GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Thousands of Michiganders put their lives on the line to support the allies during World War II. Though the fighting was held off American soil, Lake Michigan also played a key role in the fight.
The Wolverine and the Sable were two of the most unique ships to ever serve in the U.S. Navy. Two side-wheeled steamer cruise ships, quickly bought, renovated and launched to help with the war effort.
THE SEEANDBEE AND GREATER BUFFALO
Before it was known as IX-64 and eventually the USS Wolverine, the ship was called the Seeandbee. It was built by the American Shipbuilding Company in Wyandotte. It was named after the initials of its first owner — the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company.
The Seeandbee launched on Nov. 9, 1912 and made its maiden voyage out of Buffalo the next summer. The ship was filled with ornate touches, including mahogany paneling and white enamel. It also had a giant saloon and promenade deck for dancing along with shops for flowers and books and private estates with bay windows and balconies.
The power of the ship also set it apart from luxury liners of that day. The Seeandbee used side-mounted steam wheels to propel it through the water. Unlike rear-mounted steam-wheels, side-mounted ships were more stable in rough weather and easier to maneuver. The Seeandbee’s side-mounted steam wheels also developed more power — measured at 12,000 horsepower — without shaking the ship.
Greater Buffalo was also built by the American Shipbuilding Company, but at a location in Lorain, Ohio, making its maiden voyage in May 1925.
The cruise ships were a popular destination for socialites in the Midwest. In addition to trips between Cleveland and Buffalo, the Seeandbee also regularly went to Detroit and Chicago. Greater Buffalo typically stayed on Lake Erie, traveling between Buffalo and Detroit.
The luxury liners fared well until the Great Depression hit in 1929. With dwindled ticket sales, the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company was forced to liquidate and the Seeandbee was eventually sold off to a transit company based out of Chicago.
Greater Buffalo and its sister ship, Greater Detroit, were pulled from service for several years waiting for the economy to bounce back. It turns out, both Greater Buffalo and Seeandbee had a second shot at life, but in a far different capacity.
JOINING THE ALLIED FORCES
Everything changed on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The attack, which lasted only 90 minutes, killed more than 2,400 people, including 2,000 sailors. Another 1,100 people were injured.
The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his iconic “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress, formally declaring war on Japan. Days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S., with the Americans responding in kind.
Suddenly rushed into war, the U.S. Navy entered the conflict with only six aircraft carriers. Navy commanders ordered 13 more fleet carriers and dozens more escort ships to be built, but it would take several months before any other boats were ready to hit the water.
Ships aside, they needed pilots and deck crew to staff these new ships and join the fight. The main problem? How to train these new recruits.
That’s when the Navy turned to the Great Lakes. After some discussions, the Navy purchased the Seeandbee on March 2, 1942, for $756,000. Crews immediately went to work, restructuring the ship to meet their needs. Greater Buffalo was purchased in August and joined the Seeandbee for an overhaul.
Because the two ships were so large, the work was forced to be done on the water, with the ships remaining afloat instead of going into dry dock. A crew of 1,250 employees worked on the ships around the clock to get the work done as fast as possible. The top decks were stripped from the Seeandbee and fitted with a wooden flight deck. The ship was given only a basic communications system to leave as much room as possible on the flight deck.
Within five months, the Seeandbee was nearly ready and given its new name, the USS Wolverine. It was commissioned on August 12, 1942, and formally went to work, setting up shop at Chicago’s Navy Pier.
Work on Greater Buffalo took longer because the Navy wanted to try out a steel flight deck and some other experiments that they hoped would help in the fight. Greater Buffalo, now known as USS Sable, joined the Wolverine in Chicago in May and the “Corn Belt Fleet” was officially born.
THE ‘CORN BELT FLEET’
From there, pilots and sailors went to work. Every morning, the ships would depart Navy Pier at dawn and conduct training exercises a mile offshore and return at dusk.
The Navy tried to make conditions on the Wolverine and the Sable as close as possible to what pilots and sailors would experience on the other carriers, but the Lake Michigan ships were unique in several ways.
For one, the Wolverine and the Sable were smaller than the other carriers. The Wolverine’s flight deck was only 550 feet long, about two-thirds the length of the Navy’s other carriers. The Sable’s was even smaller, measuring at 518 feet long and only 58 feet wide.
The ships were also missing most of the amenities of the actual carriers. The Corn Belt ships didn’t have elevators, hangars or maintenance facilities, instead relying on facilities at the pier. The ships were not armored because there were never plans to use them in an actual battle.
Weather was also an issue. The wind conditions were quite mild compared to what the planes experience on the ocean, and the Navy couldn’t afford to slow down training to deal with Michigan winters.
To make the experience even harder on pilots, every trainee had to keep their cockpits open in case they needed to make a quick escape before the plane crashed.
One of the rookie pilots who experienced those frigid flights from the Sable and Wolverine was former President George H. W. Bush. In a report from the Defense Media Network, Bush reminisced on those training flights.
“I remember those Great Lakes flights very well in the open cockpit that winter. Coldest I ever was in my life,” Bush said.
The ships operated continuously until the war ended in September of 1945. In those three chaotic years, the Wolverine and Sable helped train approximately 18,000 pilots. The two carriers conducted an estimated 120,000 landings. There were just over 200 total accidents. Eight pilots died.
With the war over and the Navy fleet in better condition, the Wolverine and Sable were no longer needed. The ships were formally decommissioned on Nov. 7, 1945.
The Wolverine was sold for approximately $47,000 to be ravaged for scrap metal. The Sable lived a little longer. The Great Lakes Historical Society initially requested that the ship be put up for auction so the organization could buy it and turn it into a museum. But when the deal fell through, the Sable also was sent to the scrapyard.
To this day, the Wolverine and the Sable are the only freshwater, coal-driven, side paddle-wheel ships to be used by the Navy. Servicemembers aboard the ships both earned the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.