Thursday, August 22, 2013

U.S.S. Wolverine commissioned: August 22, 1942


The U.S.S. Wolverine with Chicago's skyline in the background (www.navsource.com)

“Chicagoans will see the commissioning of the United States aircraft carrier Wolverine at 3 p.m. today, when the navy formally will take over the vessel off Madison Street,” The Chicago Tribune reported on this day in 1942.  It’s hard to believe today, but just eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a remarkable transformation had occurred as the nation turned its full attention to the war effort.  The U.S.S. Wolverine was a stunning example of the quickness of that turnaround.

At the beginning of World War II the Navy had a big problem.  The attack on Pearl Harbor had clearly shown the effectiveness of carrier-based airplanes, and the service figured that it needed to crank out 45,000 carrier pilots in short order if it had any chance of catching up to the Japanese.

But there were three problems in getting those pilots trained.  First, every available carrier that existed was urgently needed as part of the war effort.  The inventory of carriers wasn’t large enough to allow even one ship to be steaming back and forth, as new pilots tried to figure out how to land and take off on a pitching deck.

Secondly, even if there had been a carrier or two to spare, the coastal waters, especially those of the Atlantic coast, were patrolled by the unpredictable terror of enemy submarines.  It was rightly concluded that carrier training was a high-risk proposition under such conditions, and the decision was made to conduct the training in the protected inland waters of the Great Lakes.  It wouldn’t make taking off or landing any easier for prospective pilots, but at least they could count on a ship being there instead of a roiling patch of water left behind after a torpedo attack.

That brought on the third problem . . . even if there were a way to get a carrier detached from active duty, there was no way to get the vessel to the Great Lakes.  No  carrier was narrow enough to fit through the Welland Canal, the only passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

There was no time to build a new carrier from scratch to meet the demand, so the decision was made to find a couple of suitable ships that could be rapidly converted into flat-tops for use in fresh water.  Two factors drove the selection process -- the ships had to be able to handle a 500-foot long flight deck and make 18 knots.

The launch of the Seeandbee in 1913 (Google image)
According to Paul M. Somers in his book Lake Michigan’s Aircraft Carriers, two ships made the final cut.  One was a car ferry owned by the Pere Marquette Railroad, the USS City of Midland.  The other was a 1913 Great Lakes excursion vessel, the Seeandbee (the ship’s original owner was the Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Company – C & B), a gilded queen with 24 ornate parlors and 62 staterooms.  Find a great old silent video of a Ford Motor Company Merit Club cruise aboard the Seeandbee here.

The Pere Marquette was slower than Seeandbee, and Seeandbee also had the advantage of being 500 feet long, the right length for the conversion.  So Seeandbee got the nod, and the conversion began.  The Navy laid out 756,000 dollars for the luxury ship, stripping her of amenities in Cleveland in the early months of 1942.  On the sixth of May of that year the Seeandbee was towed from Cleveland to Buffalo where 1,200 workers worked around the clock to convert the ship to a training carrier [www.cruiselinehistory.com].

The Seeandbee in Buffalo enroute to becoming the U.S.S. Wolverine (www.navsource.com)
 The flight deck was 550 feet long and extended well beyond the ship’s bow and stern.  There was no hangar deck and no elevators, no maintenance facilities, and no catapults since planes would not be kept on the ship.  Once a lucky pilot got a plane on the deck, he took off again. 

Two characteristics separated the Wolverine and her sister ship, the Sable, from every other ship in the fleet.  First, they were coal-powered and, secondly, they were propelled by side-wheel paddle wheels instead of propellers. 

In normal conditions the 18-knot maximum speed of the Wolverine was fast enough, when the carrier was sailing into the wind, to accommodate most aircraft of the time.  On calm days, though, the wind over the deck was insufficient to accommodate the faster planes being pressed into service.  During operation 120 planes were lost, but only eight pilots died, thanks in part to Coast Guard craft that trailed the carrier during operations.  135,000 landings took place on the Wolverine and the Sable, qualifying 17,820 Navy and Marine aviators.  Find a short video of the carrier during operations here.

Trainees would leave the Glenview Naval Air Station and rendezvous over the easily identified Bahai Temple in Wilmette before being directed to the carrier.  It wasn’t easy to face the bucking flight deck in the middle of winter.  Regulations required that the cockpit canopy be open during takeoffs and landings so that a pilot could more easily escape a sinking plane. With blasts of freezing air stinging their eyes, the prospective pilots approached a deck that was often clouded by the thick black smoke the carriers made when travelling at full speed. [www.nnapprentice.com]

President George H. W. Bush recalled of his training flights out of Glenview, “I remember those Great Lakes flights very well in the open cockpit that winter.  Coldest I have ever been in my life.”

The U.S.S. Wolverine during operations (www.navsource.com)
Imagine what it must have been like back in the mid-1940’s, watching these two carriers receive and send off aircraft, sometimes a little less than a mile off the shore of the second largest city in the country!  It only lasted three years.   The USS Wolverine was decommissioned on November 7, 1945.  On November 28 of that year she was removed form the Naval Vessel Record.  In December of that year she was sold for scrap and subsequently broken up in Cleveland, Ohio.

Another first for Chicago 71 years ago today – a paddle wheel aircraft carrier, with a name that honored the state of Michigan began operations off the Windy City’s shores. 

2 comments:

Jill Bartholomew said...

Wow, I never knew this story. Thanks for bringing it to life again. Fascinating.

jim said...

It is kind of cool to think that a paddle wheel steamer was converted into an aircraft carrier and worked for three years off the Chicago shores. What a city!