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The Side-wheel Carriers

February 2024
5min read

As Captain Beach explained in his essay on naval aviation (“Navy Power: A View from the Air,” October/November 1986), Pearl Harbor instantly made the aircraft carrier the capital ship of the Navy, and our survival depended upon our grasping that fact and acting quickly. We had already started a moderate building program, and we immediately accelerated it. But construction was the easy part; how could we quickly train the thousands and thousands of pilots and other specialized crew members who were needed to man the ships?

In December 1941 we had only eight aircraft carriers, and by the summer of 1942 we had lost two of these, with two more to be lost in a few months. We didn’t have enough ships to defend ourselves, let alone train more men to take the offensive.

An ingenious solution to the problem was proposed by Comdr. R. F. Whitehead, a Navy pilot then on the staff of the commandant of the Ninth Naval District (the Chicago area). Why not train new pilots on the protected waters of the Great Lakes, he said, using ships that could be converted from ones already available? He easily convinced his commandant, who, on January 16, 1942, made the official recommendation to the chief of naval operations that two lake steamers be purchased and converted for training purposes.

The plan was approved for one vessel, a large 1913 passenger steamer called the Seeandbee . The Navy bought her on March 12, 1942, and conversion started less than two months later. The Seeandbee was a truly splendid vessel. Almost five hundred feet long, she was as large as many oceangoing ships. Planned by the famous marine designer Louis O. Keil, she had 470 staterooms and 24 magnificent parlors. But all her sumptuous fittings had to go. Her superstructure came off at Cleveland, and she was stripped bare right down to her automobile deck, only about five feet above the waterline. Then she went to Buffalo, where her flight deck was installed, and on August 12, 1942, she was commissioned USS Wolverine . Her career as an aircraft carrier had begun.

She entered twentieth-century Navy life with two unusual characteristics: she was a coal burner, and she was propelled by paddle wheels. Her machinery was so sound that no mechanical changes were necessary. From the very beginning, Navy men had been leery of paddle wheels. They were complicated and fragile and, rising as they did above the water, vulnerable to enemy fire. But the Wolverine was never going to see service off the Great Lakes, and her machinery proved to be so sound that the engineers in charge of the conversion decided no mechanical changes were necessary. So the Wolverine paddled her way through her Navy career, with the unfailing reliability that her new job demanded. She offered the Navy another advantage: the extra width created by her paddle boxes made her exceptionally stable. This, plus the relatively calm waters of the lake, gave the training pilots a comfortable flight deck on which to qualify.

At first glance she resembled a conventional aircraft carrier, but a closer look made one wonder why her profile was so low. Since her sole purpose was to be a floating flight deck, she had no need for storing or repairing airplanes, and the hangar deck was eliminated completely. Her flight deck was only twenty-six feet above the water. This proved a little disturbing to the young pilots, since a slight dip after takeoff is a common characteristic of carrier aviation, probably a result of the abrupt transition from over-the-deck to overwater, and a drop of only twenty-six feet could bring disaster.

The Wolverine was based in Chicago, near the Glenview Naval Air Station, which was to provide the trainees with ground-training facilities, accommodations, and all the other necessities. Glenview could take care of the pilots’ needs; all the ship had to do was make her flight deck available for the last step of pilot training—the eight qualifying landings and takeoffs that turned a pilot into a carrier pilot.

Operations began on August 25, barely more than seven months after the plan had been conceived. Commander Whitehead’s vision was triumphantly justified when the Wolverine paddled out into Lake Michigan on that summer day.

The first landing was made by Comdr. E. J. O’Neill, who was in charge of the carrier-qualification training unit at Glenview. Some of his staff pilots then made landings, to give the flight-deck crew some practical experience. It didn’t seem sensible to expose the trainee pilots to an inexperienced deck crew.

Then the new pilots started coming in groups of half a dozen. This was the last step in their training: but all their other work had been done in shore schools, and the trainees had trouble finding the ship. Then, once they had found her, their limited experience with flight patterns led to a lot of confusion, and more time was lost. It was quickly decided that a staff pilot would lead each new group out to the ship and make the first landing. Seeing the first airplane actually land seemed to give the others confidence (the Wolverine ’s flight deck was as large as most of those that the pilots would be using; it’s just that any flight deck looks tiny on all that water).

A key person in any carrier landing operation is the landing signal officer (LSO), who uses paddle signals to guide the landing airplane onto the deck. Just as the Wolverine ’s routines were being established, her LSO came down with appendicitis and had to be taken ashore for emergency surgery. The fragility of this whole operation is suggested by the fact that his illness brought all training to a halt for two weeks—a reminder of how strained our resources were during those early months of the war.

Nevertheless, by the time the Wolverine had to suspend operations for the winter, she had qualified 452 pilots, including 11 from the Royal Navy, and 3,833 landings had been made on her deck. It was a record to be proud of.

On May 8,1943, the conversion of the Greater Buffalo was completed, and the Navy acquired another coal-burning sidewheeler, carrying the name USS Sable . Her flight-training operations began on June 10, 1943. With the addition of the Sable to the paddle-wheel fleet, the Chesapeake Bay operations were closed out and virtually all flight-deck qualifications for the entire Navy were made on the Wolverine and the Sable . There were more landing signal officers available now; their ships, Lexington, Yorktown , and Hornet , had been sunk in action.

The number of new carriers beginning to join the fleet soon made it evident that a formal training program for LSOs should be instituted on the Wolverine and the Sable , and this course was one of the most important and successful of the entire program.

Using the experience of the previous fall and boosted by the arrival of the Sable , the training unit quickly became smooth, efficient, and productive. Each morning at dawn the two ships would leave Chicago with a covey of six airplanes approaching each vessel, and as soon as the ships were headed into the wind, the landings would start. Actually, landings began so soon after departure that they caused traffic jams as early morning commuters would slow their cars to get a better look at the curious spectacle of Navy airplanes landing on carriers in Lake Michigan.

Each ship’s goal was to qualify thirty pilots per day; that meant 240 successful landings and takeoffs. On several occasions each vessel logged more than 600 landings per day; the Wolverine had 633 landings on June 4, 1944. On May 28, 1944, the Sable qualified fifty-nine pilots, who made 488 landings in 531 minutes. Compare this with a record ten years later, when pilot-qualification duty was assigned to a modern carrier, USS Monterey (no paddle wheels or coal smoke here!). On February 2, 1954, the Monterey was proud of completing 460 landings in an eleven-hour workday.

After the war the carrier-qualification program was transferred to Pensacola, Florida. Flight training was no longer restricted to inland waters, and the temperate climate of Florida made yearround training more feasible. There were plenty of ships available; by war’s end we had built 34 fleet aircraft carriers and 77 escort carriers. The faithful paddlewheelers were no longer needed. Wolverine and Sable were taken out of service on November 7,1945, sold, and finally scrapped. Each had experienced a life of which any ship could be proud. They had been among the finest passenger carriers of their time, and they had made an indispensable contribution to their country.

By the end of the war the Wolverine had accomplished more than sixty-six thousand landings, and the Sable more than fifty-eight thousand. The two vessels had made the work of the landing signal officer a definable art and established a program for its development. They had produced untold numbers of arresting-gear and flight-deck crews; in fact, the two ships may have turned out as many as forty thousand trained personnel. And they had qualified more than fifteen thousand carrier pilots, men who were desperately needed and who had learned their crucial trade on the last coal-burning paddle steamers in the Navy.

—George C. Long

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