Underwater Aircraft Recovery from Lake Michigan - WW 2 Carrier training

April 30, 2009

Mr. Gregory,

As always, great appreciation to you for keeping your web site going. There have been a couple of articles in the Chicago-area newspapers recently that may interest you and some of your readers. It is about one of those "It seems a tall tale but is really true" stories. I am including the text of one article and a couple of links in case someone wants more details and wants to see the photos.

As the article says, during WWII the US was training aircraft carrier pilots by the hundreds but fear of enemy submarines raised concerns about having carriers hanging just off the coasts just for training purposes (plus the carriers themselves had more important work to do. The solution - use the great inland waterways of the country. A pair of side wheel cargo-passenger vessels had their superstructure cut down and 500+ foot flat decks were installed.  These ships were docked near Chicago and they sailed into Lake Michigan (remembering that this lake is up to 100 miles wide and over 300 miles long). There were a few inland air bases where the trainee pilots would take off from the land base, fly over the lake and make a series of take offs and landings from these side wheelers. This enabled them to (relatively) safely complete their carrier qualifications and go on to join the fleet. Former US President George Bush (the elder Bush) earned his wings this way and actually flew a plane similar to the one in the articles.

One great limitation was that these temporary flattops had no elevators or aircraft storage facilities. The ships would leave empty in the morning, conduct its exercises during the day, and then return to dock at night. You really cannot call these ships "aircraft carriers" since they really could not and did not carry aircraft. In the course of doing that much training, there were bound to be accidents so a number of aircraft found their way to the bottom of Lake Michigan.  These planes have now spent well over a half-century 300 feet (or more) down in cold, fresh water and have been preserved quite well. The ships USS Wolverine and USS Sable are a couple of the strangest looking ships to ever sail and were almost certainly the last side wheel "warships." These stories are about a recent salvage of an SBD Dauntless dive bomber from the lake bottom. After restoration, it will go on display in the WWII museum in New Orleans.

Another plane savaged from the lake is on display at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago - it is the same model that Lt. "Butch" O'Hare flew on his Medal of Honor mission early in the war.  It is a rare non-folding wing F4F Wildcat painted with O'Hare's markings.

Anyway, the article follows and below that are the links.


Encrusted with 60 years worth of zebra mussels, the dive bomber that Joseph Lokites ditched into Lake Michigan on that cold Nov. 24, 1944 was pulled out of the water Friday morning.

Despite a bent propeller and a twisted right wing, the Douglas SBD Dauntless U.S. Navy plane was in relatively good condition after resting on the bottom of the cold waters of Lake Michigan for more than 60 years.

Out on a training flight, Lokites was making a routine approach to the aircraft carrier when a faulty fuel switch killed his engine, according to historians at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla. The plane plummeted into the icy water and Lokites was quickly rescued and unharmed.

The Dauntless pulled out of Lake Michigan Friday morning will be restored and eventually go on display at National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Capt. Ed Ellis, secretary of the foundation that supports the National Naval Aviation Museum said many planes training in that era had flown from a pair of old paddle wheel steamers decked out as practice aircraft carriers.

Ellis said more than 17,000 pilots trained out of the former Naval Air Station in Glenview. Each needed to make about eight takeoffs and landings on the USS Wolverine or USS Sable to qualify for carrier duty.

The ships were built as multideck paddle wheel cargo and excursion boats. Ellis said authorities "cut the top decks off and put 600-foot decks on them" to allow training.

German U-boat sightings off the East Coast made training there too risky. Located in the safety of the country's heartland, Lake Michigan proved to be a safe practice site.

On Friday, former Navy pilot Grant C. Young drove 150 miles from his home in Lanark, IL to watch the recovery at Larsen Marine in Waukegan.

"This is a wonderful thing to see," Young, 85, said. "It brings back a lot of memories."

Young can relate to the mishap. He also crashed during training. "I didn't get hurt but nearly froze waiting for the Coast Guard to pick me up," he said.

The Douglas SBD Dauntless is among 130 to 300 or more planes estimated to have sunk in the lake during training late in World War II.

The Dauntless dive bombers are largely credited with winning the Battle of Midway and turning the tide of the Pacific war in the Allies' favor. It was the plane flown by future U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

Taras Lyssenko, co-owner of A&T Recovery, said the plane was found in the mid 1990s in more than 300 feet of water, more than 20 miles offshore. He said it took years to obtain Navy permission and secure state and federal permits to mount a recovery.

Because the plane was so deep, submarine robots were called in to survey the area - and, in recent weeks, to set up ropes used to lift the plane to the surface for towing.

He described the salvage as far more delicate than recovering a ship.

"Ships have all kinds of things you can put chains on. You can't put a chain on this," he said. And it must be lifted very gently. Otherwise, mud-filled wings might get ripped off.

"This latest recovery is one important link in the preservation of the history and heritage of naval aviation in the Chicago area ... and its unique and invaluable contribution to naval aviation during the war," said U.S. Navy (Ret.) Capt. Robert Rasmussen.

Rasmussen would not divulge the cost of the project, but said the money came entirely from private donors.



Roy E. Lucke


Thank you for your kind words about AHOY, but I must point out that my Web Master, Terry Kearns from Atlanta Georgia, is very much responsible for putting my efforts into shape and uploading them to our site which then shows  
its face to the world at large. Any success achieved is indeed a joint and shared process.

I am grateful to you for passing on this very fascinating story of finding and raising a sunken Dauntless aircraft from so long ago, and how it was one of many used to safely train pilots in WW2 for duty in US Aircraft Carriers, I was unaware of two side wheelers and their role in such flying training.

Hopefully AHOY may bring this fact to a wider group of interested people around the world.

Best wishes,

May 20, 2009

From Terry, This is a note from Jock Bridgers whose dad, John D. (Jig) Bridgers M.D.,flew the Dauntless. See Dr. Bridgers Naval Memoirs for more about Carrier service and training.


Pretty interesting even if somewhat inaccurate articles. 

  #1) If you remember, Dad always talked about his experiences on the way back to Pearl Harbor from the Doolittle Raids when the Enterprise CAG Commander allowed him to get carrier qualified in mid-Pacific ocean. He said they all went out unqualified and picked it up when they joined the fleet (carrier quals were not included in the flight school circulum until later in WWII).

  #2)  The Wolverine and Sable were used in the Great Lakes because this area was safe from submarines and had calmer water, but primarily for a different reason. In June 1942, the US only had the Enterprise, Ranger, Hornet, Saratoga, and Wasp in commission and available for duty.  Both Enterprise and Saratoga had already been torpedoed and damaged and spent time in the yard for hasty repairs. Lexington, Langley, and Yorktown had been lost in Coral Sea and Midway. The Ranger was operating in the eastern Atlantic and Norwegian waters at that time, so until the Essex class began being commissioned in 1943, the US had no carriers that could be used for carrier quals training. In fact, after Hornet and Wasp were both lost during the Guadalcanal campaign, we borrowed a carrier from the British until the Essex could finish its shakedown cruise and move to Pearl Harbor. I remember that Dad said his composite Air Group 13 (CAG 5/CAG 8 added
together) was sent back from their tour in the spring of 1943 on that British carrier to Pear Harbor, and that when they steamed into the anchorage the new Essex was moored there and was a very impressive sight to them.

  #3)  They were flying SBDs in carrier quals, so it must have been in 1944 or later prior to this accident. The SB2C did not replace the SBD until the summer and fall of 1943, so there was not a
surplus of airframes yet.  After mid-1943, only USMC SBD were sent to the Pacific.

  #4)  President G.H.W. Bush flew the TBD/TBM Devastator torpedo bomber not the SBD dive-bomber, although the TBD/TBM was routinely used for level or low-angle glide bombing attacks as the war progressed since there were few opportunities to launch torpedos at the rapidly shrinking Imperial Japanese Navy.

I have seen pictures and read accounts of training on the two Great Lakes steamers before, so it was interesting to see them recalled again and the plane recovered.  Thanks for the article. Later!!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mr. Gregory,

After reading the original article and posting by Jock Bridgers I have a couple of things to clarify. I'm both a pilot and SCUBA diver and have been part of a number of shipwreck searches and discoveries in the Great Lakes. I also used to fly WWII aircraft and hang around with the crowd that restored and flew them.

1.) The SBD aircraft was described as being encrusted with 60 years of Zebra Mussels. Since the Zebra Mussel did not enter the Great Lakes until 1984 and were not common in Lake Michigan before the mid 1990's this is a relatively recent infestation. Indeed, if authority had been obtained to raise it in the mid 1990's it might not have suffered the damage caused by the mussels.

2.) The aircraft flown by President GHW Bush when he served with the fleet was the Grumman TBM Avenger. The TBF was a variant built by General Motors. The TBD Devastator is a totally different aircraft made famous at the battle of Midway for being shot down in large numbers without making a single torpedo hit on a Japanese vessel. I have seen one of the recovered F4F aircraft flying at the big airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and believe at least one other has been restored to airworthy condition.

Tim Juhl
Carsonville, MI

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