Warship Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018: 41 and his paddle-wheel flattop
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018: 41 and his paddle-wheel flattop
Here we see the training aircraft carrier USS Sable (IX-81) moored in an icy Great Lakes harbor, probably Buffalo, New York, on 8 May 1943, the day she was placed in commission. Of note, she and a similar vessel– responsible for training thousands of budding Naval aviators in the fresh water of the Lakes– were the last paddle-wheel, coal-fired U.S. Navy ships on active duty.
In the 1920s, the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company (D&C) ordered a large side-wheel excursion steamship, Greater Buffalo, from the American Ship Building Company of Lorain, Ohio.
Built to a design by marine architect Frank E. Kirby, she was an impressive 518-feet overall with “26 parlors with bath; 130 staterooms with toilets; automobile capacity, 125; 650 staterooms; crew of 300 including officers.” Some 7,300 tons, she used 9 coal-fired boilers to power her inclined compound steam engine suite, which in turn drove 35-foot paddlewheels.
She was a gorgeous and well-appointed ship in Great Lakes service, often carrying as many as 1,500 paying passengers per excursion on the Lakes in the summer seasons between 1925 and 1942.
In late 1942, a plan to convert large Great Lakes steamers to training carriers in the 9th Naval District, far away from threatening U-boats and mines, was hatched and Greater Buffalo, along with fellow Kirby-designed Seeandbee, were acquired by the War Shipping Administration and fitted for flight.
Seeandbee went on to become USS Wolverine (IX 64) while Greater Buffalo would be USS Sable (IX 81). While Wolverine picked up a 550-foot long Douglas-fir aircraft deck, Sable would be given a nice steel flight deck, as well as an island superstructure. The fact they did not have a hangar, elevators, or magazine did not matter too much, as they were just for the role of practicing traps and launches.
The 518-foot deck, hundreds of feet shorter than those used on fleet carriers, was considered OK in an “if you can dodge a wrench” kind of way, and given eight arrestor wires as a bonus safety measure, which no doubt came in handy. As of note, even the old Langley‘s flight deck was 542-feet long. Still, for aviators headed to “jeep” carriers, it was spacious (e.g. the Bogue-class escort carriers had just a 439-foot long flight deck.)
Converted at the Erie Plant of the American Shipbuilding Co., Buffalo, N. Y.; Sable was commissioned on 8 May 1943, CPT. Warren K. Berner (USNA 1922) in command, and became one of only two coal-fired paddle-wheelers in Navy service. As such, she was a throwback to an early time.
Sidebar: The Navy exits coal
The first oil-burning American destroyer, USS Paulding (DD-22), was commissioned in 1910, at the same time the new USS Nevada-class battleships were planned for solely oil as fuel. In 1914, the last American battleship that was coal-fired, USS Texas (BB-35), was commissioned– the final large warship built for the U.S. Navy to rely on West Virginia’s finest and even she had a mix of 14 Babcock & Wilcox coal-fired boilers with 6 Bureau Express oil-fired boilers. In the mid-1920s, most of the battleships kept after the Washington Naval Treaty that did not burn oil was extensively converted to do so. Likewise, by the early 1930s, the old “peace cruisers” that smoked bricks were put to pasture. By 1940, the only purpose-built warships I can find on the Naval List still set up to burn coal were the old patrol gunboats Sacramento (PG-19) and Tulsa (PG-22), each of which, due to their 12-knot speed and light low-angle armament, were of marginal use outside of waving the flag in times of peace. Further, every single one of the Navy’s aircraft carriers burned oil. Yes, even the converted collier USS Langley (CV-1), was turbo-electric.
For reference, the iron paddlewheel gun-boat USS Wolverine, ex-USS Michigan, had been the last Navy paddle wheeler before Wolverine/Sable, and she left the fleet in 1923.
Now back to our story.
For a sidewheeler, Sable was a deceptively good-looking aviation ship.
Similarly, Sable was made ready for bluejackets and aviation crews, picking up several experienced hands from the recently-lost USS Lexington.
Sable departed Buffalo on 22 May 1943 and reached Chicago, Ill., her assigned home port, on 26 May 1943. Sable qualified her first two pilots just three days later– the first of many.
Importantly, the freshwater flattop served as a testbed for a revolutionary development in naval warfare for the age– an armed carrier-launched drone.
The Navy’s TDN-1 was a TV-guided remote-controlled assault drone developed by the Navy in 1942. Envisioned to operate from carriers under the control of a nearby TBM Avenger (or land-based with a PBY chase plane), the 37-foot-long twin-engine aircraft could carry either a 2,000-pound bomb or an aerial torpedo. The launches from Sable of the type are widely considered the first US drone to take off from an aircraft carrier– eat your heart out Stingray.
When it came to training aircrews, accidents on Sable and Wolverine were to be expected.
Between 1942 and 1945, the years of the carriers’ operations, there were 128 losses and over 200 accidents. Although most losses resulted in only minor injuries, a total of eight pilots were killed. These numbers seem significant until it is considered that during that time over 120,000 successful landings took place, and an estimated 35,000 pilots qualified. The training program, in this light, was a huge success.
Additionally, Sable and her twin trained thousands of deck crews and landing signals officers in how to move, launch and recover aircraft in high tempo operations. Without such men, the war in the Pacific would have been impossible.
In just two years, Sable made an amazing 50,000 landings alone. By comparison, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) only recently hit her 50,000th trap in 2012, 23 years after she joined the fleet.
Among those trained on her decks was one TBM Avenger pilot, George H.W. Bush, who volunteered for flight training on his 18th birthday.
Flying from the light carrier USS San Jacinto (which was a “small” flattop but still had a longer deck, 552-feet, than Sable!), he completed 58 combat sorties, picking up the DFC and three air medals before VJ Day.
While Bush went on to a bright future, Sable would soon be forgotten in the victory.
Decommissioned on 7 November 1945, Sable was stricken from the list of ships on the Navy Register on 28 November 1945. Sold by the Maritime Commission to H. H. Buncher Co., Pittsburgh, Pa., on 7 July 1948, as a scrap hull, she was reported as “disposed of” on 27 July 1948. Likewise, the Navy decommissioned Wolverine on 7 November 1945 and she was sold for scrap in December 1947.
Other than her plans, which are in the National Archives, few relics of the ship exist today.
However, her legacy to aviation history may be more enduring.
It is estimated that well over 100 aircraft working from Sable and Wolverine were lost during the war due to accidents– as of course they were slow, small and unforgiving platforms filled with (by nature) fledging and unsure aviation hopefuls. By Navy records, at a minimum, the losses included: 41 TBM/TBF Avengers, one F4U Corsair, 38 SBD Dauntless dive bombers, four F6F Hellcats, 17 SNJ Texans, two SB2U Vindicators, 37 FM/F4F Wildcats and three experimental TDNs.
Many of these have been located over the years, providing fodder for aviation museums around the world as they airframes are in generally good condition due to fresh water immersion if the zebra mussels haven’t gotten to them. Many of the aircraft have been found in good condition with, for instance, “tires inflated, parachutes preserved, leather seats maintained, and engine crankcases full of oil. Often paint schemes are well preserved, allowing for easier identification.”
One such F4F-3 (BuNo 4039) lost from Wolverine and recovered in 1991 is on display in a “Sunken Treasures” scene in Pensacola as she would appear on the bottom of the Lakes.
As for Bush’s tie-in with the Sable and his Great Lakes area flight training, the Naval Air & Space Museum also has a restored N2S Stearman Kaydet, BuNo 05369, that he logged flights on from NAS Minneapolis.
The name “Sable” has not graced another U.S. Navy ship.
Displacement 6,584 t.
Length 535 ft.
Beam 58 ft.
two compound reciprocating engines
Ship’s Service Generators
two turbo-drive 75Kw 120V D.C.
three turbo-drive 100Kw 120V D.C.
Complement: 300 crew when in civilian service
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