Traverse City News and Events

Yes, An Aircraft Carrier On Grand Traverse Bay

Feb. 18, 2015

This spring, the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum will host an exhibit that seems straight out of Hollywood fantasy. It will commemorate secret naval training and testing conducted in northern Michigan during World War II.

The USS Sable and the USS Wolverine were makeshift aircraft carriers stationed in Lake Michigan from 1942 to 1945. Both were converted passenger ships, and used to train pilots and sailors, away from the prying eyes of Japanese spies in the Pacific.

The exhibit is the result of efforts by Amanda Wetzel, assistant lighthouse director. Last October, Wetzel began talking to veterans who served on and locals who remember seeing the ships. Since then, she says she’s “uncovered a lot of the story that didn’t receive the press it deserved, that there was an aircraft carrier stationed here in Grand Traverse Bay in the 1940s.”

Lake Michigan was chosen because it was the only U.S.-landlocked body of water large enough to accommodate the ships.

The Navy also tested secret equipment, including the forerunners to modern day unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). Wetzel says they took off from the Cherry Capital Airport and were guided by rotary style phones.

At the time, Navy personnel were a frequent sight around Traverse City; Wetzel says officers stayed at the Park Place Hotel and enlisted men often stayed in willing residents' homes.

Testing and training were rarely topics of open conversation, however. “The belief was loose lips sink ships,” says Wetzel. “You didn’t talk about it. They really believed spies were everywhere.”

Wetzel says more than 17,000 men were trained on the carriers. Among them was Tim Clagget.

Though he will be 93 next month, Clagget vividly remembers the harrowing days of learning to take off and land on the Sable.

“You practiced day in and day out,” Claggett tells The Ticker. “You didn't want to take your eyes off of those flags when you were landing.”

Pilots had to complete six successful, qualifying taking offs and landings from these makeshift carriers before being shipped out to the Pacific theater. This was no small feat, considering the ships were significantly shorter than their non-converted counterparts, and were only about 25 feet above the water.

Clagget says the Navy lost a lot of planes -- at a rate of one per week. Wetzel adds that there are believed to be more than 100 downed planes at the bottom of Lake Michigan as a result.

Despite the danger and secrecy, Clagget feels the experience made for superior pilots.“The training was absolutely excellent,” he says.

Claggett’s original flight logs, along with other memorabilia from his life and service, will be part of the exhibit that opens May 23. Other attractions will include documents, photos and various artifacts of the era, as well as remarks from former President George H. Bush, who trained on the Sable.

Following the opening, there will also be a gala event honoring past and present navy and coast guard personnel at the Park Place Hotel.

Interested in learning more prior to the opening? Wetzel will be giving a lecture tomorrow (Thursday) at 7pm at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy. The event is free, though $5 donations are appreciated.

image courtesy of the Father Edward Dowling Collection at the University Detroit Mercy. 

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