1943. Two flattop paddlewheelers are steaming across Lake Michigan...
... Isn't it the perfect steampunk fantasy? Probably it is. But they were real. USS Wolverine and Sable, converted from excursion paddle wheel steamships (one of them with coal-firing boilers!), served on the Great Lakes during WWII. Here is their story, told by Don Boyer of the World Naval Ships:
These two ships did great service during WW II, but were almost unknown outside the naval flying community. These two conversions were made early in the war because the need for all the fleet, light and escort carriers to be operatonal was too great to allow any to be relegated to purely training roles, even the relatively ineffective Ranger. Operating on the Great Lakes meant they were never exposed to enemy action yet had plenty of "sea room" for air ops.
Sable was also a paddle steamer, the former Greater Buffalo, completed in 1923 by American Shipbuilding of Lorain, Ohio. Acquired by the navy and converted similarly to Wolverine (see below), she commissioned on 8 March 1943.
The ships were referred to as "training carriers" and were sometimes informally given the designations "T-CV," but they were actually listed on the navy rolls as "unclassified vessels" with the designation IX-64 and IX-81 respectively.
Wolverine displaced 7200 tons standard and had a flight deck of 500' x 58' 4". Width of hull was 98' 5" and she had a draught of 15' 5". Four coal-fired boilers generated about 8000 hp and a speed of 16 knots maximum.
Sable was slighly larger at 8000 tons with a 535' 5" x 58' flight deck and a hull width of 92' 2" and the same draft as Wolverine . She was also equipped with four coal-fired boilers generating about 10,500 hp and 18 knots maximum. Sable's flight deck was made of steel, the first such deck in the US Navy.
These ships had no lifts, no hangers, no catapults and no facilities for parking aircraft. Both ships had eight arrestor wires aft. All training aircraft were maintained on land and the ships were strictly for practice landings and takeoffs. The ships also provided basic training for flight deck crews. With low freeboard, they kept pilots on their toes ensuring they didn't drop too low off the bow on takeoff. These relatively primitive ships did excellent work in training pilots for the rigors of landing and taking off on the bigger fleet carriers and escorts.
Together, Sable and Wolverine trained 17,820 pilots in 116,000 carrier landings. Of these, 51,000 landings were on Sable alone. One of the pilots qualified on Sable was a 20-year-old Lieutenant, junior grade, future President George H. W. Bush. Of the estimated 135-300 aircraft lost during training, 35 have been salvaged and the search for more is underway.
Wolverine was decommissioned on 7 November 1945. Three weeks later, on 28 November, the ship was struck from the Naval Vessel Register. It was then transferred to the Maritime Commission on 26 November 1947 for disposal. The last records indicate that the ship was sold for scrapping in December 1947 at Cleveland, Ohio.
Sable (above) was decommissioned on 7 November 1945 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 28 November 1945. She was sold by the Maritime Commission to H. H. Buncher Company on 7 July 1948 and was reported as "disposed of" on 27 July 1948.