In the wake of Pearl Harbor, with six fleet carriers in combat, and thirteen additional fleet carriers and scores of escort carriers on order or under construction (with more to come), the U.S. Navy needed thousands of pilots and tens of thousands of deck crews qualified for carrier operations. Training these student pilots in the basics was relatively easy using land-based airfields. But the only way for them to be carrier qualified was to train on aircraft carriers. And that was the problem. The solution was the paddle wheel carriers Wolverine and Sable.
Orders were cut and on March 2, 1942, at a cost of $756,000, the Navy requisitioned from the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company the passenger ship Seeandbee. It was joined on Aug. 7, 1942, by the Greater Buffalo. The Navy’s “Corn Belt Fleet” was born.
The six existing carriers couldn’t be spared for training. Even if one were, it would be vulnerable to submarine attack. Anticipating such a need and situation in early 1941, Cmndr. Richard F. Whitehead, aviation aide at the Great Lakes Training Center at Glenview Naval Air Station north of Chicago, offered to the Bureau of Ships the answer: convert Great Lakes steamers into aircraft carriers and conduct pilot and deck crew training in the secure waters of Lake Michigan. The Bureau of Ships ignored him. The idea re-surfaced following Pearl Harbor and landed on the desk of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest J. King. Orders were cut and on March 2, 1942, at a cost of $756,000, the Navy requisitioned from the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company the passenger ship Seeandbee. It was joined on Aug. 7, 1942, by the Greater Buffalo. The Navy’s “Corn Belt Fleet” was born.
The Seeandbee and Greater Buffalo were coal-burning, side-paddle wheel pleasure cruise ships plush with luxurious amenities. The amenities, which included elegant mahogany paneling, padded furniture and more than 400 fancy bathrooms, were the first to go as ship refitters stripped away the frou-frou in order to turn the luxury ships into no-nonsense training vessels.
Ship refitters stripped away the frou-frou in order to turn the luxury ships into no-nonsense training vessels.
On Aug. 12, 1942, the Seeandbee was commissioned the USS Wolverine (IX 64), its name in honor of Michigan, the Wolverine State. The Greater Buffalo was commissioned the following year on May 8, 1943, as the USS Sable (IX 81).
The flight decks for the ships were 550 feet long (about two-thirds the length of a fleet carrier’s) and equipped with eight sets of arresting gear. The ships’ islands were configured to resemble those of the combat carriers, but neither ship was fitted with hangars, maintenance facilities, elevators, or catapults. Nor were the hulls armored, as they would never leave the waters of Lake Michigan.
“I remember those Great Lakes flights very well in the open cockpit that winter. Coldest I ever was in my life.”
— George H. W. Bush
The Wolverine’s flight deck was constructed out of oak planks, similar to what was then in use on the combat carriers. In addition to its role as a training ship, the Sable functioned as a test bed. It was the first carrier equipped with a then-experimental metal flight deck. Various non-skid deck coatings, applied in checkerboard fashion, were evaluated. In addition, the Sable conducted tests of the experimental TDR-1, a remote controlled drone made of wood and originally designed as a target aircraft. Later tests had the drones equipped with bombs and television cameras, making them the first TV-guided missiles. The success of these tests saw the TDR-1 go into combat in 1943 at Bougainville, part of a top-secret operation conducted for the rest of the war.
The ships were docked at the Navy Pier in downtown Chicago and would leave at dawn for flight operations conducted about a mile offshore. For a trainee to be carrier qualified, he had to successfully take off and land ten times (later reduced to eight). Traffic jams were regular occurrences as drivers along Lake Shore Drive stopped to watch. From dawn to dusk, seven days a week, weather and wind conditions permitting, the Corn Belt Fleet trained pilots and deck crews.
Traffic jams were regular occurrences as drivers along Lake Shore Drive stopped to watch.
Trainees were required to keep their cockpits open in the event they crash landed in the water and had to escape a sinking plane, which made flights during the winter particularly grueling.
Of the roughly 120,000 landings conducted by the carriers, there were just over 200 accidents, with about 120 of them being aircraft ditching or crashing into Lake Michigan. Incredibly, only eight pilots were lost. By the time the ships were decommissioned in November 1945, the training carriers had qualified approximately 35,000 pilots, one of them being Lt. (j.g.) George H. W. Bush, the future president of the United States.