By: Friedrich Seiltgen
Copyright © 2022
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was caught short of aircraft carriers and fighter pilots. Starting out in a World War with 8 carriers and 6,000 pilots meant the Navy needed carrier qualified pilots fast! The problem was there were no aircraft carriers available for training and even if there were, the ocean waters were full of German U-Boats ready to ruin your day.
In a great example of thinking outside the box, Commander Richard Whitehead of the 9th Naval District devised a plan to create training aircraft carriers by modifying steamships from the great lakes region and training carrier pilots on Lake Michigan! The great lakes were chosen because as Commander Whitehead put it:
“a massive body of water completely protected from enemy U-boats and bombers upon which Naval Aviators could practice carrier operations. This body of water was known collectively as the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater reservoir in the world.”
The ships were coal fired, paddlewheel steamships, which ferried passengers in luxury throughout the great lakes region. In March 1942, the U.S Navy purchased the SS Seeandbee, which would become the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and be commissioned in August 1942. In May of 1943, the SS Greater Buffalo which became the USS Sable joined the Wolverine on Lake Michigan.
When the ships were retrofitted, all cabins above the main deck were demolished and a flight deck was constructed using a box girder frame. There were limitations of course. A standard Yorktown class carrier flight deck was 860 feet long. The flight deck of the new training carriers were only 550 feet long! The deck was also closer to the water at 22 Feet!
Pilots who trained at NAS Pensacola and Corpus Christi were sent to Glenview Naval Air Station for carrier qualifications. The two training carriers of the “Cornbelt Fleet” were docked at Chicago’s Navy pier; the training was done at a fast pace, conducted sunrise to sunset. When both carriers were running operations, they qualified over 100 pilots a day. Despite the challenges of flight training on the shortened deck, the two carriers qualified over 17,000 pilots along with thousands of deck personnel. In all, there were less than 300 aircraft lost during training, some of which have been recovered and restored and now sit in museums.
The U.S. Commissioned a total of 151 aircraft carriers during World War II and the Sable & Wolverine trained most of their pilots. Unfortunately, the two carriers of the Cornbelt Fleet were decommissioned and sold for scrap in November 1945.
That’s all for now folks! Please keep sending in your questions, tips, and article ideas. And as always – “Let’s Be Careful Out There”
Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms and Active Shooter Response. His writing has appeared in RECOIL, The Counter Terrorist Magazine, American Thinker, Homeland Security Today, and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International. Contact him at [email protected]