A World War II-era bomber was surprisingly recovered from Lake Michigan. Its history tells the story of a successful but little-remembered WWII effort in the Great Lakes. The massive program resulted in the training of thousands of American pilots.
17. Douglas SBDF Dauntless
Submerged for almost 60 years, a WWII Douglas SBDF Dauntless bomber was found in Lake Michigan near Waukegan. The bomber presented a mystery: why was a WWII bomber found in the Great Lakes region in the middle of the country? The shocking answer would remind everyone of a program that helped win the war.
16. A Frightening Crash
On November 24, 1944, Joseph Lokites was piloting a dive bomber near the Lake. He ditched the plane and parachuted to safety. By the time the bomber was discovered nearly 60 years later, it was crusted with zebra mussels plus had a bent propeller and twisted right wing. Nevertheless, the bomber was in remarkably good condition. How had it crashed?
15. A Non-Routine Landing
Lokites was making a routine landing approach onto an aircraft carrier on Lake Michigan when he noticed trouble. A fuel switch malfunctioned, killing the engine.The plane plunged into the frigid waters. Thankfully Lokites was quickly saved.
14. Paddlewheel Steamers
Many airplanes from that era had actually flown from two old paddle wheel steamers which had been retrofitted as practice aircraft carriers. Why? The answer has everything to do with Pearl Harbor and the presence of German U-Boats on the Eastern Seaboard. Read on to find out why!
13. Emergency Training
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the United States declared war. However, the Americans had to scramble to beef up their naval flight capability, since so much had been destroyed in the attack. An ingenious plan launched off the coast of Chicago. The program would bring 15,000 aviators to the Great Lakes, where they would conduct training missions to prepare for war in the Pacific.
12. German U-Boats in America
Lake Michigan may have seemed like an unlikely place for Naval training, but it was actually a perfect idea since the inland space made it safe from attack by Germany and Japan. German U-boats were already patrolling the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. Japanese boats were on the Western Seaboard, so America needed someplace safe to train.
11. An Inland Lake
The idea of using Lake Michigan was hatched by a merchant mariner named John J. Manley. He knew that the Navy needed a large body of water to train on, and that it had to be impervious to Axis attack. Lake Michigan is the only one of the five Great Lakes located only in the U.S. It provided an enormous 22,000 mile training area.
10. SS Seeandbee and the SS Greater Buffalo
Several aircraft carriers had been destroyed in Pearl Harbor, and only seven were left intact. Since they needed those ships for the war, two old side-wheeled passenger ships, the SS Seeandbee and the SS Greater Buffalo, were converted into carriers. They were renamed the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable.
9. Luxury Steamships to Aircraft Carriers
The Seeandbee was once the biggest inland paddle boat in the world. The Greater Buffalo soon exceeded it. No one could have predicted that the two boats would one day be turned into makeshift aircraft carriers. The boats were 500-feet shorter than the carriers destroyed at Pearl Harbor.
8. Difficult Conditions
The new aircraft carriers were rough. They chopped off the top decks and welded landing strips to the decks. They were much shorter than aircraft carriers, so landing on them was extra challenging. According to Captain Ed Eillis from the National Aviation Museum, it was actually harder to land on the steamships than the real thing.
7. Remarkable Training Missions
Which brings us back to the bomber. Over 100 planes crashed and sank to the bottom of the Lake between 1942 and the end of the war. Although there were many accidents, only eight pilots and 40 crewmen perished during the Lake Michigan training. This is considered quite low given the numbers and nature of the training missions.
6. An Amazing Record
An unbelievable number of pilots trained on the Sable and Wolverine – 35,000 men. They completed over 120,000 landings on the two vessels without an incident. No wonder they were able to turn the tide of the War toward the Allies.
5. Battle of Midway
Dauntless Dive Bombers were a significant factor in winning the Battle of Midway, which turned the tide of the war in the pacific. George H.W. Bush famously flew a Dauntless during WWII.
4. Years of Preparation
The Dauntless was first spotted in more than 300 feet of water, 20 miles offshore. It took several years for the Navy to grant permission to a private company to recover the aircraft. The plane was submerged so deeply that submarine robots had to survey the area. Then they used ropes to lift the plane out to be towed to shore.
3. Delicate Operation
According to the team that rescued the aircraft, the plane is too delicate to use chains on it. Therefore everything had to be done very carefully. As more and more aircraft have been discovered, researchers are amazed by the overall condition of the planes. Since the water is ice-cold and the Lake is freshwater, they are remarkably preserved – often still with air in the tires.
2. A Pilot Remembers
As the bomber was towed to shore, one former Navy pilot drove over 150 miles from his home to watch. Grant C. Young was a Dauntless pilot. He also crashed during training. “I didn’t get hurt but nearly froze waiting for the Coast Guard to pick me up,” he said. “This is a wonderful thing to see. It brings back a lot of memories.”
1. Rest in Peace
The Dauntless is now housed in the National Naval Aviation Museum. Lokites graduated from high school in Iowa in 1940 and two years later earned his wings at Pensacola Naval Air Station and he went on to serve in the Pacific. Lokites later went to college and served as a physical education teacher for 26 years. He died in 2012.