WWII United States Navy “Sweetwater” Aircraft Carriers

US Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, during WWII. USS Wolverine (on left) alongside USS Sable.
US Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, during WWII.  USS Wolverine (on left) alongside the USS Sable.

 

With possible threats posed by German and Japanese submarines along the United States (US) Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, US Navy Commander Richard L. Whitehead had the idea to train Navy pilots in takeoffs and landings on aircraft carriers in the North American Great Lakes. Ingenuity was necessary to make this happen since there were no US Navy aircraft carriers in the Great Lakes.

Two paddlewheel passenger steamers already operating on the Great Lakes were converted to “sweetwater” aircraft carriers.  “Sweetwater” was a Navy slang word of the time used to describe freshwater versus saltwater ships.  

One of the two ships converted to an aircraft carrier was the Steam Ship (SS) Seeandbee which was commissioned the United States Ship (USS) Wolverine on August 12, 1942. The other ship, originally the SS Greater Buffalo, was renamed and commissioned the USS Sable on May 8, 1943.  Basically, their superstructures were removed, and a flight deck was added.

 

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SS Greater Buffalo before conversion to USS Sable

 

SS Greater Buffalo conversion
SS Greater Buffalo during conversion

 

USS Sable on Lake Michigan with Grumman Wildcat fighter plane taking off.
USS Sable in Lake Michigan with Grumman Wildcat taking off

 

The homeport for these two “makeshift” aircraft carriers was the Chicago, Illinois, US Navy Pier located on Lake Michigan. Pilots attempting to qualify for aircraft carrier duty flew from US Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois, to train on these ships.

Over 17,000 pilots were trained in takeoffs and landings. One US Navy aviator who trained on the USS Sable was a future President of the United States, George H. W. Bush.

 

After WWII, some planes that were lost during training were brought up from the bottom of Lake Michigan. Recovered fighter planes have included a F4U-1 Corsair and a FM-2 Wildcat.

The North American Great Lakes supported the war effort in various roles. See an earlier post, “Great Lakes Shipbuilding in WWII: And the Tale of FP-344,” on this website. The story link is https://www.ww2history.org/homefront/great-lakes-shipbuilding-in-wwii-and-the-tale-of-fp-344/ .

Thank you to WWII historian George Cressman for his assistance in writing this post.

Great Lakes Shipbuilding in WWII: And the Tale of FP-344

FP-344 In Kewaunee Harbor
FP-344 in Kewaunee Harbor

 

The North American Great Lakes were an area of strategic importance in the United States (US) during WWII. Iron ore needed to be transported to steel making plants along the Great Lakes.  Shipyards on the shores of the Great Lakes built military vessels. Types of ships built were cargo ships, tugboats, submarines, and other vessels.

After ships were launched in the Great Lakes, they made their way down to Chicago (Illinois), transited the Chicago Drainage Canal, traveled through other waterways connecting with the Mississippi River, and sailed south to the Gulf of Mexico where they were placed in service.

The US Coast Guard was assigned duty on the Great Lakes to guard against sabotage and to keep shipping lanes open. Duties included manning lookout stations which monitored shipping lanes, patrolling harbors, and guarding bridges, docks, and ships.  The most powerful “designated” icebreaker of the time, the United States Ship (USS) Mackinaw, kept ice out of shipping channels in winter months.

Kewaunee (Wisconsin) Shipbuilding and Engineering on the shore of Lake Michigan was one of the shipbuilding locations during WWII. The company,  founded in 1941, received a government contract to build military ships. Eighty vessels, cargo ships and tugboats, were built between 1941 and 1946.  The shipyard employed 400 workers. One of the workers was my father, Stanley “Jocko” O’Konski.

It is at Kewaunee Shipbuilding and Engineering that the tale of Freight and Passenger (FP) -344 begins.  FP-344 was a cargo ship, built originally for the US Army,  launched in April 1944, and survived WWII.  By 1967, then a US Navy ship, it was refitted for intelligence gathering and sent to the Pacific.

The US Navy had changed the name of FP-344 to the USS Pueblo.  The ship was captured by North Korea January 23, 1968, and the action is known in history as the Pueblo incident. During the capture of the ship, a sailor, Duane Hodges, was killed.  The remaining 82 crew members were held in North Korea until December 23, 1968, when they were released after US and North Korean negotiations.

The USS Pueblo is still in North Korea. The US Navy has never decommissioned the ship.

 

Kewaunee Shipbuilding and Engineering continues today as Kewaunee Fabrications.

An area of interest, although not addressed in this post, is the history of the US Lighthouse Service.  Founded in 1910, it was merged with the US Coast Guard in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as WWII became imminent. 

Compassion and Remembrance

Holly with Pattie and neighborhood boy Bucky
Holly with Pattie and neighborhood boy, Bucky

 

Holloway “Holly” Sumner’s granddaughter, Pattie, has a warm memory of him welcoming her to his home with outstretched arms, wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, holding a Lucky Strike cigarette between his fingers, and singing to her, “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi.” He was very special to her.  She did not know as a little girl how special he was to other people also.

Holly Sumner was a longtime resident of Chula Vista, California. At one time he was Deputy City Marshall, Assistant Fire Chief, and owned the first Ford and Caterpillar dealerships.

In the 1940s Holly owned an insurance business and had clients who were Japanese Americans. When he learned they were going to be relocated to internment camps, Holly went to them with an offer.* If they would sell him their property for $1, he would sell it back to them for $1 when they came back after the war.

WWII ended, and Holly kept his word.  Holloway Sumner died in 1971.

Holly had a son, Walter Holloway Sumner. Walter was a WWII B-17 pilot with the 306th Bomb Group based in Thurleigh, England. He was Pattie’s father.

When Walter died in 1975, Pattie and her family held a memorial service for him.  At a point during the service, Pattie turned around and noticed about eight Japanese Americans among the mourners. She came to find out that they were family members of those Japanese Americans her grandfather had helped during WWII. They attended his son’s memorial service out of a still held respect for the Sumner family. Holly’s compassion in a time of war was long remembered.

 

Story as told to me by Pattie Sumner.  Story and family photograph posted with her permission.

My uncle, Adrian O’Konski, was the navigator on the Walter Sumner crew.

The Holloway Sumner home is designated a historic site by the City of Chula Vista, California.  

* President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order (EO) 9066 on February 19, 1942,  after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The EO, “Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas,” was the basis for the development of civilian internment camps in the US during WWII. Japanese Americans and some civilians of German and Italian descent were relocated to these camps.