There are museums, books, and even songs about the Great Lakes shipwrecks, but there are also over 100 planes that sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan. They are part of a little-known WWII training program for pilots, including former President George HW Bush.
Taras Lysenko is the co-founder of a company that worked to recover some of these planes. He wrote about this work in a recent article for Michigan History magazine.
The pilot training program began shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Lysenko said the US Navy chose Lake Michigan because it was a safe place for pilots who trained to land on aircraft carriers.
“We were dealing with German submarines on the east coast, and the Japanese actually had very good submarines on the west coast,” he said. “So if you were a young pilot having to learn how to land on an aircraft carrier, well, it was hard enough to do that, let alone if the ship, the aircraft carrier dodged the torpedoes of the submarines. “
The Navy bought two old execution ships and converted them into makeshift flattops – the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable. Between 1942 and the end of World War II, the Navy qualified about 15,000 pilots using these two ships, but about 130 crashed in Lake Michigan.
Beginning in the 1980s, Lysenko’s company, A and T Recovery, began locating and recovering aircraft lost during the training operation. Lysenko and his partner, Allan Olson, used logs to identify the general location of the plane. At the time, the Navy used radar positions, and locations were not always accurate. So they used side-scan sonar to map the bottom of the lake and identify the aircraft.
A and T Recovery have recovered around 40 planes. Many of them are now on display in museums across the country, including at Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum.
“Right now they have a Dauntless SBD that we picked up in the 1990s,” he said. “It was a painstaking restoration process and they undertook it and their volunteer artists and restorers did a tremendous job. It is on long-term display in their main building.
The museum is currently restoring an SBD-2P Dauntless dive bomber – a rare photographic reconnaissance aircraft – which Lysenko says experienced extensive fighting in the Pacific before being lost in Lake Michigan. Lyseenko encourages visitors to see the restoration process before heading to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum for a permanent display.
Listen to the full interview at the top of the page.