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6/11/07

Cornfields and Carriers



Henry Holt sent this to me WM


Cornfields and Carriers
By Rob Newell
During World War II, America's freshwater aircraft carriers proved valuable training sites for U.S. fighter pilots heading to the Pacific.


It certainly caused Chicago motorists to do some rubbernecking the summer of 1942 - and not because the military was a stranger to Chicagoans.? No, as in many other major cities in the United States during that first year of World War II, Chicago saw its share of military training schools pop up, and men in uniform dotted its sidewalks.? But this was something entirely different. A Navy aircraft carrier conducting flight operations was something never before seen in the middle of the country - let alone on Lake Shore Drive, the scenic road along Lake Michigan.


Yet there it was, to be joined by a second carrier the following summer. The obvious question was, what are Navy aircraft carriers doing 1,000 miles away from the nearest saltwater?? The short answer was, training the Navy's new carrier pilots and flight deck crews.


But the full explanation was much more than that.? These carriers on Lake Michigan signaled the start of a program that would bolster the battle readiness of American aircraft carriers throughout the war.


A novel idea


The presence of this first-ever freshwat er aircraft carrier was the brainchild of Cmdr. Richard Whitehead, aviation aide to the commandant of the Ninth Naval District, headquartered 35 miles north of Chicago at the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Ill.? The Navy desperately needed lots of qualified aircraft carrier pilots and flight deck crews aboard U.S. carriers engaging the Japanese Imperial Fleet in the Pacific and aboard the more than 100 carriers that would be in the fleet by war's end.? The problem was finding the carriers and a place to train.


"The Navy couldn't afford to dedicate a carrier solely for qualifying new pilots," says Hill Goodspeed, historian for th e National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla. "Each of the Navy's existing carriers was badly needed for operational missions, particularly in the Pacific."


And while the Navy had tried to squeeze carrier qualification training in between operational missions, the threat of German and Japanese attacks off both the East and West coasts and the requirement for radio silence had made training risky.
That's when serious consideration was given to Whitehead's idea of converting two coal-burning, side-paddle-wheel, Great Lakes cruise ships into aircraft carriers and conducting training in the protected waters of Lake Michigan.
It was an idea he had pitched informally to the Bureau of Ships in Washington several times before the attack on Pearl Harbor, only to see it turned down.? But, after a formal proposal from his boss, Adm. John Downes, directly to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest King, the Navy approved the plan.


On March 12, 1942, for $756,000, the Navy purchased the SS Seaandbee complete with 470 staterooms, 24 parlors, loads of mahogany trim, and two side paddle wheels that made it look more like an old Mississippi riverboat then a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.


The American Shipbuilding Company in Cleveland quickly stripped Seaandbee of all its plush amenities and towed it to Buffalo, N.Y., where 1,200 men worked around the clock to transform it into an aircraft carrier.? When the conversion was complete in August, Seaandbee had a 550-foot-long wooden flight deck that extended well past its bow and stern, a small island on its starboard side, no hangar deck, no catapults and a new name: USS Wolverine.


"What was remarkable was how they got the thing built and into service as quickly as they did," says John Laudermilk, a naval historian for the Chicago Maritime Society.? "The Navy didn't give them a lot of guidance, and these guys just kind of winged it.? What they were really doing was inventing the inland water aircraft carrier."


The Navy wasted no time in putting the carrier to use.? In anticipation of the Wolverine's Chicago commissioning in August 1942, a carrier qualification training unit had been established at Glenview Naval Air Station, 25 miles northwest of the city.? On Sept. 12, 1942, the first pilot qualified aboard Wolverine.? The sights and sounds of aircraft carrier flight operations soon would become commonplace up and down Chicago's shoreline.


Qualifying in the big city


Seven days a week (weather permitting), Wolverine departed its berth at Navy Pier downtown and headed onto the lake, black smoke billowing from its coal-fired engine room.


"Initially, that caused a big problem with the hotel owners on the lakefront because the black soot was getting their morning laundry [that was hanging outside to dry] dirty," says Laudermilk.? "The ship solved that problem by leaving shortly after dawn."


As soon as there was enough wind over the deck, flight operations would commence.? Some mornings that happened less than a mile from the shore, causing giant traffic jams on Lake Shore Drive from people, mouths agape, pausing to watch flight operations.


For the majority of the new Navy pilots arriving in Glenview, carrier qualification was the last stop in a yearlong training pipeline before they headed out to join a fleet squadron, usually in the Pacific.


"We were only there for about three days," recalls retired Navy Capt. Chuck Downey, who qualified in September 1943 at the age of 18.? "We spent a couple days working with a landing signal officer, practicing our carrier approaches at a training field, and then when he felt we were ready, he sent us out to the carrier."


Planes usually went out in groups of five, rendezvousing over the white Baha'i temple in Wilmette, Ill., where they received a bearing and range to the carrier.? The pilots then circled Wolverine, coming down one by one for their first carrier landing.
"I can still remember looking down at Wolverine and being appalled by its small size," says Tom Mass, who made his first carrier landing in a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber in February 1944.? "I just didn't think it was possible.? But then I saw the others in my group doing it, so I figured ''what the heck, I'll give it a shot!'"


Mass's uneasiness about the size of Wolverine's flight deck was warranted. While it was comparable in size to the decks of escort carriers, it was a good 300 feet shorter than the decks of fleet carriers such as Yorktown and Enterprise, Midway, Essex, Bennington, Bon Homme.? Additionally, it was only 27 feet above the water, compared to the 80-foot-height of fleet carrier flight decks, making it a lot easier for the Navy's newest carrier pilots to land in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan if things didn't go according to plan.


Mass successfully made his required eight landings and flew straight back to Glenview, avoiding the temptation to share his accomplishment with the towns along the north shore of Lake Michigan.


After qualifying, "some of the pilots . . . would be a little frisky on their way back to Glenview, so they'd buzz the streets of Evanston," says Laudermilk.? "The Navy was somewhat disbelieving of the complaints from the townspeople until one woman, when asked to identify the markings on the aircraft, replied, ''I'm not sure, but I know the pilot had a brown mustache.f At that point the Navy realized the complaints had some merit."


One pilot who took a dip in Lake Michigan and lived to tell about it was Tom Foran, a Chicago native who in November 1943 returned to his hometown to carrier-qualify.


"I had just got my bearing to the ship when my engine caught on fire," Foran remembers.? "I didn't want to go back to Glenview because I was afraid I'd crash into Evanston.? So I asked the ship if they would still let me come aboard.? They said, ''Sure!? So I got all the way out there, I made my approach, and right when I put my landing gear down the engine completely stopped, and 'kerplunk,' I went right into the lake."


The Coast Guard always had two patrol boats trailing closely behind the carriers for these situations, and they quickly fished Foran out of the water.


"I was freezing," Foran recalls.? "These two guys brought me into a little room and stripped all my clothes off.? In the meantime, the boat was rocking and rolling all over the place.? I lost my balance and sat buck naked right on top of this heater.? I burned my rear end so bad it was three days before I was able to qualify!"


Winter challenges


Chicago's cold, snowy winters made for some unique flying? "I remember doing my field carrier landings in February of 1944 with the snow piled up so high on both sides of the runway it looked like I was flying into a tunnel," says Ken Snyder, who nevertheless was able to qualify aboard Wolverine.? "There were times when the lake was frozen, but I got there when there was a hole in the weather pattern, did my eight landings and was out of there in three days."


In December 1943, the weather got so bad the Navy decided to temporarily move the entire carrier qualification training unit to San Diego and let Wolverine remain moored in Chicago for the winter.? The move turned out to be a vivid reminder of why, even with the rough weather, the Navy was better off on Lake Michigan.


San Diego's operational carriers often were unavailable for qualification training, and when they were available, the pitch and roll of their flight decks out in the open ocean made it extremely difficult for the inexperienced pilots? During the entire three months the training unit was in San Diego, only 240 pilots were qualified.


In March the group returned to Glenview for good, and although Lake Michigan was still covered with a thin coating of ice, Wolverine promptly resumed flight operations.


"She presented a lonely spectacle at this time, as she was the only vessel on the lake, having jumped the opening of the official shipping season by two full months," said an annotation in the official Navy history of the training unit.


Later that spring, the carrier qualification training unit in Norfolk, Va., permanently transferred to Glenview, and when USS Sable, formerly the SS Greater Buffalo, arrived on the scene in June, the two ships quickly began qualifying pilots and flight deck crews in the large numbers Whitehead had envisioned.


Unceremonious good-bye


By the end of the war, approximately 116,000 carrier landings had been made aboard the two ships, and a total of 17,820 pilots had qualified for carrier duty.? Another 40,000 sailors were trained to be part of fleet carrier flight deck crews.
"Those two ships filled a huge void back then," says Downey, who went on to spend 33 years in naval aviation following his brief stop at Glenview. "Without them, we never would have gotten the numbers of qualified carrier pilots that we did.? There just wasn't anyplace else to do it."


On Nov. 7, 1945, three months after V-J Day, both Wolverine and Sable were decommissioned.? By 1948, both ships had been scrapped.


Thirty-one years later, during the summer of 1979, some weekend divers searching for shipwrecks about five miles from where Wolverine and Sable were once moored at Navy Pier stumbled upon what looked like an old airplane.? Upon further inspection, they determined it wasn't just any airplane but a TBF Avenger torpedo dive bomber, one of the seven different types of aircraft pilots had flown during their qualifying flights aboard Wolverine and Sable.


Since then, several more planes have been discovered in Lake Michigan and brought ashore for restoration, including a Grumman F4F Wildcat and an SB2U Vindicator.? An estimated 200 planes still remain at the bottom of the lake, silent reminders of the courageous young men who flew them and the old-fashioned American ingenuity that helped the United States win the war.


Memories for a Lifetime


Most still have their aviation log books.? They can tell you the exact day they carrier-qualified and how many flight hours they had when they did it.


The majority left the carrier qualification training unit at Glenview Naval Air Station, 25 miles northwest of Chicago, and headed right into combat in the Pacific; others remained behind in the States, serving as flight instructors or joining stateside squadrons.? Only a few remained in the Navy after the war, while the rest returned to the lives the y left behind Dec. 7, 1941.
But whether they stayed in the Navy for 30 years or three, their experiences as naval aviators left an indelible mark on each of them and provided memories as clear as if they happened yesterday.


Tom Foran, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, flew off USS Lexington and USS Boxer in the Pacific, taking part in the battles for the Philippines and Leyte Gulf.? Now deceased, Foran used to chuckle when recalling Red Bancroft, the 40-something chief petty officer who supervised the four-man crew that maintained his TBF Avenger torpedo bomber.


"Red was real Navy.? Even though I was barely 21, it was always 'Sir' or 'Mr. Foran' until right up to the point I got ready to climb into the cockpit for a combat mission.? Then he'd walk over to me, take the gum he was always chewing out of his mouth, stick it on top of my helmet, and say, 'Tommy me-boy, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and if that isn't a square deal, you can kiss my ass.? When I came back, he'd walk over, take the gum off the top of my helmet, stick it back in his mouth and never say a word. It was our unspoken good-luck ritual."


Ken Snyder, now 79 and living in Pensacola, Fla., flew the F6F Hellcat fighter off carriers that were supporting Marines on the ground in the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific.? He doesn't hesitate when asked the difference between landing a plane aboard a carrier on Lake Michigan and one on the Western Pacific.


"In the Great Lakes, I remember sweating getting the plane on the deck; that was all I could concentrate on.? In the Pacific, you always had lots of other things on your mind.? They were shooting at you, for one.? When you're that young, it all adds up to a game, and back then the game was good."


When the war ended, Snyder remained in the Navy, finally retiring in 1966. "I couldn't think of anything else I'd rather do," he says.? "I really loved the camaraderie of naval aviation."


Editor's note: Tom Foran, one of the Navy pilots quoted in this story, passed away after being interviewed for this article.

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