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.
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.