. It can get quite foggy on the Lakes, and even a IX carrier is an expensive investment, to be protected from ore boats lost in the fog.

  2. There was a Corsair raised from Lake Michigan sometime in the last 2-3 years, IIRC. They did a short piece about the Freshwater Navy then as well.

    The radars they carried were basically navigation radars. They didn’t need much else since they weren’t fighting ships as such.

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