'Heroes on Deck' Dives into WWII Naval Pilots' Training in Chicago

"Heroes on Deck," the new documentary about the surprisingly elaborate World War II naval training operations on Lake Michigan, got its start in the fact that the film's heroes often did not land on deck.

Framing this story of a little-known chapter of local military history is the recovery from the bottom of Lake Michigan of three vintage airplanes, mollusk-covered, rusty, sometimes in pieces and yet headed for restoration all the same. And those are just a few of the scores of naval aircraft that sunk to the lake bed during the time when Chicago's great lake was used to train pilots to take off from and land on aircraft carriers.

And 40-some years after that training ended, in 1987, John Davies, then a producer at WTTW-Ch. 11, the leading Chicago PBS affiliate, met a guy at a bar "who told me there were over 100 WWII aircraft sitting on the bottom of Lake Michigan," Davies explained via email. "I looked into his claim and he was right. I knew I had found a great Chicago story that would also satisfy my two main interests, aviation and WWII."

Davies quickly produced a local half-hour program, "Top Guns of '43." And now, almost 30 years after that bar meeting, this Thursday, his hour-length version of the story will premiere on WTTW (9 p.m.) and PBS stations nationwide for the Memorial Day weekend as "Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan."

The nudge to give Lake Michigan flight training another go, Davies said, came when longtime Chicago producer Harvey Moshman told him he had been shooting some of the airplane salvage operations. (The two men co-created "Wild Chicago.")

"He told me he thought we should remake 'Top Guns of '43' with this new, important element. I agreed and we slowly started gathering footage," Davies said.

Written, directed and executive produced by Davies, long an independent producer in the Los Angeles area, "Heroes on Deck" does a good job interspersing vintage flight footage, the kind of facts and figures about ships and planes that military history junkies can't get enough of, and interviews with surviving pilots and historians.

Neatly interspersed are the contemporary stories of the salvaged aircraft, which are hauled out, often before media, looking like set decorations for a giant aquarium. It's pretty amazing how they end up after restoration which, in these cases, should really be called reconstruction.

Davies is alert throughout to compelling details. The two training vessels were two-thirds-length and less than half-height aircraft carriers built out of a couple of Great Lakes passenger steamers, grand vessels whose era, by 1940, was coming to an end. A promotional slogan for one, in a brochure Davies shows, was, "Rest Or Be Gay Aboard These Inland Liners."

He talks about an invasive mussel species that's threatening the survival of the many more wrecks that are down there, and he shows old training films, including one that concluded by telling recruits, "If you do expose yourself, use a good condom."

Davies even squeezes in the note, and supporting video, that part of the old Glenview Naval Air Station now "is a shopping mall."

The lake liner Seeandbee became the USS Wolverine and the Greater Buffalo turned into the USS Sable. And aboard their decks, in conditions often more challenging than the ones they would face at sea, some 15,000 pilots training out of Glenview became "carrier qualified."

The low, short deck made landings tough and so, sometimes, did the coal smoke from the engines. Add those complications to a carrier landing being basically "a controlled crash," as narrator Bill Kurtis describes it, and you've got a recipe for planes landing in the lake.

Yet for all the planes that were lost, and the many, many more successful landings made, only eight pilots died during qualifications, the film says.

"Every one of these aircraft had several stories that went along with it," Keith Pearson, a recovery diver who also shot the underwater footage, says in the film. "We're losing the men. I don't want to lose the stories."

Including lots of great old Chicago footage, including Navy Pier before you could ride a Ferris wheel or watch Shakespeare there, "Heroes on Deck" helps to hold on to some of those stories. It should be seen by anybody looking to learn about unexpected chapters in city and military history.

sajohnson@tribpub.com

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This article was written by Steve Johnson from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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