Lake Michigan’s Naval Aviation History

Hill Goodspeed, Historian
National Naval Aviation Museum

Great Lakes Aircraft Carriers

America’s entry into World War II dramatically increased the ranks of naval aviators, correspondingly expanding the requirement for instruction in operating from an aircraft carrier. Carrier qualification previously took place on board frontline ships, but with the threat of German and Japanese submarines in both the Atlantic and Pacific, the Navy looked to Lake Michigan as a protected location for this aspect of training. The question was how to get an aircraft carrier to the Great Lakes!

The innovative solution was the procurement of the passenger steamers Seandbee and Greater Buffalo. Both plied the waters of the Great Lakes during the prewar years and the Navy quickly began converting them into training aircraft carriers. The vessels retained their coal-driven, side-wheel propulsion systems, making them unique ships in the U.S. Navy. Their 550-feet-long flight decks were smaller than those on board the Navy’s fleet carriers and, as such, provided excellent training platforms: If a pilot could make it on this deck, he could make it on any other deck in the Navy’s fleet.

USS Wolverine (IX-64) photographed on April 6, 1943.

Seandbee, renamed Wolverine (IX-64), commissioned on August 12, 1942, while Greater Buffalo commissioned on May 8, 1943 as Sable (IX-81). Although limited carrier-qualification training occurred in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay on board various escort carriers, the majority of World War II naval aviators made their first launches and recoveries on board Wolverine and Sable, among them future President of the United States George H.W. Bush.

Wolverine launched her first aircraft on August 25, 1942, and Sable qualified her first two pilots on May 29, 1943.

USS Sable (IX-81) underway on the Great Lakes, June 1945.

Lost and Found

As expected in the inherently dangerous evolution of operating aircraft from a moving ship, mishaps occurred, with more than 200 accidents and 128 airplanes lost during the period 1942–1945. These numbers seem high until one considers that during the war, some 120,000 successful landings took place on board the two training carriers, and an estimated 15,000 pilots successfully qualified. Although the majority of mishaps resulted in only minor injuries, eight pilots lost their lives, including Ensign F. M. Cooper, whose F4F-3 Wildcat crashed during launch from Wolverine on October 21, 1942, the first accident on board one of the Great Lakes carriers.

A variety of aircraft operated from Wolverine and Sable. Early in the war, they included some war-weary fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo bombers replaced in frontline squadrons and sent to the training command after service in early battles. By the final months of the war, with American factories at full production, some brand-new aircraft went from assembly line to training on board Wolverine and Sable.

Ship’s logs and aircraft accident records reveal 41 TBM/TBF Avengers, one F4U Corsair, 38 SBD Dauntlesses, four F6F Hellcats, 17 SNJ Texans, two SB2U Vindicators, 37 FM/F4F Wildcats, and three experimental drones known as TDNs were lost operating from the Great Lakes carriers. The Navy decommissioned Wolverine and Sable after the war and the young men who served on board the unique ships returned to the civilian world and built their postwar lives. The aircraft in the depths of Lake Michigan remained largely forgotten, their legacy renewed beginning in the late 1980s when the National Naval Aviation Museum prompted a U.S. Navy initiative to recover these lost warbirds. The first occurred in 1990 and, since that time, 39 aircraft have emerged from Lake Michigan waters.

The environment in the cold, fresh waters of Lake Michigan has usually provided excellent preservation for the decades-old wrecks and most have been in good condition when recovered. Amazingly, tires oftentimes retain air, batteries hold a charge, and survival rafts are preserved. In addition, paint schemes and markings are visible, allowing for easier identification.

This ambitious undertaking received support from the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and involved the efforts of numerous interested parties, to include contract salvors, individuals, and corporate entities that provided funding and volunteer support. This collective effort resulted in the location, recovery, restoration, and display of these historic aircraft for public benefit in museums and other sites around the United States. This includes an F4F Wildcat seen by millions of people at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, named after Medal of Honor recipient Commander Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare.

Legacy in the Lake

The aircraft assemblage in Lake Michigan represents the largest and best-preserved group of sunken historic aircraft in the world. Taken individually, each has historical value for association with significant battles, events, and individuals. Even those that never saw combat are valuable as representatives of their type, or for their rarity today. As a whole, the entire assemblage is significant for its service in the unique carrier-qualification training in Lake Michigan.

This history is important to the Navy, to the states surrounding southern part of the lake and the nation, the preservation of that history including not only aircraft recovered, but also the management of those remaining on the lake bottom as archaeological sites.

The Aircraft

The service of many of the Lake Michigan airplanes occurred during pivotal campaigns in squadrons and on board ships in the annals of naval aviation history. Notable among them are the following:

SBD-1 Dauntless (Bureau Number 1612)—currently displayed at the Flying Leatherneck Museum

This particular example is the oldest Dauntless in existence, part of the first production batch of the famous dive-bomber.

SB2U-2 Vindicator (Bureau Number 1383)—currently displayed at the National Naval Aviation Museum

The only surviving aircraft of its type in the world and the last SB2U-2 built for the Navy, this airplane served on board USS Ranger (CV-4), participating in the Neutrality Patrol in 1941.

SBD-2 Dauntless (Bureau Number 2106)—currently displayed at the National Naval Aviation Museum

One of the most decorated World War II combat veterans in existence anywhere in the world, this airplane was on the ground at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on the morning of December 7, 1941. On March 10, 1942, while serving in Bombing Squadron (VB) 2 on board USS Lexington (CV-2), it participated in an air strike against Japanese shipping at Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea, the mission including crossing over the Owen Stanley Mountains. On June 4, 1942, while assigned to Marine Scout Bombing Squadron (VMSB) 241, the airplane attacked the Japanese carrier fleet during the Battle of Midway, returning to Midway Atoll with a wounded gunner on board and over 200 bullet holes in its fuselage. For actions on the New Guinea raid and at Midway, the pilots flying the airplane received the Navy Cross.

SBD-2P Dauntless (Bureau Number 2173)—currently under restoration at the Air Zoo

Delivered as one of only 14 photo reconnaissance versions of the Dauntless built by Douglas Aircraft Company, the airplane spent its first tour in 1941 as part of VS-6 operating from USS Enterprise (CV-6). It later joined VB-5 on board USS Yorktown (CV-5) and likely flew with that squadron at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first engagement in history in which the ships of the opposing fleets never came within sight of each other.

F4F-3 Wildcat (Bureau Number 3872)—currently displayed at the National Naval Aviation Museum
F4F Wildcat on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum.

An early production F4F-3 that did not feature folding wings, this airplane flew as part of VF-72 off USS Wasp (CV-7) during the Neutrality Patrol.

F4U-1 Corsair (Bureau Number 02465)—currently under restoration at the National Naval Aviation Museum

A rare “Birdcage Corsair,” the nickname derived from the appearance of the framed cockpit canopy in comparison to the bubble canopies of later versions of the famed fighter, this F4U-1 emerged from the lake in two pieces. The tail section separated from the fuselage during recovery on board Wolverine.

SBD-3 Dauntless (Bureau Number 06508)—currently displayed at the National World War II Museum

This airplane arrived at Guadalcanal in early November 1942 and flew with VMSB-141 and VMSB-132 before eventual assignment to USS Enterprise. It operated with VB-10 on board the “Big E.”

SBD-3 Dauntless (Bureau Numbers 06624 and 06626)—currently displayed at the Air Zoo and Yankee Air Museum respectively

This aircraft served in Scouting Squadron (VS) 41, the famed “Top Hats,” on board USS Ranger and flew combat missions in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, in November 1942. They later operated from USS Santee (ACV-29) with Composite Squadron (VC) 29 flying antisubmarine patrols against German U-boats in the South Atlantic.

F6F-3 Hellcat (Bureau Number 25910)—currently displayed at the National Naval Aviation Museum

While most Navy F6F Hellcats flew combat missions from ship, this particular airplane did so from shore while serving in Fighting Squadron (VF) 38. The squadron operated from Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and Bougainville, shooting down 22 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat during the Solomon Islands campaign. Notably, the logbook from a squadron aviator notes that the airplane displayed at the museum flew an escort mission for an aircraft carrying Admiral William F. Halsey during an inspection trip.