DVD Review: Heroes On Deck

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SONY DSC16 November 2016 | Lakeland, Florida. The release of the 2016 documentary Heroes On Deck, which is a joint project of John Davies Productions and Moshman Productions, has finally provided historians and military aviation aficionados a visual and audio record of the unique Second World War naval aviator training program that took place on Lake Michigan.

In 1942 the Kriegsmarine (Nazi Germany’s navy) U-Boats were wreaking havoc along the eastern seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico, and Imperial Japanese Navy submarines simultaneously prowled off the Pacific coast of the United States. This state of affairs made aircraft carrier qualifying operations very dangerous, and the necessity of constantly streaming trained personnel to the growing number of American and British carriers also required the use of a vulnerable, critical ship that, had it not been required for this elementary instructional purpose, could have been otherwise deployed during this critical post-Pearl Harbor period.

USS Sable underway on Lake Michigan circa 1944-45. Photo: U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Museum.

USS Sable underway on Lake Michigan circa 1944-45. Photo: U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Museum.

Capitalizing on American ingenuity, the U.S. Navy acquired and modified a pair of side-wheel excursion steamers by removing cabins and other topside structures and adding a flight deck. The completed vessels were named USS Sable and USS Wolverine.

Upon the safe and protected waters of the Great Lake, USS Sable and USS Wolverine undertook the important mission of qualifying U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviators, as well as a small number of Royal Navy pilots, in aircraft carrier landings and takeoffs. In fact, during WW2 in excess of 15,000 pilots and approximately 40,000 deck crewmen were trained aboard the primitive ships.

USS Wolverine at anchor in Lake Michigan on 6 April 1943. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo no 1996-488-019-009.

Also detailed on the DVD are aircraft recovery efforts in Lake Michigan. With inexperienced pilots grappling with the intricacies of landing on a deck that was moving horizontally, and at times was also pitching up and down and/or rolling from side to side, accidents understandably occurred and the aircraft that went overboard sank to the bottom. In the midst of wartime, little effort was made to raise these wrecks. The result is that scores of sunken airplanes are waiting to be raised, salvaged, and restored by museums and other entities.

This film is highly recommended for its historical content alone, but the engrossing saga of these two ships and the men who manned and flew onto them is very entertaining as well. Heroes On Deck runs 57 minutes and the audio is in stereo. The DVD is available for purchase at the website www.HeroesOnDeck.com.

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The reviewer (John Stemple) thanks John Davies Productions, Inc., and Moshman Productions, Inc., for producing this documentary.