The bottom of North America’s Great Lakes yields a treasure trove of WWll aircraft, many of them veterans of major battles including Pearl Harbor, Midway and the Solomons. Today these planes are being retrieved and restored to impress their lessons on a new generation. Story by Craig Ritchie.
Sometimes you find the most remarkable things where you least expect to see them. For historians looking to preserve irreplaceable artifacts from WWll, the bottom of North America’s Great Lakes has proven to be a veritable treasure trove. That’s where a dedicated team has spent the past 30 years mining the lake beds for historically-significant aircraft, veterans of battles that raged all across the Pacific.
The aircraft – almost perfectly preserved by their icy, freshwater tombs – were lost in the 40s when the US Navy conducted pilot training on the lakes. There, safe from prowling enemy submarines, two former passenger excursion vessels that were hastily converted into makeshift aircraft carriers helped more than 17,000 pilots qualify for carrier duty – including future US President George H. W. Bush.
But accidents were frequent, and at least 150 aircraft wound up on the bottom of the lakes through landing accidents and misjudged takeoffs. As salvage crews today recover these aircraft for museum display, they’re finding some of them to be veterans of major Pacific battles – Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway, the Solomons – making these historic aircraft internationally significant.
After being damaged in battle or simply outdated by newer, more potent models, these planes were typically sent back to America and relegated to training duties. Most would have been scrapped at war’s end had they not taken the big splash. But being bounced off a carrier deck and into the drink by a newbie pilot is precisely what saved them from a cutting torch, and we’re all the better for it.
WOLVERINE AND SABLE
In early 1942 with every aircraft carrier available pressed into frontline service, the US Navy’s pilot training organisation found itself in a bit of a pickle. Training pilots to operate from aircraft carrier decks required actual ships to train on. But with no carriers available it was forced to improvise.
The answer lay in moving pilot training inland to the Great Lakes, and converting a couple of existing vessels to provide the requisite flight decks. In due course the Navy purchased a pair of obsolete sidewheel paddle-steamers, replaced their topside accommodations with flat wooden runways and commissioned their first two dedicated training carriers – USS Wolverine and USS Sable.
Although smaller than the fleet carriers the Navy used in combat, the 150m Wolverine and the 163m Sable were the answer to a big problem – enabling pilots to learn to handle takeoffs and landings on a real flight deck while keeping them safe from enemy submarines.
USS Wolverine and USS Sable were not true aircraft carriers and they had a number of serious limitations, one being that they had only one deck and thus nowhere to stow any damaged aircraft. If a plane was damaged, with nowhere to put it the day’s operations would be forced to wrap up.
Another limitation was a lack of speed. Built as passenger excursion vessels, neither Wolverine nor Sable were equipped with powerful engines, and that was a real concern for pilots operating heavier aircraft like the Navy’s F6F Hellcats, F4U Corsairs, TBM Avengers and SBD Dauntless – planes that required a certain amount of wind flowing down the flight deck in order for them to become airborne. When there was little or no wind on Lake Michigan, operations often had to be curtailed.
On days with plenty of wind, the top-heavy ships tended to pitch and roll wildly in the choppy waves, making takeoffs and landings even more hazardous than they would be on a real aircraft carrier operating on the open ocean. Early and late in the year, ice build-up was another serious problem – not just on the carrier decks, but on the aircraft as well.
Accidents and rookie mistakes were inevitable and nearly 150 aircraft wound up at the bottom of the lakes. Those involved in accidents in which the pilot was killed are legally considered war graves, and cannot be disturbed under American federal law. All of the planes remain the property of the US Navy, which has allowed the recovery of other aircraft for museum display.
Most have been salvaged by a private firm called A and T Recovery, which works in partnership with the Navy and the National Museum of Naval Aviation in order to locate, identify and recover vintage aircraft. To date they’ve fished nearly 40 of them from the bottom of the lakes. That includes Bureau number 2106, a Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless dive bomber with a truly unique history.
Built in Long Beach, California, Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless number 2106 was delivered to the US Navy on December 29, 1940. It was assigned to squadron Bombing 2 onboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, which arrived at Pearl Harbor on December 1, 1941.
Two days later, when the vessel departed Pearl Harbor to deliver a load of aircraft to a Marine garrison stationed on a remote outpost, the Lexington’s own air group remained behind to make room for the cargo. The morning of December 7 saw number 2106 parked on Ford Island, where it survived the Pearl Harbor attack with comparatively minor damage from bomb fragments.
Repaired and reunited with the USS Lexington, the airplane took part in a series of hit-and-run air raids on Japanese positions throughout the South Pacific during early 1942. After the Lexington was sunk in May during the Battle of Coral Sea, the aircraft was one of a handful of survivors which were reassigned to the Marines, and promptly delivered to Midway Island to join bombing squadron VMSB-241.
On the morning of June 4, 1942, number 2106 launched from the island in an attack on the Japanese carrier fleet in the Battle of Midway. Number 2106 was the only aircraft of its squadron to return – peppered with no less than 259 bullet holes and with both its pilot, Lt. Daniel Iverson and its gunner, Pvt. 1st Class Wallace Reid, seriously injured.
Although their attack on the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu was unsuccessful, Iverson was subsequently awarded the Navy Cross and Reid the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions that day flying SBD number 2106.
Following the Battle of Midway the well-perforated bomber was returned to the US, once again repaired, and this time delivered to the 9th Naval District Carrier Qualification Training Unit in Chicago for use as a training platform.
Assigned to the USS Sable, the aircraft was flown by dozens of pilots on their way to earning their aircraft carrier qualification. But by June of 1943 number 2106’s luck had run out, and the bomber was lost in a landing accident, stalling on its final approach, cartwheeling into the lake and sinking in 50m of water. Its rookie pilot was seriously injured, but survived.
Recovered from Lake Michigan by A and T Recovery in 1990, the most valuable SBD Dauntless in existence was lovingly restored to factory-fresh condition by the National Museum of Naval Aviation, where it remains on display today.
THE LAST OF MANY
The Vought SB2U Vindicator was the US Navy’s standard dive bomber in the late 1930s, until the SBD Dauntless came along and rendered it obsolete. Still in use by a handful of Marine squadrons right up until the Battle of Midway, the Vindicator was state-of-the-art when it first took to the skies in 1936, when most of its contemporaries were biplanes. But by the outbreak of the Pacific war it was seriously obsolete and, in the face of skilled enemy fighter pilots, a death trap.
Assigned to USS Ranger, the US Navy’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, SB2U Vindicator number 1383 spent most of its career flying uneventful patrols along the Atlantic coast before being replaced by the more modern SBD in early 1943. Overhauled and sent to Chicago that May, it was assigned to USS Wolverine.
A little more than a month later, a Marine 2nd Lt. named A. W. Lemmons wrote it off in a landing accident, overshooting the landing area, crashing into a safety barrier and sliding over the side. Lt. Lemmons was rescued without a scratch, while number 1383 settled into the lake bed 45m below.
Recovered in 1990, the aircraft’s metal parts were covered in zebra mussels while the extensive areas of canvas covering its tail and control surfaces had long rotted away, leaving only its spindly aluminium frame. Carefully restored over a span of eight years by a team of dedicated volunteers at the National Naval Aviation Museum, it is proudly displayed today as the only known Vindicator in existence.
THE WORKHORSE OF THE SOLOMONS
While the vast majority of Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters flew from aircraft carriers, a small number operated from land bases – including bureau number 25910, a very special Hellcat that was recovered from Lake Michigan in 2009.
Hellcat number 25910 was assigned to Navy fighter squadron VF38, which operated from a succession of different air strips carved out of the jungles of Guadalcanal, New Georgia and Bougainville during the Solomon Islands campaign of 1943. A high mileage combat veteran, number 25910 participated in dozens of bomber escort and fighter sweep missions, including several coordinated attacks on Japanese air bases at Kahili and Ballalae with RNZAF units flying the P40 Kittyhawk.
The squadron’s logbook further shows Hellcat number 25910 providing protective escort for US Navy Admiral Bull Halsey during a November 1943 inspection trip of the area. The plane was a true workhorse, completing three full combat tours with VF38 from September 1943 to March 1944.
Having received minor battle damage on numerous occasions, by April 1944 number 25910 was considered a tired airplane. Returned to the US, it was overhauled and by late summer assigned to USS Sable in Chicago. Its final flight occurred a few months later on January 5, 1945 when Navy Lt. W. B. Elcock clipped the deck while attempting to land.
The Hellcat flipped upside down, crashed into the deck and careened across the ship and into Lake Michigan. Elcock was promptly rescued and treated for his injuries, but number 25910 wasn’t seen again for another 64 years till it was fished out of the lake by A and T Recovery in 2009.
Painstakingly restored, it resides today in the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
Not all of the aircraft lost on the Great Lakes were war-weary veterans of major battles. One of the rarest finds to date went into the lake pretty well straight from the factory.
In the spring of 1943 the Vought F4U Corsair was the hottest military aircraft anywhere. The first single-engine US fighter to exceed 400mph in level flight, the gull-winged Corsair was fast, maneuverable and tough – and more than a match for the till then invincible Mitsubishi Zero. Training new pilots on the new plane was seen as being of critical importance.
Delivered to the Navy just a few weeks before it arrived in Chicago, Corsair number 02465 had only flown for a handful of hours – and likely still had that new plane smell – when it suffered a landing accident onboard USS Wolverine.
On his first attempt at landing on a moving ship, Navy Lt. G. G. Webster made a near-perfect approach but had inexplicably forgotten to lower his landing gear. Misunderstanding frantic attempts to wave him off as instructions to cut his engine and land, he chopped power, the big fighter slammed into the Wolverine’s deck and carried straight over the side and into the drink. Webster escaped without injury, but the brand-new Corsair is said to have sunk like a stone.
Initially discovered in the early 1990s standing on its nose in 73m of water, the Corsair’s tail had broken off at some point but otherwise it appeared to be in good condition. Deeper than many other more easily accessible wrecks, it stood on its nose for another 20 years before it was finally recovered in 2010.
To the delight of the recovery team, it was found to be a very early ‘birdcage’ Corsair, constructed with a cockpit canopy formed from multiple glass panels mounted on a sliding aluminum frame. This type of canopy was soon replaced on the production line with a blown bubble-type that offered far better pilot visibility, and which appeared on the vast majority of Corsairs built.
Now fully restored to its original factory-fresh condition, birdcage Corsair number 02465 can be seen today on static display at the National Naval Aviation Museum.