Fresh-Water Flattops – The U.S. Navy’s Forgotten Great Lakes Aircraft Carriers

The USS Sable underway in the Great Lakes. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The USS Sable underway in the Great Lakes during the Second World War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Despite their importance, the Wolverine and Sable have become little more than two curious footnotes to the larger history of the Second World War.

ALTHOUGH THE UNITED STATES commissioned a staggering 151 aircraft carriers during World War Two, it’s safe to say that none were as strange as the USS Wolverine and her sister ship the USS Sable.

Not only were the two flattops the only American wartime carriers powered by coal (most naval vessels of the era ran on fuel oil), both served their entire military careers on Lake Michigan – more than 2,000 miles from the Pacific!

And while these freshwater fighting ships faced no enemy and fired no shots in anger, they were invaluable to the American war effort. Both vessels prepared thousands of naval aviators for the dangerous job of landing planes on pitching and rolling flight decks at sea. And it was squadrons of these same naval aviators that helped turn the tide against the Axis.

Yet despite their importance, the Wolverine and Sable have become little more than two curious footnotes to the larger history of the Second World War. Here’s their story.

Before it was converted to an aircraft carrier, the USS Wolverine, was a Lake Erie luxury liner, the SS Seeandbee. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Before it was converted to an aircraft carrier, the USS Wolverine was the Lake Erie luxury liner the Seeandbee. (Image source: WikiCommons)

From Passenger Liners to Carriers

Thousands of travellers cruised between Buffalo and Chicago in style aboard the SS Seeandbee. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Thousands of travellers cruised between Buffalo and Chicago in style aboard the Seeandbee. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Commissioned in 1942 as a training ship for naval aviators, the Wolverine began its life in 1913 as the paddle-wheel steamer Seeandbee, a Lake Erie luxury cruise liner capable of carrying 1,500 passengers. The 500-foot-long vessel featured 500 private cabins, a saloon and a great formal dining hall, complete with an orchestra. For years, the Seeandbee’s berths were filled with upscale travellers looking to get from Buffalo to Cleveland overnight in style. But as ticket sales slumped during the Great Depression, the ship’s future seemed uncertain. It wasn’t until 1942 that she won a new and entirely unexpected lease on life.

Within weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Washington bought the aging steamship and began converting her for military use. Among other requirements, the navy needed training aircraft carriers for the thousands of rookie pilots and deck crew that were swelling the ranks now that America was at war. The Seeandbee would fit the bill.

In just four months, work crews cut away the ship’s superstructure and fitted her hull with a 500-foot wooden flight deck and arrester cables. A small bridge along the starboard side was also added.

Re-christened the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and commissioned in August of 1942, the vessel, which lacked the hangar decks and defensive weaponry of a conventional aircraft carrier, would be little more than a floating runway. Yet despite her shortcomings, the Wolverine was a handy platform for pilots to practice take offs and landing, thus freeing up frontline carriers for combat duty. By early 1943, the vessel was sailing daily from Chicago’s Navy Pier into Lake Michigan where she’d conduct flight training operations.

The USS Wolverine, one of two U.S. Navy paddle-wheel steamer aircraft carriers. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The USS Wolverine was about 250 feet shorter than a frontline Yorktown-class carrier. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The Cornbelt Fleet”

By 1943, the navy needed even more carrier pilots trained, so in May the Wolverine was joined by another flattop, the newly refurbished USS Sable.

This newer carrier had been converted from the 518-foot-long paddle-wheel liner Greater Buffalo, the former pride of the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company’s Lake Erie fleet.

In her prime, the Greater Buffalo thrilled passengers with luxurious staterooms, a vast dining hall, an onboard movie theatre and its own radio station. But by 1941, she sat idle. The following year, she too was acquired by the navy and retrofitted with a flight deck — this one made of steel. Eight rows of arresting cables were also added and a bridge. Down below were pilot briefing rooms, living quarters, mess halls and even laundry facilities for both aviators and crew.

The Cornbelt Fleet at anchor at Chicago's Navy Pier. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Cornbelt Fleet at anchor at Chicago’s Navy Pier. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Together, the two unlikely vessels became known affectionately as “the Cornbelt Fleet” — a nod to the ships’ landlocked Midwestern cruising grounds.

By the late spring of 1943, the Sable and Wolverine were launching and recovering single-engine warplanes flown by aviators from Chicago’s Glanview Naval Air Station. Training ran seven days a week. When operations were in full swing, 100 fliers a day were earning their carrier qualifications on the two ships’ decks.

A Texan touches down on the Sable, somewhere off Chicago. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A Navy trainer touches down on the USS Sable somewhere off Chicago. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Earning Wings

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Cornbelt Fleet. Despite steaming off the so-called Windy City, the air on Lake Michigan was often too calm to allow for safe carrier flying. The wind over deck (WOD) speeds necessary for aircraft launch and recovery were a far cry from those found on the oceans. The often still air also kept heavy frontline combat planes like Hellcats, Corsairs and Avengers from getting stiff enough tailwinds for safe touchdowns. Take offs were also a challenge. Even lightweight AT-6 Texan trainers often had trouble operating from the Sable and Wolverine. In fact, wind conditions were sometimes so calm, flight operations had to be suspended altogether for days at a time.

Yet despite these limitations, the carrier pilot training program was a resounding success. Nearly 18,000 fliers conducted more than 116,000 landings and take-offs on the two vessels between 1943 and 1945. During that period, fewer than 300 planes were lost.

A Hellcat cracks up on the deck of the USS Sable. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A Hellcat cracks up on the deck of the USS Sable. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Sailing Into the Sunset

With the war won, the need for carrier pilots ended virtually overnight. Both ships were decommissioned within weeks of Japan’s surrender. While the Wolverine was sold off for scrap, the Great Lakes Historical Society offered to convert the Sable into a floating museum at Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Sadly, the plans fell through and in 1947 the carrier was sent to a shipyard in Hamilton, Ontario to be broken up.

All that remains of the Wolverine and Sable now are photos and some newsreel footage.

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