“Heroes on Deck” reveals WWII sunken aircraft secrets

WWII fighter plane on an aircraft carrier

How 100 World War II aircraft ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan and revealed a secret U.S. Navy training operation, is the subject of an intriguing documentary to air on WTTW/11.

Hourlong “Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan” will be broadcast as part of the PBS station’s Memorial Day observance May 26 at 9 p.m. and May 29 at 6 p.m. and on PBS stations nationally.

“Heroes” was made by three former Ch. 11 producers: Executive producers John Davies, now based in LA, who wrote and directed and Chicago’s Harvey Moshman, aircraft recovery photographer and producer Brian Kallies also was cameraman and editor. Bill Kurtis narrates.

Center, Capt. Dave Truitt with filmmakers Brian Kallies, left, and John Davies, right“Heroes’” rare historical and new footage and interviews bring to light a secret World War II operation on Lake Michigan off Navy Pier. Having lost its battleships at Pearl Harbor, the US Navy was relying on aircraft carriers in the Pacific but couldn`t spare the real ships for training. Another problem was that instruction of green pilots in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans was risky.

The Navy set up training in Lake Michigan by converting two paddlewheel passenger steamers into aircraft carriers, the USS Wolverine and USS Sable. Future President George H.W. Bush was among the more than 15,000 aviators, signal officers and other personnel who were trained aboard these “freshwater flattops.”

Crashes and “water landings” often led to injuries and occasionally death. Consequently, an estimated 100 fighter planes and dive bombers sank to the bottom of the lake. Starting in 2009, more than 40 aircraft have been recovered, to date.

Harvey Moshman, who had been filming the plane recovery work by a US Navy-approved company, reignited Davies’ interest in the story. In 1988 Davies had produced and directed half-hour doc, “Top Guns of ’43,” about the mission. Kallies joined them and “Heroes on Deck” production began in April 2015.

The 1943 USS WolverineFootage was researched and found in the National Archives and provided by private owners, such as “a signal officer on one of the aircraft carriers who gave us 16mm color footage he had taken 70 years ago on one of the boats,” Kallies says. He estimates he spent eight months editing.

The Chicago Marine Heritage Society and its chairman, Capt. Dave Truitt were the program’s exclusive underwriters of a budget estimated under $300,000.

“A lot of special thanks to Captain Truitt,” says Kallies. “He was nothing but supportive, a great partner who let us do our jobs.”