In December 2012, a WWII aircraft,FM-2 Wildcat 57039 was discovered and salvaged in Lake Michigan. Between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. Navy converted two passenger steam ships to act as training carriers in Lake Michigan. During WWII, most naval aviators received their carrier landing qualifications by landing on these two ships, the USS Wolverine and USS Sable. Because these ships were shorter in length than regular aircraft carriers, many aircraft were lost in the lake due to takeoff and landing accidents. By 1942, The U.S. had already been drawn into WWII following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Soon after the attack, the U.S. began increasing its capability for war. This included the mass production of war materials and equipment needed to engage in war, both in Europe and in the Pacific. In addition to this, young men were needed to fill positions in every branch of the military. Enlistments skyrocketed following the attack on Pearl Harbor with individuals signing up to begin training for war.
With aviation being one of the newer forms of combat, thousands of pilots were needed to serve in both the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy. New aircraft were seen as essential to the war effort because it allowed the military to strike farther and faster than had previously been seen in warfare. It was vital to the Allied war effort that pilots be trained adequately to engage the enemy in either the European or Pacific campaigns. One issue that arose with the training of naval aviators was security. The waters surrounding America in the Atlantic and the Pacific were not seen as being safe from enemy attack. In order to increase security for training naval aviators, a plan was devised to conduct carrier-landing training in Lake Michigan. By conducting the carrier landing training in Lake Michigan, the threat of enemy attack of the carrier was significantly reduced because of the lake’s location in the center of the country. This decision reduced the logistical challenge of securing the carrier tremendously. A fleet of ships would not be needed to protect the carrier from attack because the lake was landlocked.
During WWII over 17,000 pilots, signal officers and flight deck personnel completed their training on Lake Michigan before shipping out to their theaters of war. naval aviators had to complete 8 successful landings and takeoffs from a carrier before completing their aviation training. This was not an easy task, considering that the carriers that were being used in Lake Michigan, the USS Sable and the USS Wolverine were not originally intended to be used as aircraft carriers. This meant that once the conversion was completed, the flight decks were much shorter than those found on the Yorktown-class carriers being used in the war. The theory was that if the pilots were able to complete their landings on the shorter flight deck, then they should be more than prepared to conduct landings on the Navy’s operational carriers.
It is estimated that as many as 300 aircraft were lost in Lake Michigan during the carrier landing training. To this day many of these aircraft are still being discovered with the hope of recovery operations so that the aircraft can be restored and displayed in museums around the country. While many of the aircraft discovered in the lake were FM-2 Wildcats, several others have also been found including Corsairs, Avengers, Vindicators, and Dauntlesses.
The FM-2 Wildcat was a single pilot fighter aircraft utilized by both the U.S. and Great Britain during WWII. It had a1,350 horsepower Wright engine and could reach a top speed of 332 miles per hour. The fighter was outfitted with four0.50-inch guns for air battles and up to two 250-pound bombs for ground support. Many FM-2 Wildcats were used as training aircraft in Lake Michigan but many others were also sent to fight in the Atlantic and Pacific. In the Atlantic they were used primarily as convoy escorts for ships heading between the U.S. and Great Britain. In the Pacific, many had to face off against the Japanese Zero in dogfights. Although the Zero was faster and more maneuverable, the Wildcat had better protection for the pilot, which helped the American pilots secure a 7:1 kill ratio before the Wildcat was replaced by the Hellcat and Bearcat.
The FM2-Wildcat designated 57039 was being piloted by Ensign William Forbes when the plane was lost in Lake Michigan. By the time of the accident many FM-2 Wildcats had already been pulled off of the front lines to be used as training aircraft after being replaced by the Hellcat. As part of the carrier training, pilots would takeoff from Glenview Air Base and fly out to land on the training carriers. Once onboard the carrier, the pilots would then have to conduct takeoffs and additional landings on the carrier decks. On December 28, 1944 Forbes had already successfully landed on the USS Sable. Unexpectedly, the aircraft suffered an engine failure as Forbes was attempting to take off from the training carrier deck. The plane plummeted into the lake and was run over by the USS Sable, which is why there is a massive tear in the recovered aircraft. In the midst of this, Ensign Forbes was able to escape the cockpit of the sinking plane and safely evade the oncoming ship. At this point in training, it was not uncommon for the pilots to fly with an open canopy so that escaping the aircraft would be less difficult in case of an emergency. He survived with minor injuries and continued to serve as a naval aviator throughout the Second World War.
At the location of the accident, the water was over 200 feet in depth and the plane was not discovered until an A&T Recovery vessel using side scan sonar marked it in the mid-1990s. Having said this, the Wildcat remained at the bottom of the lake for almost 70 years until it recovered in 2012 by A&T Recovery. The reason it took so long to lift the aircraft from the lake bed after its initial discovery was due to the cost of a salvage operation. In addition to this, it took more time than expected to receive all the proper permits in order for the operation to commence. Furthermore, this recovery is considered significant because it will most likely be one of the last WWII fighters raised from the depths of Lake Michigan. This is because of the amount of deterioration that has taken place on the lost Lake Michigan WWII aircraft, attributed to the many years spent submerged under water.
Experts believe that within the next few years any aircraft that could possibly be recovered will be too far deteriorated to conduct any restoration. The rate of deterioration for the lost aircraft still resting under the water is also increasing; do to the increase of zebra mussels in the lake. The zebra mussels are an invasive species that form a thick crust on the sunken aircraft. These can be extremely difficult and time consuming to remove for restoration crews, a problem that was not anticipated at the time of the aircraft discovery. The influx of the zebra mussels in the lake has many experts pessimistic about future salvage and restoration projects. These zebra mussels are visible on the photos of the aircraft after it was raised from the water. Restoration crews stated that these mussels had, over time, worked their way into almost every crevasse of the airframe creating a solid crust like substance, the removal of which will take time to prevent any further damage to the aircraft. Lack of funding for any such operations to take place before the environment and time take a final toll on these lost airplanes is also a prevalent issue.
The cost of the FM-2 Wildcat recovery was covered almost completely by philanthropist Chuck Greenhill, who made most of his living as a tool and die maker in Chicago. Greenhill himself has been heavily involved in WWII aviation restoration for several decades. He is also the owner of two fully restored P-51 D Mustangs, two of under 150 Mustangs still left in flying condition. Greenhill said he was interested in salvaging the Wildcat because he understood the history behind it. Wildcat 57039 even had a few kills during the war before it was transitioned into a training aircraft.
The salvage operation of the FM-2 Wildcat 57039 was conducted in two phases because the plane was severed into two pieces from when the USS Sable struck it the day that it crashed into Lake Michigan. The tail section of the aircraft was recovered first. The fuselage was lifted second using large cranes with the wings still intact. Once the fuselage was lifted it was held just below the surface of the water. At this point the fuselage was then towed behind a boat, while underwater, to Waukegan Harbor. Here the plane remained until December 7, 2012. If this date seems important, it is because it holds great significance for U.S. military history. December 7, 1941 is the date in which the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. A recovery ceremony took place in Waukegan Harbor on the 71st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor Attack, in which FM-2 Wildcat 57039 was raised from the water and placed onto dry land. Amazingly, the landing gear tires were still fully inflated when it was brought to the surface. It was also discovered that the fuel had leaked from the tanks leaving them empty. Surprisingly, no water had in turn, leaked into the fuel tanks of the aircraft.
Initially, the aircraft was going to be sent to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida for restoration, but in 2013 it was delivered to the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, where restoration is still ongoing. The Air Zoo website will start to post restoration updates periodically for the aircraft. In addition to this, the Wildcat can also been seen when visiting the museum. The Air Zoo is using the restoration process as an opportunity to get local kids more involved in history, and in some cases people can volunteer to help restore the aircraft. It is projected that the full restoration may take 3-5 years due to the damage that the aircraft sustained from the accident as well as the toll of being submerged in the lake for almost 70 years.
Researchers are certain that there may be hundreds of WWII era fighter aircraft littered at the bottom of Lake Michigan still waiting to be discovered. Many people have never heard about the naval fighter training that took place in Lake Michigan that was essential in helping America to win the Second World War. Lake Michigan provided a secure training location protected from enemy attack. Here the aviators were able to hone their skills on the shorter runways. Training missions would take place seven days a week if the weather permitted because pilots were badly needed during the war. Thousands of naval aviators completed their carrier training on Lake Michigan and were soon after sent to fly convoy escort missions in the Atlantic, or to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. One well-known Naval Aviator that completed training on the Lake Michigan caries was George H.W. Bush, who later went on to be the 41st President of the United States.
One thing is certain: these pilots were essential to the war effort, and eventually America’s victory. Without thee pilots, air superiority in both combat theatres would have been difficult to achieve, especially in the pacific. Their missions could consist of close air support to the soldiers on the ground as well as island bombardment in the Pacific to prepare for a ground invasion. This small piece of Michigan military history is one that played a pivotal role in the U.S. winning the Second World War. For this reason, people should be told about the military training events that took place on Lake Michigan in the early 1940s. The restoration of the aircraft 57039 will help future generations learn about this important piece of American history so that it can be easier for them to understand the sacrifices that the “Greatest Generation” made.
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