September 16, 2019

A Ghost of Wartime

The Military in Grand Traverse Bay
By Kristi Kates | June 24, 2017

Many historical moments, otherwise lost to time’s passing, are newly discovered in letters written to loved ones during times of war. One letter acquired by the Grand Traverse Light House Museum reveals a time in northern Michigan’s history when one major moment occurred right in our local waters.

“We have a letter in one of our current exhibitions from a little local boy who wrote to his dad in the military,” said Stephanie Staley, the executive director of the museum. “In the letter, the boy wrote ‘Dear Dad, went for ice cream, played with the dog, and oh, by the way, there is an aircraft carrier in the bay.’”

This unlikely event wasn’t just a figment of the youth’s imagination. It really happened during World War II — an American aircraft carrier spent about a month haunting Grand Traverse Bay.

The idea of putting a carrier on the Great Lakes came from a conversation that U.S. Naval Captain Richard Francis Whitehead had with merchant marine John Manley, who had seen pilots training offshore on the East Coast.

“The problem with the East Coast training was that the aircraft carriers had to be guarded by military vessels, because the German submarines were right nearby,” Staley said. So the two men started kicking around the idea of training pilots in Lake Michigan, ostensibly safer waters. They soon presented the idea to the U.S. Navy — which initially dragged its feet.

“The Navy didn’t pay much attention until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” said Staley. “Then the Navy suddenly said, ‘Let’s make that idea happen.’”

The Navy was eager to immediately train pilots for the threats in the Pacific. So it quickly purchased two side-wheel-steamer passenger-excursion ships: the 500-foot Seeandbee and the 518-foot Greater Buffalo. The interiors of the ships had been fitted out for recreational cruising, with saloons, staterooms, telephone booths, promenade decks, and features like elegant mahogany woodwork and tiled dining rooms and parlors.

But once the Navy sent the ships to the American Ship Building Company (the dominant shipbuilding company on the Great Lakes at that time), their days as luxury cruisers were over. The company tore off the top decks and stripped off all the extras from both boats, installing flight decks and other military necessities for pilots and crew. “1,200 men worked day and night and, in just 59 days, turned those two cruise ships into aircraft carriers,” Staley said.

The Navy renamed the Seeandbee the USS Wolverine, and the Greater Buffalo became the USS Sable, and docked them near its largest primary training base in the nation, Glenview Naval Air Station, just outside of Chicago. Nicknamed “The Corn Belt Fleet,” the ships — the only side-paddle-wheel aircraft carriers in naval history — were used to train military pilots in carrier takeoffs and landings.

“To qualify for duty, you had to take off and land six times successfully,” Staley said. “Once you did that, you were immediately shipped to the Pacific.” The two freshwater aircraft carriers saw 400 takeoffs and landings per day; by the end of their tour of duty, they’d trained and qualified around 17,800 pilots in 116,000 carrier landings.

“[The Navy was] able to train the guys so quickly, as it was a safe place without interference. There were no foreign submarines in the Great Lakes, and Lake Michigan is also the only lake entirely in America, as the other lakes border Canada,” said Staley. “So the military could kind of keep the training secret.” Thanks to Lake Michigan’s size and location, it offered another benefit: training elements similar to those of the ocean. “They’d experience waterspouts at times, winter weather, all of it,” Staley said.

In August of 1943, the military, was experimenting with using remote-controlled drones to combat the Japanese kamikaze planes landing on the decks of American aircraft carriers loaded with explosives. It deemed Lake Michigan as the safest place to test the drones; the USS Sable was moved to Grand Traverse Bay for about a month for drone testing, then north to an even more remote place, in the Mackinaw Straits, near Waugoshance Point.

You might think having an aircraft carrier in the bay would be the talk of the town. But Staley said it was actually quite the opposite.

“The locals knew it was part of the war effort,” she said. “But they didn’t know about the secret drone project — which was actually only declassified a few years ago.”

Staley said that Traverse City residents at the time likely thought the takeoffs and landings were “just” pilot training; with an overwhelming and ever-present fear that the Japanese or Germans might invade the U.S., it seems nobody wanted to talk about the real possibilities.

“Everyone participated in the war effort, whether they were doing factory work, salvage, or putting together care packages, but no one talked much about it,” Staley said. “They just went about their work quietly. And it was a very different time from how we live now. You couldn’t just turn on the TV and see the war all the time. You had to just kind of guess as best as you could, based on the news you were getting, and go on with your life.”

The carrier had arrived quietly in the bay, and it left just as quietly, a ghost of the war that continued on its mission after its time near Traverse City. After the war ended, neither carrier would return to Great Lake waters.

“They weren’t sure what to do with the carriers after the war,” Staley said. “The Great Lakes cruise-ship era was in a huge decline with the increase of automobiles and railroads. So while the first thought after the war was to turn them back into cruise ships, that just didn’t happen.”

A second idea to turn them into floating party boats that would utilize the flat flight decks as dance floors also was scrapped, as were other ideas to turn the ships into museums, or even to send them through the canals to be used as carriers again out on the east coast.

“In the end, the government just scrapped them and used the metal to make more cars,” Staley said.

You can view some of the fascinating history of these carriers at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum through the end of 2017 at a special exhibit featuring items on loan from museums around the country. There also are items from the two carriers’ past lives as cruise ships — room keys, travel pamphlets, paintings — and military memorabilia from their service as aircraft carriers, including pilot log books from flight training, signal flags, and dog tags, as well as plane parts; 150 planes ended up in Lake Michigan during the military pilot training, and around 40 of them have been salvaged and preserved.

“It’s such an interesting thing to learn about, because those two ships were absolutely instrumental in training the war effort for the Pacific,” Staley said. “It was an ingenious idea.”

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum is located inside Leelanau State Park at 15500 N. Lighthouse Pt. Rd. in Northport. For more information on this exhibit and other events/programs, visit grandtraverselighthouse.com or call (231) 386-7195.

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