K-College Alum Makes Documentary On WWII Fighter Pilots Trained On Lake Michigan

Feb 11, 2016

A diving crew recovers a Wildcat fighter plane from the depths of Lake Michigan. This photo is a still from the documentary.

Lake Michigan is famous for its shipwrecks, but at one time, it also held more than one hundred sunken World War II fighter planes. During the war, the United States Navy needed pilots who could take off from aircraft carriers on the Pacific Ocean and attack Japanese fighters. So, over the course of three years, more than 15,000 pilots went through aircraft carrier training on Lake Michigan - including former President George H.W. Bush. 

Documentary filmmaker and Kalamazoo College alum John Davies.

Los Angeles filmmaker and Kalamazoo College alum John Davies has produced a documentary on the subject. K-College will show Davies’s film Heroes on Deck Tuesday, February 16th in the Dalton Theatre at 7 p.m. The film will also be shown on public television stations across the country Memorial Day weekend of this year.

How These Pilots "Changed The Course Of The War"

Davies says Japan had taken over several islands all over the Pacific and they only way to get to them was to bring an aircraft carrier close to the island and attack by plane.

"Basically pilots would soften up these places first before an invading force would go in. And the Navy also had huge battleships doing the same thing in the Pacific. But without these pilots to take on the Japanese airforce - to shoot them out of the sky, to keep our soldiers safe, to soften up the islands before our invading forces would invade - you really would have had a very difficult time slowly but surely conquering Japan."

How 100 Airplanes Landed In Lake Michigan

Davies says aircraft carrier training on Lake Michigan lasted three days. He says they would spend one day in the classroom, one practicing on land, and one day practicing landing on a makeshift aircraft carrier on the lake. 

Davies says the general public may not realize it, but military training exercises are very dangerous. He says he's heard sometimes just as many people are injured in training exercises as in battle. Davies says it's remarkable that only about 100 planes ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

There were many challenges facing these trainees - and not just the high waves on Lake Michigan. Davies says these were not easy planes to fly. 

"No electronic aids whatsoever. No guidance systems. They'd have to find these carriers themselves and land on it - and they were using really old-school technology, really old school technology. After landing and taking off, of course, they would have to find the enemy. So navigational skills were required that pilots today get a lot of help with. So those were the big challenges. And then if they had to come back at night, you can imagine without GPS and all of these other things we have now. This was really daunting to find the Japanese, strike them, and get back safely to the carrier - and of course, many many many of them did not get back."

Aircraft Carriers Out Of Luxury Boats

Davies says, at this time, there were only seven aircraft carriers left in the U.S. Navy and the Navy could not take any of them out of service to help train these pilots. So, they built two makeshift aircraft carriers out of old passenger steamers.

"These were kind of luxury ships for passengers who would cruise around the Great Lakes, going to various cities enjoying themselves on holidays. They took these two old ships and they cut the decks off and literally just put a wooden runway on top of one of them and a steel runway on top of the other."

Davies says they were the only two side-wheel, coal-fired aircraft carriers in the Navy. They were only built to train these pilots. Davies says there were none of the normal aircraft carrier accoutrements - no armaments and no deck below.