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The Retrofit of USS Sable

The USS Sable was an aircraft carrier that was used to train pilots and carrier personnel in the Great Lakes region during WWII.  Before the Sable was an aircraft carrier, it began as a luxury ferry that carried passenger through the Great Lakes.

Pre-war – luxury liner and construction

Before the war, the Sable was not an aircraft carrier but instead a luxury liner named The Greater Buffalo.  As a luxury liner, it carried passengers through the Great Lakes in style.   The Greater Buffalo was built by the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company.  In 1922, The Marine Review reported “The Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Co. has placed a provisional contract with the American Shipbuilding Co. for two passenger steamers. Plans for turbine driven screw propulsion has been abandoned and decision made to utilize the standard paddle wheel method prevailing on lake passenger boats.”  The passenger steamers were designed by Frank E. Kirby, a notable naval architect from the region. Some of the proposed designs are shown in primary sources number 9 through 11, these schematics were created by Frank E. Kirby by the American Shipbuilding Company. As shown the paddle-wheel was selected in the design process.   Two advantages of using a paddle wheel design over screws was that the vessel would be less likely to get clogged with debris and when operated the paddle wheels would allow the vessel to maneuver easier than a turbine driven screw propulsion vessel.    The Greater Buffalo was built-in Lorain, Ohio in 1923, along with her sister ship the Greater Detroit. The Greater Buffalo was 536 feet long and 96 feet wide at it longest points.  It was built to accommodate a crew of 275 and carry 2120 passengers.  Both the Greater Detroit and The Greater Buffalo were at the time the largest side-wheel steamships in the world.   The experience of traveling by the Greater Detroit and The Greater Buffalo steamships was considered far more relaxing than train travel at the time.  Although train travel was faster, it was crowded and considered the preferred mode of transportation by the lower classes.  Advertisements such as the one quoted below,  created an influx of wealthy citizens boarding luxury liners.

The Greater Buffalo [2]
“’the last word in marine architecture, and the palatial furnishings are rich and attractive and in good taste … The dining room could seat 375 people, and satisfied “appetites sharped by brisk lake breezes” with “fish fresh from the cold depths of the Great Lakes themselves,’”(Historic Detroit )

For this reason, the Greater Buffalo and its fine accommodations was called the Majestic of the Great Lakes.  These luxury steamers  not only provided an exclusive experience for the wealthy, they also brought people to Detroit and to vacation hot spots such as Mackinac Island in Michigan and vacation destinations throughout the Great Lakes region. Although these ships mainly catered to the comfort of the wealthy, they also carried something besides passengers.  The Greater Buffalo also carried 1000 tons of freight between cities.   So from her maiden voyage in 1923 until her final luxury voyage in 1942, the Greater Buffalo and her sister ship was renowned as the most luxurious ways to travel the Great Lakes. The use of the Greater Buffalo and her sister ship began to decline with the rise of the automobile.  With the mass production of automobiles in Detroit, more citizens could afford to purchase their own vehicle and could travel whenever they wanted.  The ferry was used less frequently because citizens chose to drive their own vehicles which were faster and more convenient.  The rise of the automobile caused between 30 and 35 ferries to no longer be in use.   During the Great Depression, the Greater Buffalo was docked because there weren’t enough paying customers to make it cost-effective.

Acquiring and renaming ships for the Navy

With the damage done to the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, The US Navy needed to replace the ships lost in the attack with vessels that would become aircraft carriers.  As stated by the maritime commission, “A number of the commission’s new cargo vessels would be converted into aircraft carriers for the Navy”.   The Navy was looking for vessels that were not only large but also readily available.  Because the Greater Buffalo met both of these criteria, The US Navy acquired the vessel and converted it into USS Sable.  The Navy also acquired the Seeandbee, which would become the USS Wolverine.

Refitting the Greater Buffalo

The USS Sable being retrofitted in the dry docks in Buffalo, NY [1]
In order to ready the The Greater Buffalo for naval service,  the ship was sent to Buffalo, NY to be converted into an aircraft carrier by the American Shipbuilding Company.  The docks in Buffalo, N.Y. were owned by the American Shipbuilding Company and were composed of  “… three dry docks, each more than 400 feet long.”(6) which was capable of making the correct enhancements to the existing ship.  The Greater Buffalo was stripped of the cabins above the main deck, but maintained cabins below deck for 300 crew members and aviators who landed on the carrier for an extended amount of time. A new flight deck was installed as described by Cressman 2013.  “An experimental steel flight deck, 540 feet long and 85 feet wide, took shape on a box girder frame-the first such flight deck to be used in the construction of an American aircraft carrier. Various deck-coverings would be applied and evaluated.” (Cressman 2013)

In addition to the experimental deck, the USS Sable was also equipped with “two outriggers to accommodate parked aircraft forward of the island, and the fitting of YE and YG aircraft homing beacons.”(Miller 1988). As the Sable was not equipped with the traditional hanger as on the independence class aircraft carriers during the time, the Sable stored aircraft on the deck forward of the island. In addition, the Sable was equipped with YE and YG aircraft homing beacons, which identified carriers and guided pilots to the carrier using a radio compass system. The Sable was powered by an inclined compound engine and  “with her two 30-foot diameter paddlewheels churning the waters at her sides, the Sable maintained a speed of 17.6 knots for four hours. A representative of the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) found the flight deck and arresting gear installation ‘substantially complete, in good condition, and ready for operation.'” (Cressman 2013). The USS Sable and the USS Wolverine were the only coal-burning carriers in the US Navy which supplied coal to boilers which powered many systems on the ship and exited out of the two smoke stacks on the carrier.  So the Sable was not equipped with any armaments usually on an aircraft carrier. The Sable was additionally equipped with a crane to remove damaged planes from the flight deck.  The design changes made to the USS Sable created the necessary structure for a successful training program and allowed The USS Sable to successfully implement new building methods.

Navy fixes its training program

The USS Sable, with its highly engineered design, could now provide a location for training aviators during the war.  For the training to be successful, The Sable was stationed in a safe area where bombers and submarines could not easily attack it. The location chosen was the Great Lakes.   According to  Captain R. F. Whitehead, Air Officer, Ninth Naval District, the Great Lakes were chosen because they had

“a massive body of water completely protected from enemy U-boats and bombers upon which Naval Aviators could practice carrier operations. This body of water was known collectively as the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater reservoir in the world.”(Johnson 2000).

Naval aviators who had earned their wings at Pensacola or Corpus Christi reported to NAS Glenview and received orientation training before commencing the required minimum of eight landings and takeoffs from the carriers. Before any shipboard landings were attempted, however, practice landings took place on runways that had been marked like carrier decks.

Training on board the USS Sable was rigorous.  The training began at sunrise and didn’t end until sunset.  Take offs and landing were practiced throughout the 14 hour day and would only be cancelled in foggy weather where the takeoffs and landings would be too risky.  Once the pilots completed their daily takeoffs and landings, they would return to Glenview.  Rarely would a plane remain overnight on the flight deck.  It was the goal of the Navy to train each pilot in the same type of aircraft that they would be flying with the fleet.  Shortages resulted and often prevented this practice.  Carrier fighter group pilots could qualify in Grumman F4F Wildcats, while scout and bomber pilots flew in the North American SNJ Texan. The program was so rigorous that 30 pilots could be qualified in one day.  On May 28th, 1944 the Sable broke her own record and qualified 59 pilots with 498 landings in a total of 531 minutes.

Training on board the USS Sable was not limited to pilots.  On board experience was also given to carrier personnel before they were assigned to escort carriers.   Every two weeks, a new class of 15 men reported to receive four weeks of training in flight deck procedures.  Instructors and techcame to receive practical shipboard training, along with thousands of other aircrew members.

USS Sable [3]
The Sable is commissioned

The Sable was commissioned on May 8th 1943 (Designated thnicians from the Navy Pier in Chicago also e IX-81) and was stationed in Chicago at Glenview Naval Air Station. At Glenview, The Sable and Wolverine trained aviators throughout the year even with bad weather. Both ships needed to be occasionally repaired and resupplied with coal at the Navy docks in Chicago. In November 7th, 1945 the USS Sable was decommissioned with 12,000 pilots trained and qualified.  The USS Sable also boasts 51,000 landings made by aviators. After the war, in the July 7 1948 the Sable was sold and scrapped by the maritime administration, marking the end to an incredible ship that helped win the war.



1. The USS Sable being retrofitted in the dry docks in Buffalo, NY

2. The Greater Buffalo

3. USS Sable

Primary Sources:

4. “NAVY RETIRES 2 LAKE FLATTOPS; 14,595 TRAINED.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963): 3. Sep 23 1945. ProQuest. 

5. “U. S. TURNING SHIPS INTO PLANECARRIERS, SENATORS ARE TOLD.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963): 4. Jun 04 1941. ProQuest. 

6. “Lake Shipbuilders Ready to Help Navy.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963): 6. Jul 06 1940. ProQuest. 

7.  Feiser, Myers L. “New Steamers Proposed for Great Lakes.” Marine Review, Vol. 52, 1922, pp. 172

8.  Feiser, Myers L. “Lakes Shipping Faces Vigorous Demand.” Marine Review, Vol 52, 1922, pp. 397

9.  Kirby, Frank E. Greater Buffalo Detroit Historical Society. 1922. uploaded 2013

10. Kirby, Frank E. Midship Section Detroit Historical Society. 1922. uploaded 2013

11. Kirby, Frank E. Main Deck Joiner Plan Detroit Historical Society. 1922. uploaded 2013

Secondary Sources:

12. Cressman, R. J. (2013). HISTORIC FLEETS. Naval History, 27(4), 64-65.

13. Johnson, A., Bauer, R., & Pahl, G. (2000, 01). War of the lakes. Air Classics, 36, 12.

14. Miller, D. E. (1988). Aircraft carriers on lake michigan. Naval History, 2(1), 42.

15. Greater Buffalo, Historic detroit

Further Reading

  1. USS Sable.wikipedia