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Heroes on Deck | World War II on Lake Michigan

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Photo courtesy of WTTW.

Watch Sunday, May 29, 2016 at 7pm on WMHT TV

Responding to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was desperate for pilots who were aircraft carrier qualified. With enemy submarines patrolling both coasts, Commander Richard F. Whitehead, of the Ninth Naval District - Chicago, proposed a radical idea. Why not train carrier pilots in the safety of Lake Michigan? Two Great Lakes passenger steamers were immediately converted into makeshift aircraft carriers, the USS Wolverine and USS Sable.  Between 1942 and the end of the war, more than 15,000 aviators -- including President George H.W. Bush -- were trained aboard these “freshwater flattops.” Crashes, navigational errors, and “water landings” often led to serious injuries and occasionally, death. As a result, more than one hundred WWII fighters and dive-bombers sank to the bottom of the lake.

Today, swimmers, pleasure boaters, and fisherman have no idea the number of historic warbirds resting beneath them.

For more than 30 years, with the U.S. Navy’s blessing, a skilled team of professionals have been identifying and recovering these forgotten planes. To date, more than 40 aircraft have been brought to the surface. Many have been restored to their former glory and are on display in museums and airports around the country. HEROES ON DECK captures some of the key recoveries and restoration efforts, and the stories of the brave pilots who went through this ingenious training operation.

Using interviews, declassified film and stills, underwater recovery footage, and computer-generated recreations, HEROES ON DECK, narrated by legendary CBS and A&E newsman Bill Kurtis, brings to life a vital chapter of American history. As Naval Historian John Laudermilk stated, “These pilots were the Top Guns of 1943.”