In 1942, with the nation engaged in war against Japan, there was an acute need for pilots trained to land on aircraft carriers. Commander Richard Whitehead argued that the secure waters of the Great Lakes was the best place for training. The paddlewheel steamer Seeandbee was hastily converted into the aircraft carrier, USS Wolverine. A second Great Lakes paddlewheel steamer, the Great Buffalo, was converted in 1943 into the aircraft carrier, USS Sable.
Chicago’s aircraft carriers also trained the flight deck crews. Before the two ships were decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1948, they had successfully trained 22,000 carrier-support personnel.
The risky business of landing a plane on the pitching deck of a moving ship inevitably led to accidents.
Twenty-one young pilots lost their lives trying to qualify for carrier duty. More than 250 planes were lost in Lake Michigan. A half-century after the war, the cold dark waters of the lake are one of the best sources for vintage naval war planes.