Freshwater Flattops; The Corn Belt Carriers Wolverine and Sable

August 8, 2023

When it comes to the Second World War, one thing that is a given fact is just how huge the United States industrial capacity and production was. Tanks, planes, guns…the vast quantities of weapons made in the US is quite incredible. But there is one metric which I think really shows just how massive the American ability to build stuff was – aircraft carriers.

These are, after all, immensely complex and expensive weapons that don’t just need a huge investment for their building, crewing and maintenance, but all the resources required of a substantial front-line airfield as well! And to my mind, the sheer number of these ships built by the United States truly demonstrates their industrial superiority during the War.

Japan, America’s great carrier rival and naval belligerent commissioned, starting with the Zuiho in 1940, fourteen fleet and light carriers and six escort carriers throughout the conflict.

The Royal Navy, which had started the war basically on pa with the US Navy, constructed fifteen fleet and light carriers, as well as another twenty-nine escort carriers.

A pretty impressive tally…but not when we look at what America churned out: Twenty-nine fleet and light carriers and 122 escort carriers.

Now as said, there is more to putting an aircraft carrier into action than getting hulls into the water. One of the main sticking points for the US Navy was ensuring they had enough pilots to man the air fleets that were going to be shipped aboard the rapidly expanding carrier fleet.

And here we come to the topic of the article, two of the most unique aircraft carriers to have ever been built.

The USS Wolverine and USS Sable.

So why were they so unique? Well, for starters, they were coal powered, which I believe makes them the only carriers built to run on this fuel.

Secondly, they were the only aircraft carriers to ever operate in fresh water, spending their service lives on Lake Michigan.

And finally, they didn’t use propellors, oh no. They were side wheeled paddle steamers.

Indeed, it is kind of odd that these totally individual ships are not better known because of their uniqueness, but I suppose in the huge expanse of material that is the study of the Second World War plenty of interesting stuff can fall through the cracks. Plus, I have to be honest, Wolverine and Sable were not strictly speaking aircraft carriers; they had no hangers or armament. They were essentially just mobile flight decks, and that was reflected by the fact that they were not issued CV-designations, but instead were numbered as IX-64 and IX-81 respectively, indicating that they were unclassified auxiliary vessels in the US Navy.

But that shouldn’t detract from the service they provided, which I’ll get to in a bit.

Wolverine was first built in 1912 as the Seeandbee for the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company and ran passenger services, in some luxury, on the Great Lakes. With over 500 cabins, staterooms and a ballroom, she was certainly a very well-appointed ship.

The same could be said of her sister, the USS Sable. Built in 1924 for similar luxury passenger services on the Great Lakes, the Greater Buffalo, as she was named on commissioning, was one of the largest paddle-steamers operating and able to accommodate 1,500 guests in lavish comfort, and even had a car deck for over one hundred personal vehicles.

The depression obviously affected the demand for both vessels’ services, but both were still in service when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. And with the need to build up the carrier fleet and the hordes of new pilots needing to be qualified, Commander Richard Whitehead proposed converting the two vessels into ersatz carriers so that the rookie flyers could get their deck qualifications. This would allow actual combat carriers to be freed up from conducting the job, as well as providing a comparatively safe environment well inland and away from potential enemy attack.

Bear in mind that post-Pearl Harbor the US military had very real concerns about Japanese attacks on the Pacific coastline, while German U-Boats were on a rampage up and down the east coast.

The idea was given the green light and Seeandbee first purchased in March 1942 for immediate conversion into the USS Wolverine. This saw the ship essentially gutted to leave the empty hull and machinery spaces and a 550-foot-long oak-plank flight deck installed, along with arrestor wires and an island bridge.

The flight deck was short by contemporary carrier standards, with the USS Ranger (CV-4) having a deck measuring just shy of 710-feet long, and even this was considered rather short. But for the Wolverine and Sable these shorter decks were considered an advantage. After all, they didn’t have to contend with issues of moving aircraft around the deck and transporting them up and down to the hangers because they didn’t have any.

The intention was for the two ships to allow new pilots to practice landing and taking off from a ship while underway, and the smaller decks meant that when they were assigned to their combat postings, they would find operating off a normal carrier deck much easier as they had learnt on the comparatively tiny IX-ships.

Wolverine was commissioned in August 1942, at which point Greater Buffalo was acquired and began conversion to become Sable, with similar work done to her as with her sister ship though with a slightly shorter flight deck made of steel instead of wood. Based in Chicago and conducting operations on Lake Michigan, Wolverine began training new pilots from January 1943, being joined by Sable in May the same year.

The two ships, operating from Navy Pier, acquired the nickname of the Corn Belt Fleet and were kept constantly busy in their role, with Wolverine conducting 7,000 successful landings in her first four months of operations alone. Sable, as further example, qualified fifty-nine pilots in her very first day of service. Bear in mind that each pilot had to make a minimum of eight landings and take-offs on the little training carriers, that gives an indication of just how busy these vessels were.

The two ships also provided critical handling experience to crew who were scheduled to be deployed to the expanding fleet of escort carriers that was being constructed – again allowing these personnel to learn the skills of intense carrier deck operations away from the dangers of the open sea or enemy attack.

Of course, and as said, they were not true aircraft carriers and thus did have some limitations. Training new pilots meant that the two ships saw their fair share of accidents, and if the decks got cluttered with enough damaged aircraft, then there was no other choice but to return to Chicago to unload them.

Additionally, because of their paddle wheel, coal driven propulsion the two ships weren’t exactly speedy, and on days where winds were low on the Lakes the Wolverine and Sable couldn’t generate enough speed to safely land the big and heavy combat aircraft that the US Navy was employing as the war progressed.

But these issues didn’t impact on the two ships abilities too often, and by the end of the War the two vessels had conducted around 116,000 deck landings, which in turn had allowed 17,820 pilots to become qualified. Amongst these was one George H.W. Bush, who you may have heard of.

Another thing that Sable was able to do was act as a testbed for a new type of weapon, one that today we would take for granted but which in 1943 was utterly revolutionary; the TDN-1 torpedo drone.

This unmanned aircraft was commanded by a flight controller either at a ground base or in a following aircraft who flew the TDN-1 via its integral television camera. Carrying either a two-thousand pound bomb or an aerial torpedo, the TDN was an idea well in advance of its day and in fact beyond the capabilities of 1940s technology. But, along with other contemporary experimental guided weapons, it laid the basic groundwork for the precision armaments that we are so familiar with today.

And the Sable, as a carrier based well inland conducting operations in the Great Lakes and thus beyond the reach of enemy spies should one of the new drones go astray, was the perfect test base for trials.

Another legacy of the two ships was that though they were extremely successful in the role, they did have the occasional misfortune, with perhaps as many as three hundred aircraft being lost overboard. Though a number of these have since been recovered, there are still plenty of others that wreck hunters are eagerly looking for in the depths of Lake Michigan.

However, for this unique class of remarkable ships the end of the war also meant their complete redundancy. The Navy now had a glut of aircraft carriers – and indeed would have for a couple of decades – and these odd little ships were no longer required. Both were decommissioned in November 1945 and, despite an attempt to save Sable as a museum, by 1948 both had gone to the scrapyard; a somewhat sad end for two ships that, while not covered in combat glory like their battle carrier counterparts, still played a critical, and largely unheralded role, in the US Navy’s war efforts.


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