Transformer Ships

Two Great Lakes excursion vessels made in Detroit became aircraft carriers for naval trainees during World War II.

When Frank Kirby designed the SS Seeandbee, the naval architect couldn’t have imagined his excursion ship’s ultimate fate. Completed by Detroit Shipbuilding Co. in 1913, the 500-foot-long paddle wheeler was meant to convey passengers on pleasurable journeys around the Great Lakes. Yet in World War II, the vessel, along with the SS Greater Buffalo, was refitted as an aircraft carrier.

Given the United States Navy’s need for pilots and the lack of security on the U.S. coastlines, Cmdr. Richard Whitehead recommended acquiring the coal-fired Seeandbee — a shorthand name for Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Co. — and stripping away its promenade deck, dining halls, and staterooms. Purchased from C&B in March 1942 for $756,500, the vessel traveled to Cleveland, where the ornate fixtures were removed and the wooden upper structure was disassembled.

The steel hull was then taken to Buffalo for fitment of a bridge and a flight deck of oak. Only 26 feet above the water, the deck was lower than those of existing fleet carriers. The twin paddle wheels had to be covered, so the 98-foot-wide expanse of runway was a welcome sight to trainees. There was no catapult to assist with takeoff, but an eight-wire arrestor kept incoming planes from running overboard. No onboard hangars or elevators could be included during the refitting, so all training aircraft were based on land at the Glenview Naval Air Station — the future site of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

The Seeandbee’s conversion took only 59 days. The 558-foot deck gave the ship a pug nose and a beaver tail; its four funnels belching black smoke were an odd sight. By August 1942, the Seeandbee was rechristened the USS Wolverine in honor of the state where its keel had been laid and in recognition of Lake Michigan, where it would operate.

The SS Greater Buffalo would also join the Navy, being acquired five days before the USS Wolverine’s christening. The Greater Buffalo, a collaboration between Kirby and the University of Michigan’s Herbert Sadler, was initially completed in 1924 at the Ecorse yard of Great Lakes Engineering Works. The 535-foot, $3.5-million steamer was sister of the SS Greater Detroit. As the Great Lakes’ largest passenger ships and the world’s largest paddle-wheelers, they alternately embarked on the route between their namesake cities. For $10 round trip fare from May to October, a passenger could get a berth and leave Detroit at 5:30 p.m. and arrive in Buffalo by 8:30 a.m. the next morning. The return voyage would commence that evening at 6 p.m.

The Greater Buffalo’s transformation into the USS Sable was accomplished in May 1943, and the vessel also headed for Chicago. Lake Michigan was not immediately hospitable to the SS Wolverine. As winter descended in December 1942, the ship became icebound five miles offshore and was stranded for two days. Nevertheless, by Dec. 22, when it moored at Navy Pier for the season, it had already qualified 287 pilots. By 1945, the total would grow to 17,820 airmen, including one of the very youngest aviators, 18-year-old George H.W. Bush, who had also trained at Downriver’s Naval Air Station on Grosse Ile.

“They trained most of the Navy pilots who flew in the Pacific Theater,” said historian Paul M. Somers, who graduated from a Chicago high school in 1946 and spent decades collecting photos of the carriers. “All the torpedo planes, the dive bombers who blew up Japanese battleships — most of those pilots were trained in the Great Lakes.”

The Wolverine and Sable were decommissioned on Nov. 7, 1945, and kept at Navy Pier. “Both had been substantially vandalized after the war,” Somers recalled. “People stole the doorknobs, pans, pots, and everything else.” By 1948, they were sold for scrap — an inglorious end for two ships that had quietly helped to win the war. db