The United States of America was attacked by the nation of Japan on December 7th, 1941 and it was quickly realized that aircraft and aircraft carriers would be vital weapons of warfare in the Pacific. The Navy needed pilots, and they needed them as soon as possible.
The Secretary of the Navy approved an expansion of the pilot training program from the existing schedule of assigning 800 students per month to one calling for 2,500 per month. There still remained the question as to how to qualify these new pilots for taking off and landing from an aircraft carrier. It would be one thing to teach the necessary skills required to fly but quite another to teach the skills needed to be combat qualified in carrier operations, especially since all available carriers were busy at sea and in order to be proficient you need to actually land on a carrier! Even if the carriers would have been available for training purposes early in the war, the waters around the United States were infested with enemy submarines and considered unsafe.
Before pilots could be assigned to combat duty on aircraft carriers, they had to demonstrate a proficiency for underway flight operations. The Navy stipulated that trainees had to take off and land a minimum of ten times (later reduced to eight) in order to become qualified.
The answer to the problem had strangely enough already been suggested (and largely ignored) by the U.S. Bureau of Ships early in 1941 by Commander Richard F. Whitehead, ignored that is, until after the devastating attack in December. He advocated using training carriers on the Great Lakes and Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, liked the idea. Very soon the Navy was on a fast-track to create a pair of fresh water training carriers!
Beginning in March 1942 the Navy requisitioned two side-paddle-wheeled steamers to be converted into training aircraft carriers. One was the SS SeeandBee, which became the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and the other was the SS Greater Buffalo which became the USS Sable (IX-81). Both of these vessels were a number of years old, built largely of wood and were coal-burning, steam-powered twin side-wheelers; capable of carrying hundreds of passengers on America’s Great Lakes.
The Wolverine was completed first and began flight operations in August 12th, 1942. The Sable was in operation by May 8, 1943. Operating out of a pier in Chicago Harbor, the two Carriers trained 17,820 pilots flying from NAS Glenview and had 116,000 landings on their decks. They were very limited ships for reasons of cost, with no elevators or hangar deck for planes so they needed to store all their planes on deck, which could present a problem if too wrecks occurred. Another problem was the ships weren’t fast enough to generate the minimum 20 knots wind over deck (WOD) to land the higher performance combat warplanes on their own, so if the weather was calm for extended periods of time pilots had to qualify using SNJ Texan trainers.Together, the two improbable paddlewheel carriers qualified pilots and trained flight deck crews in large numbers, just as Commander Whitehead had envisioned.
|Specifications Freshwater Carriers
USS Wolverine (IX-64)
• Length: 550 ft (170 m)
USS Sable (IX-81)
• Length: 535 ft (163 m)
Some photo courtesy of NavSource.org, Click here to visit them.
Here is a video of Great Lakes carrier operations.