Heroes on Deck
In 1988 Director John Davies made a short film about an extraordinary Naval training operation that took
place just off the Chicago shoreline during WWII. It told the amazing story of young aviators who trained
to fight in the Pacific by learning to land on and take off from makeshift aircraft carriers operating in Lake
Michigan. Davies interviewed several pilots, and using old newsreels and stills, his film ran locally to critical
That effort didn’t include digital recreations, declassified footage, a recently discovered photo archive, or
underwater recovery footage of priceless warbirds on the bottom of the lake. Davies and his seasoned producing
partners Harvey Moshman and Brian Kallies, believed it was time to revisit this little known chapter of World War II
history in a new documentary for National Public Television. Naval and World War II historians consider the
Lake Michigan Carrier Qualification program to be a key event leading to victory in the Pacific. HEROES ON DECK is a story told by some of the brave
men who were actually there.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy was desperate for pilots who
could take off from aircraft carriers, strike the enemy, navigate their way back to the ship and
land safely…no easy task in the vast Pacific. With only seven real carriers left in the entire
Navy, none could be spared for training. In order to quickly train thousands of aviators,
Commander Richard F. Whitehead proposed a radical idea. He suggested that two coal-fired,
side-wheeled, passenger steamers, the SS Seaandbee and SS Greater Buffalo, be converted
into makeshift aircraft carriers. It was an inspired solution to a huge problem. These “freshwater carriers” were commissioned
the USS Wolverine and USS Sable.
The two “oddball flattops” would facilitate pilot and crew training in the safety of Lake Michigan.
Between 1942 and the end of the war, Whitehead’s ambitious year-round program qualified over 15,000 aviators including 41st
President, George H.W. Bush. Eight successful takeoffs and landings, usually completed in a single day, were enough to
guarantee a young pilot a trip to the Pacific. Landing on the pitching decks of these lakebased carriers proved too much for some.
Onboard crashes, navigational errors, and “water landings” often led to serious injuries and occasionally death. As a result, more
than 100 classic WWII fighters and divebombers sank to the bottom of the lake.
Today, swimmers, pleasure boaters and fisherman have no idea the number of historic warbirds resting beneath them.
Many of these rare aircraft are in remarkable condition, preserved unmolested in the frigid, oxygen-deprived depths. For decades these classic planes remained undisturbed because neither the interest, nor the will existed to recover them. In the late 1970’s that began to change.
For more than 30 years, with the US Navy’s blessing, a skilled team of professionals have been identifying and recovering these forgotten
warbirds, using deepwater divers, side-scan sonar, and ROV’s. To date, over 40 aircraft have been brought to the surface. A few have
been restored to their former glory and are flying again, but most are on display in museums and airports under the supervision of the National Naval Aviation Museum
in Pensacola, Florida.
Grumman F6F Hellcats, the dominant fighters in WWII, as well as Wildcats, TBM Avengers, F4U Corsairs, SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers, and a rare
SB2U Vindicator are among the planes on display around the country. Our cameras captured some of the key recoveries and restoration efforts. These
heroes were witness to history and they’ve shared their stories with us.
Using interviews, de-classified film and stills, underwater recovery footage and computer generated recreations, HEROES ON DECK brings to life a vital chapter of American history.
As Naval Historian John Laudermilk stated, “These were the heroes that shot the Japanese air force out of the sky. These pilots were the Top Guns of 1943”. Narrated by legendary
CBS and A&E newsman Bill Kurtis, HEROES ON DECK is a perfect Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day or July 4th Special, but it’s also evergreen for audiences that love history, aviation and
stories of heroism.
for DVDs, Downloads & Streaming
John Davies – EP, Writer & Director
John Davies Productions, Inc.
(818) 841 - 4358
Harvey Moshman – EP, Aircraft Recovery Photography
Moshman Productions, Inc.
(312) 718 - 0690
Brian Kallies – Producer, Editor
Brian Kallies Productions, LLC
(773) 610 - 5819