In early December, 1941, the United States Navy had just seven fleet aircraft carriers plus the USS Long Island (AVG-1), an aircraft escort vessel: a type later known simply as an escort carrier or ‘baby flattop’. The carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet were; the USS Lexington (CV-2), the USS Saratoga (CV-3), and the USS Enterprise (CV-6). Carriers assigned to the Atlantic Fleet were; the USS Ranger (CV-4), the USS Yorktown (CV-5), the USS Wasp (CV-7), and the USS Long Island (AVG-1). Just recently completed, the USS Hornet (CV-8), was commissioned in October 1941, but had not yet completed a shakedown cruise, thus not yet assigned to any fleet.
The USS Langley (CV-1) had been converted from an aircraft carrier to a seaplane tender in 1937, and not included in any count of US carriers of WWII. However, construction of several new aircraft carriers had already begun in anticipation of war. By the end of the war, the US Navy had sailed forth with approximately 23 fleet carriers, 8 light carriers, 85 escort carriers, and two coal-fired paddle-wheel steamship freshwater aircraft carriers. Uh… What?
In 1941, US Navy Commander Richard F. Whitehead foresaw the need to train thousands of carrier pilots for war and suggested to the US Navy Bureau of Ships that a couple of old, disused, Great Lakes excursion steamers he knew of could be converted into training carriers. Yes, the steam liners made extensive use of technology from the previous century, including paddle-wheels, coal-fired boilers, and steam engines: they were outdated antiques, throwbacks to a time all but forgotten by the modern US Navy.
Comparable to ocean liners of the time in their opulence and amenities, the two derelict steamships had been the epitome of luxury cruising on the Great Lakes from the time they were launched until the market crash in 1929. The Great Depression wasn’t kind to either ship. A dearth of customers kept the ships tied to their piers and they were reduced to employment as floating hotels.
The SS Seeandbee was launched in 1912 for the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company. The side-wheeler was 500 feet long. She could make an impressive 18 knots (about 21 mph): her massive steam engine generated about 1,200 horsepower to turn the paddle-wheels (one on each side) and generate electricity for lights and an onboard telephone system. There were 510 cabins, some with private bathrooms, and each cabin had a telephone that could be used to ring other passengers or call for room service. There was space for 1,500 sleeping passengers or 6,000 day trippers, and room to bring along 100 automobiles.
The SS Greater Buffalo was launched in 1924 for the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company. Designed by Frank E. Kirby, the same marine architect who had designed the Seeandbee, the two ships were quite similar in size and amenities. Greater Buffalo was a bit larger, measuring nearly 520 feet, and boasted more than 1,900 horsepower.
Whitehead’s idea was ignored until December 7, when the need for urgency suddenly became obvious. The Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor had been launched from sea, making plain the power of the aircraft carrier. Now every officer in the Department of the Navy understood they were going to need even more new carriers than previously planned, and tens of thousands of trained carrier aviators. These new Navy and Marine Corps pilots would need advanced flight training to master taking off from and landing on a moving, rolling, ship at sea. None of the precious few existing carriers could be spared for training, and thousands of new ships of all types were desperately needed from America’s ship builders. Converting old, existing ships by constructing landing decks on top meant that new ships would not have to be built. Any idea that increased war readiness and production efficiency was a good idea, including Commander Whitehead’s. Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, quickly approved the plan.
The Navy purchased the Seeandbee in early 1942. The superstructure (everything above the hull) was removed. Seeandbee was then towed from Cleveland to the shipyard of the American Shipbuilding Company in Buffalo. Smoke stacks were relocated to starboard, where a bridge island superstructure (“the bridge”) was also built. A 550 foot flight deck was constructed with a steel frame and Douglas Fir wood decking. Numerous other less visible modifications were also made. Incredibly, the extensive rework was completed in under three months by up to 1,250 men working night and day. Seeandbee was renamed the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and commissioned in August, 1942. (IX-64 was the Navy hull number designation, where IX indicates an unclassified miscellaneous auxiliary ship). The name Wolverine was ostensibly chosen because carrier training would take place on Lake Michigan, and Michigan calls itself the Wolverine State.
The Greater Buffalo was also refitted by the American Shipbuilding Company, after the Navy acquired her in August 1942. She was renamed and commissioned the USS Sable (IX-81) in May, 1943. The main difference between the Sable and the Wolverine was the Sable’s flight deck was all-steel, with no wood at all. Because of this, several non-skid coatings were tested on Sable’s flight deck. Sable was also used to test the Navy’s first unmanned assault drone, the TDN-1, a model that was never used in combat.
Both Sable and Wolverine were assigned to the 9th Naval District Carrier Qualification Training Unit (CQTU): the Chicago Navy Pier was their homeport. The pilots who trained on the freshwater flattops were stationed at NAS Glenview, a Naval Air Station north of Chicago. During their time in service, the two ships trained nearly 18,000 Navy and Marine Corps pilots, as well as a number of landing signal officers and other flight deck personnel. To become qualified carrier pilots, each Naval Aviatior had to make eight successful landings and eight successful takeoffs. Arguably the most famous of the trainees, Ensign George H. W. Bush qualified as a carrier pilot on the freshwater flattops in August, 1943. The future president was just barely 19 years old.
Wolverine and Sable played a vitally important role in the war, but they were not the only training carriers in the Navy. The USS Charger (CVE-30), a Long Island class escort carrier, also conducted carrier training, operating in Chesapeak Bay from 1942 through to the end of the war.
This isn’t the only video on the Wolverine and Sable, but it’s the best one the Owl has seen so far and is, by far, the most highly detailed. “Paddle Wheel Aircraft Carriers-Updated” (14:24):
Question of the Night: You’re going on an all-expenses paid beach vacation… saltwater or freshwater? And where? (Remember, it’s all-expenses paid. Live it up if you want to!)