Great Lakes museum looking for WWII Navy pilots

Nov 2, 2016

The head of the National Museum of the Great Lakes is on a quest. He’s trying to locate Navy pilots who trained on Lake Michigan during World War II. It’s a little known chapter of the lake’s history.


Between 1942 and 1945, thousands of pilots landed planes on the USS Wolverine and USS Sable, two aircraft carriers stationed on Lake Michigan.  Among the pilots, former president George H.W. Bush.

A new documentary called Heroes on Deck details that mission.  The film features home videos captured by one of the pilots, as well as video from the National Archives. 

A plane recovered from Lake Michigan
Credit John Davies

“It’s the story of the operation of these aircraft carriers and what remains of their activities, which are essentially plane wrecks – almost 100 plane wrecks that occurred on Lake Michigan during training,” said Christopher Gillcrist, executive director of the National Museum of the Great Lakes. 

The film’s director, John Davies, says pilots practiced landing planes for just one day before heading to California and then to Japan.

“They had one day in the classroom, one day practicing chalk outlines in local fields,” said Davies.

“Day 3, it was out to the carrier. They had to find one of these 2 carriers, land and take off from it 8 times.”

Cristopher Gillcrist wants pilots who trained on Lake Michigan to be a part of a December showing in Lakewood.

“We’ll be able to interview some of about their experiences and help better understand what it was like to land a navy aircraft on Lake Michigan,” said Gillcrist.  He estimates that about 2,000 pilots are still alive – and fewer than 10 may be in Northeast Ohio.

The film’s director John Davies will speak at next month’s screening.  He started looking into the military’s operation on Lake Michigan in the 80s after a chance encounter at a bar.

“A guy told me there was a 100 planes sitting at the bottom of lake Michigan,” explained Davies.  He learned more about the mission and realeased a 20 minute film in 1988 called “Top Guns of 1943”.  Davies’ interest returned after a call from a friend who was on a team of divers searching for the planes in the lake.

Davies says he’s amazed by the number of pilots he’s seen at screenings of the film.

“At most of these screenings that I do around the country, sometimes somebody stands up in the audience and says, ‘I was a pilot, I flew off those carriers,’” said Davies.  “They’re usually late 80s, early 90s.”  

Pilots or their families can contact the Great Lakes Museum at glhs1@inlandseas.org.  

The documentary screening is scheduled at 7 p.m., Dec. 2, at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium near Cleveland.