A painting of a plane landing on an aircraft carrier in Lake Michigan during World War II. Credit: Courtesy WTTW

Forgive Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan—an hourlong documentary that will premiere Thursday—for the melodramatic note on which it begins: narrator Bill Kurtis intones that “this film contains rare footage of a U.S. Navy operation, just off Chicago’s shoreline, that changed the course of World War II.”

It didn’t. If anything that happened in Chicago changed the course of the war, it was the first nuclear chain reaction, carried off triumphantly on December 2, 1942, under the football stands of the University of Chicago.

The huge contribution made by the flight school the navy operated on Lake Michigan—using two passenger steamers it had hastily converted into ersatz aircraft carriers—was to the war America knew from day one it had to fight. After the sneak air attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into the war, the lake gave the navy a safe haven to train the 15,000 pilots it would need to defeat the Japanese navy in the Pacific.

Yet thanks to Heroes on Deck I appreciate that contribution as I didn’t before. Let me speak personally: having once served on a carrier
operating off the coast of Vietnam—where I watched combat pilots climb into cockpits, then catapulted off our bobbing flight deck and into antiaircraft fire waiting just over the horizon, not necessarily to return—I’ve let myself be amused by tales of our local carrier operations. That wasn’t war, it was summer camp.

No, it was war. “More than 100 World War II aircraft rest on the bottom of Lake Michigan,” reports Heroes on Deck. “This is the story of how they got there.” They got there because the pilots were green, the flight decks were short, and the pace was relentless: each pilot had just about a week in Chicago to master his plane and complete carrier qualifications. Once he’d landed on a carrier and taken off again eight times—which he might do in two intense hours out on the lake—he moved on to the front.

The official navy count of pilots who died in carrier qualifications (CQ) on Lake Michigan is only eight; but the ones who went into the lake usually got fished out, and when a plane landed badly and pinwheeled across the deck smashing into things, it was probably safer to be inside the cockpit than outside it. Some 40,000 carrier crewmen came through Chicago too. They did most of their training on Navy Pier, but CQ accidents killed more flight crewmen than pilots. The navy doesn’t have that number, just as it doesn’t have the number of pilots who trained in Chicago and died in the war. 

Unlike any carrier in the Pacific, the USS Wolverine and USS Sable were sidewheeled and coal-fueled. Black smoke plumed from their stacks, and because carriers sail into the wind during flight ops, the pilots had the smoke to contend with as they tried to land on deck. The deck was a mere 26 feet above the waterline, whereas the decks of the Essex-class carriers that began fighting the war in 1943 were about 85. “If you’re down low you can hook a wave—school’s out!” said former pilot Chuck Downey, who trained on the lake. “You’re through. You crash and burn.” (Downey died after Heroes on Deck was completed.)

On fair days, there might be too little wind for pilots to safely take off in. Foul days could be brutal. One winter morning in 1943, the naval air station in Glenview was engulfed by a sudden snowstorm and a group of Douglas Dauntless dive bombers that had just taken off for the Wolverine were told to ride out the storm on the carrier. But before they could all land, the Wolverine vanished in the snow. Three pilots circling overhead lost sight of the ship. Ensign George Green radioed that his carburetor was icing up and he was going down in the water. A Coast Guard boat recovered his body.

The second pilot hit the water close to shore and was fished out;  the third pilot and all three planes were never seen again. A navy summary of Green’s death noted, “The water and air temperature were such that consciousness could not be retained more than 20 or 25 minutes.”

Heroes on Deck was put together by three former WTTW producers—John Davies, Harvey Moshman, and Brian Kallies. Davies, who wrote and directed the film, had made a half-hour, low-budget documentary on the Lake Michigan carriers back in 1988. Now an independent producer living in LA, he tells me that two years ago he and Moshman decided to take another pass at the subject and do it right. Moshman’s a diver, and he brought to the project high-def footage he’d shot of wrecked planes lying at the bottom of the lake.

When you pitch an idea to public television, says Davies, if you don’t have funding lined up you’re wasting your breath. Moshman suggested Captain Dave Truitt, chairman of the Chicago Marine Heritage Society, “Dave knew this story better than we did,” says Davies. Truitt’s only stipulation—easily met—was that WTTW distribute the show to public TV stations across the country. Davies says public TV stations reaching 83 percent of the American population will be showing Heroes on Deck during the Memorial Day weekend.

Davies hired the same researcher he’d used in 1988, Polly Pettit, formerly of the National Archives in Washington, and, he says, “she found even more great footage than she had the first time.” The footage is about 95 percent new, he says. One piece that isn’t is the story of the fatal snowstorm—the plane handler who told it to him in ’88 had died. 

Heroes on Deck also focuses on the ongoing salvage campaign, most of the 40 or so of the planes recovered so far winding up in military museums. “Every one of these aircraft had several stories that went along with it,” says diver Keith Pearson. “We’re losing the men. I don’t want to lose the stories. Hopefully these airplanes will save the stories.”

For decades, the lake was a responsible custodian of the lost planes. For instance, a Dauntless that had fought in the Battle of Midway before being transferred to the training fleet was recovered from Lake Michigan in 1994 and is now on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.  A former director of the museum estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the restored Dauntless belonged to the plane originally. But the lake was invaded by zebra mussels in the 1980s and overrun by quagga mussels in the 90s. We see for ourselves the difference they’ve made. Recovered planes are now winched up to shore so caked with mussels they look like Chiapets. The mollusks are tearing them
apart, and restoration now requires extensive refabrication. “In another ten years,” we’re told, “the aircraft in Lake Michigan will not be
recoverable-they’ll be too far gone.”

Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan airs Thursday, May 26, at 9 PM on WTTW, channel 11, and again on Sunday, May 29, at 6 PM.