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Journal of the Australian Naval Institute

Broeze, P, [998, Island Nation: A History of Australians ami the

Sea. Allen & Unwin. Sydney. Caslev. R. 1964 ireprinll. Strategic Theories. Naval Institute Press. Annapiihs. part V. The Sea versus the Land. p. 390.

Forbes, A. 1998, Oceanography's Contribution to Oceans Manasciiient. paper on 'Ocean Governance and Maritime Strategy' conlereiice in Canberra, p.I.

If ill. JR., 1986. Maranne Strategy for Medium Powers, Naval Institute Press. Annapolis

Mclean. D, I990, Australia's Maritime Interests. The New Zealand Dimension, in and Ward (eds.i. Australians Maritime interest} Views from Overseas. Canberra.

Miles. E.L.. 1998. New Ocean Rei;ime: Tacilitalintt

Implementation, Compliance and Evottttion, paper on 'Oceans

Governance and Maritime Strategy' Conference in Canberra. 18-19 Mav 1998

O'Connor. M. 1997. A coastguard lor Australia", in MacKinnon and ShervviHxl (eds.i Tolicin.e Australia 's Offshore '/.ones. Problems and Prospects, Wollongong Papers on Maritime

Policy No. 9. p 268.

Ocean Outlook: A Blueprint (bt the Oceans. A Report from the Congress 16-17 November 1994 and a Scientific Program Proposed by the Steering Committee

Our Sea. Our I inure, 1995, Major findings of the Slate of the Marine Environment Report for Australia. IX'panment of Environment. Canberra.

Sutton. Ci. IS May 1998. Oceans Governance and Maritime Straiccv: Opcnine Address, to the Conference on 'Oceans Governance and Maritime Strategy' in Canberra, p V

Young. T.D., 30 January 1995. The 1934 Australian Defense, White Taiier: An American lieu, paper ai ihe conference on "1904 Defence While Paper Conference". Canberra.


October - December Edition

The next edition is due out mid-November

Articles are being sought on a number of relevant maritime issues

The focus of the Journal will be on personnel

Articles due to Editor by 31 October '98


You may have noticed some differences in this edition of the Journal. We are under-going some significant changes over the next few editions. If you have any suggestions or comments on the direction of the Journal please forward them to the Editor.

Requirements for submissions are available on pages two and three.


July/September I9<>8

Journal of the Australian Naval Institute

Fresh Water Flat Tops US Ships Sable and Wolverine

Carrier Flight Training on the Great Lakes in World War Two by Graham Wilson


s the sun rose in the east, the sound of approaching aircraft was detected. In preparation lor the approaching aircraft, the carrier turned into the wind. Black coal smoke belched from the slack as the engines increased power to dri\e the paddle wheels at the ship's sides. As the (light deck crews rushed to take up their positions, a line spray of fresh water whipped across the wooden deck.

Coal smoke? Paddle wheels? Fresh water'.' At first sight, none of this makes much sense. Yet, in World War Two. the United States Navy actually operated two coal fired, paddle wheel driven aircraft carriers whose keels never touched the salt of the open sea. This article relates the story of two of the most fascinating but obscure warships to serve in the war.

During the Second World War. the United States Navy, from a very faltering start, rose to pre-eminence in the field of aircraft carrier operations. At the time of America's entry into the war. the USN operated a total of seven aircraft carriers - six fleet carriers (CV) and one light fleet carrier (CVL). By the war's end, this figure had grown to almost I (Hi. including 20 fleet carriers, eight light licet carriers, and a staggering 70 escort carriers (CVE). for a total of 9X Hal lops.

But this was not the complete inventory. The US Navy's pennant lists for the years 1042-45 include two intriguing ships classified as "IX" and listed as training carriers. These two vessels. USS Wolverine (IX-64) and USS Sable (IX-SI), were unique among US aircraft carriers for a number of reasons. Firstly, they carried no embarked aircraft, all aircraft operating onto and off the ships being shore based. Secondly, they were coal tired - a rarity enough among all surface combatants of the day hut unheard of in aircraft carriers. Thirdly, they operated not on the wide waters ol" the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, but on the enclosed, relatively sheltered and relatively benign waters oflhe Great Lakes. Finally, both carriers were driven through the waters of the lakes not by propellers but by paddle wheels!

The saga of Wolverine and Sable had its genesis with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. While an American naval expansion had been put in train some time before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack and America's subsequent precipitous entry into the war added an urgent impetus to the expansion programme. In particular, the US Navy desperately needed to expand its carrier licet. This

expansion encompassed not only ships but also men. And the officers and sailors recruited to crew the CVs, CVLs and CVFs coming off the ways of America's shipyards of course needed to be trained; not only the aircrews but also the Might deck crews.

The training requirement offered the US Navy an at first sight insurmountable problem. In its tirst year at war. the US Navy was barely holding its own in the Pacific and could ill afford to spare one of its precious carriers to be used for training purposes. Even had a carrier been available for training purposes, the MKV) was not prepared to risk having one of its precious flat tops operating close to the coast where predictable and easily monitored sailing patterns would make training carriers prime and relatively easy targets for prowling Axis submarines. This was especially true of the east coast as this was still the U-Boat's "happy lime" when German submarines roamed the length of America's eastern seaboard almost at will, unhampered by an inexperienced IIS Navy which had yet to acquire the skills of anti-submarine warfare so painfully learned by the Royal and Royal Canadian Navies over the preceding two years. To commit an aircraft carrier to a necessarily predictable pattern of operations in submarine waters would have amounted to almost criminal lunacy.

The US Navy, however, was not to be denied, for it needed those training carriers. While a great deal of Might training for carrier crews could he conducted at land based facilities, the vital skills of landing and taking off from a moving Might deck could only be practised on just that, a moving Might deck. Similarly, while Might deck crews could practice their vital support skills at land based facilities, there was nothing like the experience to he gained by actually carrying out their tasks on a real Might deck on an actual ship afloat Before the war. these skills had been practised and honed aboard one of the navy's operational carriers deployed on a training cruise and, in the smaller pre-war navy, this had worked well. For the reasons listed above, such an expedient was not available and something else would have to be thought of. It should be noted that the other major carrier based navy of the day. the Imperial Japanese Navy, faced the same problem and had solved it by relegating the old (1925), small carrier Hoslw to training duties in the sheltered Inland Sea for the duration o\ the war. She was. in fact, one of the few Japanese carriers to survive the war.

July/September IWX



Journal of the Australian Naval Institute

But the hard pressed US Navy could not afford to allot even one of its older carriers to the training role. These carriers were themselves desperately needed for operations in the Pacific, holding the line as it were while newer ships could be built and commissioned. It is possible that the very first US Hat lop. USS Langley (CV-li. might have been used but she had been converted to a sea plane carrier and aircraft transport in 1937 and anyway was sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in February. 1942. America's first carrier becoming in effect her first carrier loss of the war.

Yankee ingenuity, however, will not be denied. While a slop gap measure of sorts was extemporised using escort carriers hurriedly converted from merchant hulls and operating in the fairly easily defended waters of Chesapeake Bay and the less easily defended waters off San Diego in California, the solution was far from ideal. Chesapeake Bay is extremely congested and one of America's busiest waterways, making conduct of training very difficult, while the west coast was vulnerable to Japanese submarine operations. The solution came from the fertile mind of a US Navy aviator posted far from the sea. At the outbreak of the Pacific War. Commander (later Rear Admiral I Richard Whitehead. USN. was Aviation Aide to the Commandant of the Ninth (or Cireat Lakes! Naval District. With America now in the war. an enormous number of keels for new carriers being laid down and the need lor an equally enormous number of pilots, CMDR Whitehead caste a critical eye on ihe training efforts of the escon carriers in Chesapeake Bay and decided that the various disadvantages of using the small earners in the busy and congested bay required another solution. With stunning originality, he hit upon ihe idea of using small earners, converted from merchant ships, on the (ireat Lakes.

Whitehead's idea, at first glance quite far fetched, had enormous mcrii. The biggest advantage offered was security. On the land locked Great Lakes, ships would be far from the threat ol submarines and could operate almost at will with no escort. Additionally, the Great Lakes region boasted a number of useful military airfields, including Great Lakes Naval Air Station . Glenview. Illinois. The one major drawback was the extreme and bitter winter weather which was assessed as probably halting training for the duration of ihe cold weather. In fact, except for a period of three months in the winter of 1943-43. which was a particularly harsh one. the ships were able to operate all year round and. as will be seen, operation in Ihe winter months actually had advantages.

Whitehead was able to quickly convince his superior Rear Admiral Downes. of the merit of his idea and Downes sent an urgent letter to the Chief of Naval Operations on 10 January. 1942. Incredibly, the idea was accepted and acted on immediately' and the search commenced for suitable ships. In his original

proposal. Whitehead had suggested that if a suitable ship or ships was not available, then the Navy should actually go to the lengths of constructing small carriers on the Lakes. As it transpired, this was not necessary and two suitable ships were quickly identified.

The two ships identified were ihe luxury passenger ferry Seeandbee and the car ferry City of Midlands: The latter ship, which was almost brand new, was not in fact selected, but Seeandbee was. Secandbee was a side wheel paddle steamer and had been built in the yards of the American Shipbuilding Co. at Wyandotte. Michigan, in 1912. She had been built for and operated as a luxury passenger ferry by the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company (C&B. hence the name), home ported in Cleveland. Ohio. In her heyday, she had been a splendid, even luxurious ship, a favourite with passengers and a well known sight on Lake Michigan. She had also been, as an aside, the largest side wheel paddle steamer in the world. By 1941. however, she had fallen on hard limes. C&B had gone bankrupt in 1941 and the company's pride. Seeandbee had been purchased by Mr T.J. McGuire. a Chicago businessman, for the ridiculous sum of $135,000:00. Mr McGuire had operated Secandbee as a pleasure boat on Lake Frie in the last months of 1941 but at the beginning of 1942 she was laid up for the winter season at Cleveland.

The CNO wrote to Commandant Ninth Naval District in February expressing appreciation in the work done on the project and indicating that serious consideration was being given to the proposal. Less than one month later, on 12 March 1942. the navy purchased the Seeandbee from Mr McGuire for $765,000:00 - quite a tidy profit for the Chicago businessman. Seeandbee was sailed to Buffalo. New York, where she was put in the hands of the American Shipbuilding Company's yard there and her conversion commenced.

Conversion of Seeandbee commenced in May 1942 and the task look a mere three months, a phenomenal effort when it is considered that Seeandbee was a ship of quite vast proportions. The conversion of the ship consisted of cutting oil all of the upper works until she sat a bare 26 feet above the water. An overhanging Might deck of just over 500 feel was constructed over the hull and a small island constructed on the starboard side. Seeandbee v four smoke stacks, previously one her most prominent and distinctive features, were routed to the starboard side and rose above the island. With conversion complete, the former Seeandbee was commissioned into the US Navy on 12 August, 1942 as the USS Wolverine and commenced service under ihe command of Commander George R. Fairbanks, USN. Wolverine was classified by the USN as a "miscellaneous auxiliary unclassified" (IX) and was allotted the pennant number 68.


July/September 1998

Journal of the Australian Naval Institute

In her very fust days of operation, it was found that heavy clouds of coal smoke billowing out of the four stacks so obscured the flight deck that landings were a near impossibility. This problem was traced to the fact that the inexperienced navy stokers had not yet acquired the necessary degree of skill in the almost lost art of coal heaving and were unable to pitch the coal far enough into the furnace for fresh loads to burn cleanly. This problem was quickly alleviated as the stokers gained in experience and was assisted by switching to a more clean burning type of coal, of which the ship burned about 150 tons per day.

Even as Wolverine was completing her conversion, a sister ship for her was being sought as it quickly became clear to the navy that the numbers of pilots required would overwhelm the capacity of Wolverine to cope with. Again at CMDR Whitehead's urging, the paddle wheel ferry Greater Buffalo, built in 1924 and operated by the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company, was acquired in August. 1942, and her conversion commenced. Greater Buffalo was also handed over to the American Shipbuilding Company and work started on her conversion as the finishing touches were heing made to Wolverine. Slightly larger than the former. Seeamibee, Greater Buffalo was still practically identical on completion to Wolverine. In fact, the only major differences were that the new ship had only two stacks as opposed to Wolverine '.v four and she was fitted with a steel flight deck as opposed to wood. This, by the way. made the newly converted ship the first LIS aircraft carrier to be fitted with a steel flight deck!

The conversion of Greater Buffalo was completed in May. 1943. and on the eighth of that month, she was commissioned into the US Navy as USS Sable (IX-81). Incidentally. Wolverine was named in honour of the former USS Wolverine, the US Navy's first iron hulled ship which had been commissioned in 1844 and decommissioned in 1942. The name Sable was chosen for her sister to continue the practice of similar class names, the new ship heing named after a fur animal native to northern Europe which is a cousin to the North American wolverine. With their conversion complete, about the only resemblance Wolverine and Sable bore to their former selves were the huge paddle boxes on either side of the ships housing the 30 feet diameter paddle wheels. Truly unique vessels. Wolverine and Sable were the only two fresh water aircraft carriers in existence and the only two side wheel paddle steamer carriers ever.

On completion. Wolverine had been sailed from Buffalo on Lake Erie, up through Lake Huron and into Lake Michigan where she then steamed to her new home port of Chicago, arriving at the Navy Pier on 22 August. 1942. Work began immediately, with the new ship operating in conjunction with the Carrier Qualification Training Unit (CQTL!) located at Great Lakes Naval Air Station. The first aircraft to land on

Sable touched down on her deck on 25 August. 1942. The aircraft was piloted by LTCDR Edward J. O'Neill. CO of CQTU. Soon alter, on 12 .September. Ensign Biedleman. IkSNR. became the first trainee pilot to qualify under the Great Lakes program. Wolverine operated on her own for nine months until Sable joined her in May 1943. When Sable arrived under the command of Captain William A. Schoech. USN. the two ships were grouped together as "Carrier Task Force X." I have been unable to ascertain whether the "X" stood for "10" or just "X" as in "X marks the spot." If it was. as I suspect, the latter, it indicates a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour in a somewhat humourless service!

The training schedule for Carrier Task Group X was gruelling. In the relatively sheltered waters of Lake Michigan, the carriers could operate almost unhindered by the weather year round. Even the foreseen restrictions caused by winter weather faded to materialise except for a three month period during the winter of 1942, a particularly harsh one. when Wolverine was restricted to harbour due to unusually heavy ice flows. During other periods of cold weather, problems with ice flows were solved by working in conjunction with Great Lakes based US Coast Guard icebreakers which quickly cleared a path for the carriers out into the open waters of Lake Michigan. The ability to operate the carriers in the coldest weather also had the unforeseen benefit of providing an opportunity for the testing of experimental cold and foul weather gear. The only other two major restrictions were that the carriers were unable to fly aircraft on or off at night, restricting operations to daylight hours, and. because there was no hangar space aboard the ships (and obviously no lifts) ami strictly limited deck parking space (three aircraft at most), aircraft landing on had to immediately take off again to make room for the next aircraft.

On a typical day. the carriers would fire up their boilers before dawn and set sail to clear Chicago by 0800 and operate throughout the daylight hours, making for 12 to 15 hour days. Carrier aircraft require a headwind to take off into to assist with lilt. The prevailing winds on Lake Michigan are north to south so the carriers would generally steam north from Chicago all day to make use of the headwind. Pilots found that the low height of the flight deck above the water (less than 30 feet) made for some interesting take offs as their aircraft "dipped" as they crossed the bow on take off. Although there were some ne.ii misses and close shaves, there is no record of anyone ending up in the water.

The pace of flight operations was nothing short of amazing. Aircraft would be constantly landing ami taking off throughout the day with training squads of five or six aircraft forming up over either carrier and taking their turns at landing on and taking off. In the beginning, carrier qualification called for each pilot to

July/September 1998

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