During 1942, less than 11 months into WW2, the United States Navy had lost four front line carriers due to enemy engagements. A further two aircraft carriers were damaged, but were repaired at Pearl Harbor and returned to service. These early engagements and losses emphasized that carriers would be the backbone of the war in the Pacific. While American industry would build carriers and their airplanes, it was up to the US Navy to train the pilots and crews that would be necessary to make the ships and planes an effective fighting force. The Navy was hard pressed to come up with a solution to solve the training dilemma.
Training the pilots and crews for aircraft carrier operation on either the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean would have exposed the training ships to the danger of submarine attack, while requiring the escort of fighting ships that were needed elsewhere. It would also have involved arming and armouring the ships used for training. It was then that Commander C.F. Whitehead came up with an idea that would solve these problems. He suggested doing the training on the protected waters of the Great Lakes. Once the U.S. Navy had agreed with his choice of Lake Michigan as the location for the carrier pilot qualification training program, the next priority was to secure an aircraft carrier.
Using a fleet carrier was out of the question for two reasons; by the time the decision was made to adopt the training program, the United States was already at war and needed all its commissioned carriers at sea. Furthermore, no existing carrier was narrow enough to use the Welland Canal to sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. This width restriction barred the conversion and use of other ocean going ships, with otherwise appropriate specifications, as well. This left the Navy with two choices: build a new aircraft carrier from scratch or convert an existing ship to an aircraft carrier.
Building a new aircraft carrier would have taken too long and would have tied up shipbuilding capacity needed for other war-related construction. Thus, conversion of a ship already sailing on the Great Lakes was determined to be the best way to go. The Auxiliary Vessels Board recommended that the training carrier should have a flight deck of at least 500 feet long and be capable of a speed of 18 knots.
In Commander Whitehead's survey of available ships, the choice for conversion was narrowed down to two vessels: the SS City of Midland, a car ferry owned by the Pere Marquette Railroad Co., and the SS Seeandbee, a Great Lakes excursion cruiser. Because the car ferry was shorter, slower, and already making a contribution to the war effort, which the Seeandbee, as a recreational ship was not, the Seeandbee became the vessel of choice.
The SS Seeandbee had been built in 1913 by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company to cruise Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan. At 500 feet in length, she was long enough to accommodate a useable flight deck; she was fast enough ( 17.5 knots ), with a modest headwind, for adequate take-off and landing speeds and, being a side-wheeler, she had great resistance to rolling. Commander Whitehead saw that there were many features of the SS Seandbee that were appropriate for the conversion so he had sent two officers, one from the Bureau of Ships and one from Fleet Training Division, to inspect the vessel. They agreed with Commander Whitehead’s opinion. They were especially impressed by the width over the sponson deck (wheelhouse area), which, at 98 feet, was wider than the deck of the USS Essex! The ship’s main disadvantages were that it was coal-fired at a time when the rest of the Navy was oil-fired, and it had a tall superstructure filled with very ornate and expensive fittings which would have to be removed and scrapped. Commander Whitehead was not put off by all this grandeur!
The C&B Transit Company, current owners of the SS Seandbee, reflecting upon frozen prices, lack of replacement parts, the shortage of manpower for maintenance, and an almost $800,000 dollar offer, agreed to sell the Seandbee to the U.S. Navy on March 10, 1942. On April 14,1942, the conversion of the SS Seandbee was begun in Cleveland, Ohio, with the removal of the five magnificent (mostly wood) upper decks along with their contents of settees, davenports, bed springs, carpet, pillows, lifejackets, basins, and bar stools, along with thousands of other items. The hull was then moved to the American Shipbuilding Company’s yard at Buffalo, N.Y. The rest of the conversion involved construction of the massive flight deck with a surrounding catwalk, an ‘Island’ structure, and many other areas to make things ‘feel’ like a fleet carrier.
The flight deck was a mere 26 feet above the waterline, less then half the height of a conventional carrier, but it was 98 feet wide to cover the paddlewheels, and 558 feet in length. There was no catapult or hanger deck, but there was a nine wire arrestor system and three barrier arm assemblies to keep planes from running off the deck into the chilly waters of Lake Michigan. The main deck area included officers quarters aft, wardroom, and crew quarters forward, as well as a motion-picture-equipped instruction room, a ship’s store, laundry, tailor shop, barber shop, dining rooms and a crew rec. room. There was also a state of the art Galley, as well as radar rooms and air plot facilities. The small ‘island’ constructed on the starboard side just forward of the wheelhouse was to provide ‘realistic’ appearance. This structure housed the four funnels and limited command facilities, the object being to make the training as real as possible. The ship carried no armament or armour but she did carry various types of early air-search radar. When the conversion was completed, the new ship had the following specifications:
Displacement: 6,381 tons.
Length of hull: 500 feet.
Beam: 99 feet.
Draft: 15 feet, 5 inches.
Length of flight deck: 558 feet, 6 inches.
Propulsion: Six single-end and three double-ended coal-fired boilers driving a reciprocating three cylinder steam engine which in turn drove two feathering paddlewheels, each 32 feet in diameter, with 11 feathering blades each, and weighing in at over 100 tons each. Maximum Speed: 17.5 knots.
Ship’s complement: 22 Officers and 300 enlisted men.
Once the war was over, the need for such training ships also came to an end. The Navy decommissioned Wolverine on 7 November 1945; three weeks later, on 28 November, she was struck from the Naval Vessel Register. Wolverine was then transferred to the War Shipping Administration on 14 November 1945 for disposal. The ship was offered to U.S. citizens for either U.S. flag operation or scrapping and sold 21 November 1947 to A. F. Wagner Iron Works of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for $46,789 to be scrapped.
Information from wikipedia.
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