Divers working for a salvage firm descend into the cold waters of Lake Michigan. Soon, they reach the lakebed and locate what a previous sonar scan has identified. It’s the wreck of a World War II fighter plane, instantly recognizable. But how on Earth did this relic of 20th-century global conflict end up at the bottom of the lake?
To fully understand this intriguing tale, we need to go back to the winter of 1941. At this stage, the U.S. was not yet engaged in WWII, although that was soon to change. And what propelled the country into the conflict was of course the surprise attack by Japanese planes on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that took place on December 7, 1941.
The impact of the 90-minute attack was devastating. It put no fewer than 18 ships out of action, destroyed close to 200 planes and damaged another 159 aircraft. The human toll was even more grim: close to 2,500 died, including sailors, airmen, soldiers and civilians, while more than 1,000 were injured.
President Franklin Roosevelt signed a declaration of war on Japan the very next day, and three days later Nazi Germany and fascist Italy declared war on America. The country was now well and truly embroiled in WWII. Yet the losses at Pearl Harbor had severely reduced the military capabilities of the U.S. just at the time when they were most urgently needed.
Training new pilots, especially airmen who could fly from carriers, was one prime concern. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which so exposed the base’s vulnerabilities, where could they be trained in relative safety? Somewhere more or less immune to enemy air attacks and submarine torpedoes was desperately required.
Japanese submarines were sailing up and down America’s Pacific coast, while Nazi U-boats were present in Atlantic waters and the Gulf of Mexico. However, a 2016 article in the Chicago Tribune credited a merchant seaman called John J. Manley with coming up with a solution to this thorny problem.
Manley’s bright idea was to use an inland body of water, away from the threat of attack, for aircraft carrier training. And where could be better than Lake Michigan? It is, after all, the only one of the five Great Lakes entirely located within U.S. borders. Plus, it’s big, spreading out over more than 22,000 square miles.
Lake Michigan was, then, ideal for the purpose. Big enough for meaningful training and about as safe as could possibly be from enemy attack. There was another problem to overcome, however. As WWII got underway for America, the U.S. Navy had seven aircraft carriers. Yet not a single one could be spared from active service for training purposes.
An alternative therefore had to be found. And the chosen solution came in the unlikely shape of two steam-driven, paddle-wheel passenger ships. The Seeandbee had been launched in 1913, and the Greater Buffalo’s maiden voyage had come in 1926. Both vessels were seriously sizable, too. When the luxuriously appointed Seeandbee first launched, it was the biggest inland paddle steamer in the world – and the Greater Buffalo then took that title when it appeared on the Great Lakes.
Obviously, once the Navy got its hands on those two vessels, they needed a bit of work – to say the least – before they could be used to train pilots. The Navy started, however, by renaming them. The Seeandbee became USS Wolverine, and the Greater Buffalo was now USS Sable.
To convert the two pleasure steamers into training aircraft carriers, the Navy simply chopped off the superstructures that it didn’t need and replaced them with a pair of flight decks. So, the dual vessels were now ready to start training pilots. And this was to be an exacting learning curve.
The training was made all the more difficult for at least two reasons. Not only did Wolverine and Sable sit lower in the water than a standard carrier, but at 550 feet long, each of their flight decks was shorter by about a third. It was therefore said that if a trainee could make the grade on these two ships, then they could land on any flight deck in the U.S. Navy.
Inevitably, training pilots to land on and take off from a ship results in mishaps and accidents. And during the program of training from 1942 to 1945, there were more than 200 such incidents. Some of these, furthermore, resulted in the loss of planes – almost 130 in total.
Mostly, the trainees themselves suffered only minor wounds in these accidents, but sadly there were eight deaths. The first was that of Ensign F.M. Cooper on October 21, 1942. While taking off from Wolverine in his F4F-3 Wildcat, the fledgling pilot lost control of his aircraft, and it crashed into the lake. Cooper and his plane were lost in close to 100 feet of water, never to be found.
But the fatalities also need to be viewed in the context of the fact that the brave young prospective pilots managed a total of 120,000 favorable landings on the Lake Michigan vessels. And a staggering total of some 35,000 men qualified as pilots after training on Sable and Wolverine.
A few of the planes that crashed into Lake Michigan were recovered – but mostly only those that landed in waters near the lake’s shores. So the majority of them were left where they ended up: at the bottom of the lake. In recent years, however, there have been determined efforts to find these aircraft – and almost 50 have since been hauled up from the lakebed.
What’s more, many of the planes recovered from the depths are in a remarkable state of preservation. Leather seats and paint schemes have frequently been found in good condition, for example, and in a lot of cases tires have been retrieved still containing air and crankcases continuing to hold their oil. This is because Lake Michigan consists of fresh rather than salt water and its temperatures are low.
A company called A&T Recovery has been active in retrieving some of the lost aircraft. And, drawing on some smart tech, the firm uses an advanced form of sonar to first find the sunken relics. A&T’s general manager, Taras Lyssenko, explained the process to WSBT22 in 2016. “[The sonar] uses a sound wave, and it listens for an echo return and draws an image of it,” he said.
What happens next? Well, a few of the planes already recovered from the lake have found a new home at the Air Zoo museum in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Conservators and volunteers at the museum have already restored one of the aircraft, and two more are currently going through the same process. Yet although the recovered planes have been in surprisingly good condition, those still in the lake are at grave risk from an introduced species: freshwater mussels.
“Think about all of the other airplanes that are sitting on the bottom of the lake, covered in these mussels,” Air Zoo aircraft conservator Greg Ward told WSBT22. “Now, it’s become almost an emergency to get funding and get these airplanes recovered before they get turned to dust underwater.” Let’s hope money can be found to save these extraordinary WWII planes.