Heroes on Deck: WWII on Lake Michigan

More than 100 World War II aircraft ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan. But how did they get there? This documentary film contains rare footage of a U.S. Navy operation, just off Chicago's shoreline, that changed the course of World War II.

0:00Copy video clip URL Text and spoken summary of the video’s contents.

1:12Copy video clip URL Footage plays from a diver’s headcam as they descend into the depths of Lake Michigan. Text continues to play on-screen.

0:37Copy video clip URL Historical footage plays alongside modern-day interviews, teasing at the contents of the documentary.

1:19Copy video clip URL Triumphant music accompanies introductory credits as shots from an airfield play, leading into the title card.

1:41Copy video clip URL Alongside footage of twenty-first-century Chicago, narrator Bill Kurtis describes how “the passage of time tends to obscure history.” 

2:16Copy video clip URL Army veterans Taras Lyssenko and Allan Olson, who search for historically important aircraft, set out to find one of the World War II fighter planes sunken in Lake Michigan. Kris Habermehl, an aviation journalist and pilot, provides context on the model of the plane Lyssenko and Olson are searching for: a Grumman FM-2 Wildcat. Kurtis explains how Lyssenko and Olson initially found the plane, Lyssenko chiming in.

4:15Copy video clip URL “You have to be very meticulous to survive down there,” warns Olson. “A sloppy person won’t make it.” Paul Ehorn and Bruce Bittner, two deep divers assisting Lyssenko and Olson with the retrieval, comment on the danger of diving. As Ehorn and Bittner submerge, Kurtis transitions to the military history of the Chicago area.

4:52Copy video clip URL Kurtis provides historical context on how Commander Richard Whitehead of the Ninth Naval District of Chicago and merchant mariner (later Navy lieutenant) John J. Manley first proposed the idea of the Lake Michigan experiment: training carrier pilots in Lake Michigan, a body of water enclosed by friendly territory, rather than the Eastern seaboard, which was subject to enemy submarines. Joseph Troiani, PhD, a commander in the US Navy, comments on the positive reception of Whitehead and Manley’s idea.

6:11Copy video clip URL Following Pearl Harbor, the Lake Michigan Project accelerates and is put into action. John Laudermilk, a historian, David Hull, a restoration specialist at Air Zoo, and Tim Samuelson, a cultural historian, explain the process of obtaining and converting two passenger ships, the SS Seeandbee and the SS Greater Buffalo, into aircraft carriers for the Lake Michigan Project. 

11:31Copy video clip URL Laudermilk describes what distinguished the newly constructed aircraft carriers (renamed the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable, respectively) from other naval aircraft carriers.

11:56Copy video clip URL Back in the twenty-first century, divers Ehorn and Bittner begin their descent to retrieve the Wildcat. Kurtis and Olson provide the technical details of hoisting the aircraft up the hundred and sixty feet of water above it and bringing it to shore.

13:35Copy video clip URL Kurtis transitions to providing details on carrier qualification (CQ) training. Bill Marquardt, of the Naval Air Station (NAS) Glenview Museum, explains the historic role of NAS Glenview as a carrier qualification training hub. Beverly Dawson, author of the nonfiction book Glenview Naval Air Station, chimes in as well. Historical naval training videos play.

16:04Copy video clip URL The documentary moves to Lieutenant Charles Roemer, a landing signal officer (LSO) who reported to NAS Glenview after his previous ship, the USS Lexington, Laudermilk supplies, was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Habermehl explains the role of an LSO: “The LSO is trained to let you know: Are you going too fast? Are you going too slow? Are you too high? Are you too low? If you’re not safe, they would wave you off, and you would go around and come back again.” Kurtis provides the accelerated training schedule at Glenview. 

17:44Copy video clip URL Chuck Downey, a naval aviator since the nineteen forties, displays one of his airplanes. Downey, who replaced George H.W. Bush as the youngest commissioned officer in the US in 1943, trained on Lake Michigan, as did the former president. Downey recounts his first carrier landing in the North American SNJ, a Navy carrier-based trainer. Paul Wiselka, the radio operator for the USS Wolverine, helps to illustrate the landing. “To fail to find the ship would be a very black mark. But we found it. It looks so tiny way down there,” says Downey, recreating his thoughts at the time. “Am I going to land on that little postage stamp?”

19:48Copy video clip URL Kurtis explains the dangers involved in landing on a carrier. Downey explains the complex process of landing. “It was quite a thrill,” Downey says about passing the training. “That night, we hit the bars of downtown Chicago. A lot of us just drank, we smoked cigarettes, chicks all over the place. Now we’re really in the Navy. Then you’ve got to train the next day.”

21:43Copy video clip URL Focus returns to the Grumman Wildcat, which, on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, has arrived at the dock and is ready to be lifted out of the water. A recording of Habermehl’s coverage of the story plays. Keith Pearson, lead recovery engineer and diver, goes over the process of preparing the plane for ground transport.

23:34Copy video clip URL Dawson, Troiani, and Toby Mack from the Chicago Navy Memorial Foundation comment on Great Lakes Naval Training Center’s role in the training process. “Great Lakes trained the black-shoe navy. They were all of the people who kept the actual ship going. They were the stokers. They were the firefighters. They were the cooks. They worked the deck crews,” supplies Dawson. Kurtis, Dawson, and Downey go over the particular danger faced by the deck crews of the Wolverine and Sable aircraft carriers. 

25:52Copy video clip URL William Murphy, who served on the Wolverine deck crew for two years, speaks on dangerous weather conditions the crew faced on Lake Michigan. Kurtis provides details on three pilots who crashed during a snowstorm: Arthur Phillips, George Green, and Herbert Brown. “A crash in Lake Michigan in the winter was a life-threatening event,” says Ed Ellis from the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. Dawson introduces the role of the coast guard in rescuing downed pilots.

28:32Copy video clip URL Navy Pier, since changed to a popular Chicago attraction, also played a large role in CQ training. Mack explains the specific skills trained at the pier. Herbert Sohn, a student in a top-secret program testing early radar equipment, the Navy Pier Radar School, recounts his experience at Navy Pier. “We started out with radio and then we worked on the magnetron and other radar instruments. We never saw the instrument itself. We just saw the outside. We took a special oath that you would not tell anyone what you were doing.”

30:14Copy video clip URL A and T recovery retrieves another rare fighter plane, a Vought-Sikorsky F4U-1 Corsair. Habermehl and Troiani explain the particularities of the plane. Its nature as a “birdcage Corsair” not only makes the plane much rarer but much more dangerous to fly.

32:55Copy video clip URL In 1943, Kurtis narrates, the training program was public knowledge. Interviewees chime in on the dangers pilots in the program faced, such as the low flight decks of the carriers, insufficient wind, and coal smoke. “Their training landings on board the Wolverine or the Sable were a lot more difficult than the landings they would have once they got to the fleet,” says Ellis.

36:00Copy video clip URL Bittner of the Corsair recovery tow crew reflects on his father, a Navy pilot in WWII. “Every one of these aircraft had several stories that went along with it. We’re losing the men. I don’t want to lose the stories. Hopefully, these airplanes will save the stories.”

36:44Copy video clip URL The crew lifts the birdcage Corsair out of the water. Despite unfavorable conditions with the plane and surrounding crowd and losing a lifting strap, the plane is carefully lifted to shore. Chuck Greenhill, a pilot and sponsor of the recovery, explains why he chose to sponsor the project. 

38:51Copy video clip URL Grant Young, a retired naval aviator, downplays his naval achievements, which Kurtis fills in on his behalf. Habermehl discusses the Grumman TBM Avenger, the plane flown by Young. Young describes a crash he suffered during training, which Kurtis contrasts with his naval exploits taking down a Battleship Yamato, “the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleship ever constructed.” Young recounts the experience on his end. “When you’re dropping a torpedo, you have to be down to two hundred feet above the surface. You have to stabilize your run for ten seconds. Ten seconds, count ’em. I’m getting hit, so I hit the button, drop my torpedo, and I slam the bomb bay doors shut. So I peeled off, looked back, and my gunner said, ‘Hey, it blew up!’ It blew up. It blew up! I think only about forty or fifty people got out of that thing. There were close to five thousand aboard, they said.”

43:15Copy video clip URL A and T recovery lifts out a Grumman F6F Hellcat, or “the Ace maker.” Habermehl explains the airplane’s characteristics. Historical researcher Mark Sheppard explains his role in the process– determining who the pilot of the plane had been. Sheppard identifies the pilot as Walter B. Elcock, whose story Kurtis recounts. Elcock’s grandson, Hunter Brawley, attends the event. “I got to be the first person in the cockpit since my grandfather occupied it in 1945,” says Brawley. Nancy van Heule, a local resident, shares a connection to her childhood. David Grumman, son of the founder of Grumman Aviation, shares his thoughts. “I knew some of these mechanics– men and women– who worked on planes like this. They would be so proud to see this plane, and I understand that it’s going to be restored in Pensacola.”

46:56Copy video clip URL At the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, Duane Thiessen presents the plane to the public. The museum also features a fully restored Vought Vindicator, the only plane of its kind in the world on display. Museum director Bob Rasmussen gives a tour of the collection, including a Douglas SBD Dauntless aircraft. 

49:00Copy video clip URL The Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan begins restoring the Grumman Wildcat. Greg Ward tells the story of the first aircraft received from Lake Michigan, also a Douglas SBD Dauntless. Ward also explains how the Wildcat has been damaged by the proliferation of Quagga mussels, an invasive species. “What I’m hearing from the metal people is that in another ten years, the aircraft in Lake Michigan will not be recoverable. They will be too far gone,” says Ellis. Ward and Dawson echo the need for urgency in recovering the Lake Michigan aircraft.

50:10Copy video clip URL Kurtis provides several other examples of recovered planes in various spaces, including the O’Hare and Midway airports, as well as yet-to-be-recovered aircraft.

51:15Copy video clip URL V-J (Victory over Japan) day marks the end of the carrier qualification on Lake Michigan. Multiple experts provide modern context for the locations discussed within the video. Marquardt and Mack argue that the CQ training program was pivotal to victory in WWII. Downey takes a trip out onto Lake Michigan to honor the men involved in the program and the recently deceased Grant Young. 

54:44Copy video clip URL Credits play as the program concludes with a clip of an interview with Young.

55:34Copy video clip URL Promotional material for the DVD and download of Heroes on Deck. Information on the Chicago Marine Heritage Society.



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