Paddlewheel Carriers Sailed Lake Michigan
Strange, but USS 'Wolverine' and 'Sable' were products of wartime necessity
The U.S. Navy’s armored, steam-powered fleet carriers carried the United States to victory over Japan in World War II. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the help from two coal-burning paddle carriers that sailed Lake Michigan.
The USS Wolverine and Sable do not immediately comes to mind when thinking of war-winning weapons. They never saw combat or tasted salt water. Their home port was Chicago, not Pearl Harbor. They were originally paddle-driven, coal-powered passenger vessels for leisurly voyages along the Great Lakes. But the two reconfigured vessels were crucial for training thousands of pilots when the fleet carriers were needed at sea.
The United States went to war with Japan on Dec. 7, 1941 with eight aircraft carriers, only three of them in the Pacific. Tokyo had 10 … with more on the way. Shipbuilding is a time-consuming job, and it wouldn’t be until the following December before America’s next carrier entered the war.
The Navy needed pilots, who needed training. Practicing taking off and landing from conventional airfields was a start, but there’s no way to fully capture the precision, complexity and mental acuity required for a carrier landing without the real thing or something very close to it. And this was in a time before optical landing systems and computerized simulators.
Hence the two coal-powered paddle carriers.
Above — USS Sable, the Chicago skyline visible in the background. Photo via Warbird Information Exchange / Vintagewings. At top — Sable in 1944. U.S. Navy photo
The Wolverine and Sable were carriers by a strict technical definition. They had decks, and planes off took from and landed on them. They had arresting cables, which a plane’s tailhook would snag during landing. But the vessels didn’t have elevators or internal hangar decks. All they could really do was paddle out onto Lake Michigan for practice.
Wolverine was originally the 500-foot-long passenger steamer S.S. Seeandbee, which dated to 1912. The Navy bought her in March 1942 and had finished the conversion — adding a 550-foot-long flight deck — by August. (She didn’t begin flight operations until the following January.) Here’s what she looked like before.
S.S. Seeandbee before her conversion. The vessel’s tell-tale paddle wakes are visible along the side. Photo via Vintagewings
Seaandbee was a luxury vessel with “elegant staterooms, stately dining halls and promenades,” Dave O’Malley of the website VintageWings wrote. Her interior was almost entirely gutted. Her four coal-fired boilers provided enough horsepower to move the weight of the decks and aircraft onto the lake. Maximum speed — about 19 knots.
O’Malley collected photographs of Wolverine and Sable during reconstruction and while on operations. The fascinating set shows their drastic change in appearance. One surreal image depicts Wolverine steaming past sailboats on the lake. But being far away from the action was the entire point — the Navy feared German U-Boats menacing the Atlantic coastline and intruding into the Gulf of Mexico.
The downside was the carrier’s low-profile combined with the lake’s low wind speeds, which occasionally complicated landings and takeoffs.
USS Wolverine on Lake Michigan, summer 1943. Photo via Warbird Information Exchange / Vintagewings
Sable was originally the S.S. Greater Buffalo. Longer than Seaandbee by 18 feet, her reconstruction added a steel flight deck that was 35 longer than Wolverine‘s wood deck. This preceded the metal-decked carriers that would enter service late in the war.
By the end of the war, more more than 17,800 pilots qualified for carrier operations on Sable and Wolverine. There were 116,000 landings on both ships combined. One pilot who made his first landing on Sable on Nov. 28, 1944 recalled that a successful landing was when “one didn’t crash on the flight deck or land in Lake Michigan,” according to an essay published by Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School.
Crewmen pull down an FM-2 Wildcat which hit the Sable’s structure. Photo via Warbird Information Exchange / Vintagewings
“Due to the sudden deceleration, when the hook engages the arresting wire, one must lock the canopy open, remove the hand from the throttle, and remove the feet from the brakes. I forgot all three,” he added. “When my Wildcat hit the deck and grabbed the cable, the canopy slammed forward, my hand shoved the throttle to full power, and my feet applied the brakes! The Wildcat’s nose went down and the tail went up. With luck, no damage was done.”
That Wildcat stayed on the deck — although with its tail sticking up high in the air. There are possibly 70 to 80 aircraft which crashed during training flights still at the bottom of Lake Michigan, according to the Chicago Tribune. In 2012, researchers pulled an FM-2 Wildcat from the depths. The pilot had survived that crash, which occurred during takeoff in 1944.
At least eight pilots died during the training missions.
See more photos of Wolverine and Sable at VintageWings.