Into The Light Again Part 1

19 Feb

A Slice of Life

Bill Lites

As a part of the aftermath of the First World War many political and economic changes were seen in America. The national trauma of the war created an ever increasing attitude of isolationism in this country.  One of the immediate results, by the political establishment, was to reduce the military.  The elimination of the unneeded military forces was a large factor in helping to reduce the nations War Debt.  A feeling of relief, celebration and prosperity ramped up during the 1920s until the Great Depression was cast upon us in 1929.  Then the struggle of the 1930s was mainly centered on survival.

Typical “Bread Line” of the 1930s

Even with the buildup of Nazi forces in Germany in the late 1930s, most Americans didn’t want to think about getting involved in another war.  So, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the United States was not ready for a war.  Even though hundreds of thousands of men immediately signed up for the military services, the U.S. military buildup was slow, with training being a large part of the equation.

U.S. Military buildup and training took time

At that time, the U.S. Navy only had a few operational aircraft carriers to help defend America’s coastlines, most of which were assigned to front-line duties, in the world’s oceans, fighting the Axis powers.  However, the Navy needed qualified carrier pilots, and they needed them ASAP.  As it happened, a far-sighted naval commander named Richard F. Whitehead had presented an out-of-the-box proposal for qualifying carrier pilots in early 1941, but the plan was rejected at the time by the Navy department.


Commander Richard F. Whitehead 

But after the Pearl Harbor attack, Whitehead’s plan was quickly approved and expedited to provide the badly needed carrier pilot qualification source.  In March of 1942 the Navy purchased two early 1900s side-paddlewheel steam ships (SS Seeandbee & SS Greater Buffalo) that at one time had been luxury cruise liners servicing the Lake Michigan waters.

SS Seaandbee

The Navy essentially removed the superstructures and upper decks of both ships, and installed a 550’ long flight deck on each.  When the conversion of the Seeandbee was completed, she was renamed USS Wolverine (IX-64) and was commissioned in August 1942.  With a maximum crew of 270 officers and enlisted men, intense naval carrier pilot qualification operations commenced immediately.  The qualification of 59 pilots on the very first day of the ship’s operation almost doubled Commander Whitehead’s original pilot training estimate.  When the conversion of her sister ship, the Greater Buffalo, was completed, she was renamed USS Sable (IX-81) and the ship was commissioned in May 1943.

USS Wolverine & USS Sable at Chicago pier 

It was not long before the two ships began to be casually referred to as the “Cornbelt Fleet.”  Pilots would take off from their NAS Glenview training base, just north of Chicago, and head out over the lake in search of the USS Wolverine or USS Sable to begin their carrier qualification practice landings and takeoffs.  Once a pilot found his assigned ship, he would land and immediately takeoff to go around the pattern for another attempt.  Over the course of the war, U.S. Navy records indicate that almost 18,000 carrier pilots were qualified on these two ships, including one of the youngest Navy carrier pilots to be qualified, future president George H.W. Bush.  In addition to pilot training, the two ships were also used to train some 40,000 sailors and Landing Signal Officers (LSO) in carrier flight deck operations.    

Landing Signal Officer (Paddles) and Trainer 

It should be noted that, at the time, each pilot who was training to be assigned to flight duty on a frontline aircraft carrier, had to complete eight “successful” landings and takeoffs before he could qualify as an aircraft carrier pilot.  For most of these pilots, this was their first attempt at trying to land an aircraft on a moving deck, and they didn’t all have the steel nerves to do it right the first time.  It is said that as many as 400-600 landing and takeoff operations were performed on these two ships in a single day.  These operational schedules continued seven days a week (weather permitting) until the end of the war.  With all this activity, you might expect that there were some accidents along the way, and you would be right.

Carrier pilot qualification

—–To Be Continued

Bill is a retired Mechanical engineer living with his wonderful artist/writer wife, DiVoran, of 61 years in Titusville, Florida. He was born and raised in the Southwest, did a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy, attended Northrop University in Southern California and ended up working on America’s Manned Space Program for 35 years. He currently is retired and spends most of his time building and flying R/C model airplanes, traveling, writing blogs about his travels for Word Press and supporting his wife’s hobbies with framing, editing and marketing.  He also volunteers with a local church Car Care Ministry and as a tour guide at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum there in Titusville.  Bill has two wonderful children, two outstanding grandchildren, and a loving sister and her husband, all of whom also live in Central Florida, so he and DiVoran are rewarded by having family close to spend lots of quality time with.




One of Bill’s favorite Scriptures is:  John 10:10

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