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Training Carriers • USS Wolverine • USS Sable • S2c EL Scharch (NAS Corpus Christi)

USS Sable (IX-81) WWII Training Carrier 1943-45
Converted from Great Lakes passenger steamer "Greater Buffalo"
Displacement: 6,584 long tons (6,690 t) (as Sable)
Length: 535 ft (163.1 m) (as Sable)
Beam: 58 ft (17.7 m) (as Greater Buffalo and Sable)
Height: 21.3 ft (6.5 m) (as Greater Buffalo)
Decks: 7 (as Greater Buffalo
Flight deck: 535'-5" ft x 58'-0" (steel)
Draft: 16'-0"
Propulsion: (6) single-end and (3) double-end coal-fired Scotch boilers, 14' dia.; Inclined 3-cylinder compound steam engine (abt. 165 psi); 66", 96", 96" bores x 108" stroke
(2) side paddlewheels, abt. 100-tons ea. w/ 11 blades
Power: 10,500 hp
Speed: 18 kts (21 mph)
Complement: 270

USS Sable (IX-81) was converted to a training aircraft carrier used by the United States Navy during World War II. Originally built as the passenger ship Greater Buffalo, a side-wheel excursion steamer, she was purchased by the Navy in 1942 and converted to a training aircraft carrier to be used on the Great Lakes. Lacking a hangar deck, elevators or armament, she was not a true warship, but provided advanced training of naval aviators in carrier takeoffs and landings.

On her first day of service fifty-nine pilots became qualified within nine hours of operations, with each making eight takeoffs and landings. Pilot training was conducted seven days a week in all types of weather conditions. One aviator who trained upon the Sable was future president George H. W. Bush.

Following World War II, Sable was decommissioned on 7 November 1945. She was sold for scrapping on 7 July 1948 to the H.H. Buncher Company. Sable and her sister ship, USS Wolverine, hold the distinction of being the only freshwater, coal-fired, side paddle-wheel aircraft carriers used by the United States Navy.


Sable was converted at the Erie Plant of American Shipbuilding Company at Buffalo, New York. The cabins and superstructure of the ship were removed leaving the main deck. Along with additional supports, a steel flight deck was installed instead of the originally planned Douglas-fir wooden deck similar to what was installed on USS Wolverine. The steel deck also allowed Sable to be used for the testing a variety of non-skid coatings applied to the flight deck.

The deck of Sable was equipped with eight sets of arresting cables as well. A bridge island or superstructure was constructed on the starboard side of the ship along with outriggers forward of the island for storing damaged aircraft.

On the main deck a lecture room, along with projection equipment, was constructed that could accommodate more than forty aviators with bunks for twenty one aviators. She was also equipped with a sick bay, operating room, laundry, tailor shop, crew quarters, a cafeteria style galley for the crew, a mess hall for the officers, storerooms and a refrigerator.

Sable lacked a hangar deck, elevators or armament, as her role was for the training of pilots for carrier take-offs and landings. A number of crew members assigned to Sable prior to her commissioning were survivors of USS Lexington which had been lost earlier during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Sable was commissioned on 8 May 1943 with Captain Warren K. Berner in command.

Conversion to USS Sable (IX-81) showing four exhaust funnels before encasing for two stack arrangement. (US Navy photo January 15, 1943.)
Sable moored in Lake Erie ice during refitting in early 1943 at American Shipbuilding Co. yard in Buffalo, NY. The training carrier was converted from the Great Lakes side-wheel excursion steamer Greater Buffalo, launched in October 1924. (Official U.S. Navy photo, U.S. National Archives.)
Deck of USS Sable during refit, looking aft with smoke rising from her coal-fired boilers. (Taken bet. Mar - Apr 1943)
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Sable moored in Lake Erie ice at American Shipbuilding Co. in Buffalo, NY. (US Navy photo, ca. Apr 1943)
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Captain Warren K Berner (far left) reading his orders to take command of the training carrier USS Sable at her commissioning ceremony at the American Shipbuilding Company in Buffalo, New York, 8 May 1943.
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USS Sable moored at Chicago's Navy Pier where it and USS Wolverine were both home within vicinity of NAS Glenview during WWII.
One of 12 coal-fired Scotch marine boilers onboard the USS Sable during Commissioning Day (8 May 1943). Original equipment from days as passenger steamer Greater Buffalo, built in 1924 by Detroit Shipbuilding Company of Lorain, Ohio. The (6) single-ended boilers are 14 ft dia. x 10 ft long and (3) double-ended boilers are 14 ft dia. x 20 ft long. They produce about 165 psi. (U.S. Naval Historical Center photo)
USS Sable at anchor in West Grand Traverse Bay, off Traverse City, Michigan, 10 Aug 1943. Note two TDN-1 assault drone on the flight deck. (US Navy photo # 80-G-387151)
An FM-2 Wildcat on final approach to land aboard the training carrier USS Sable on Lake Michigan, 1943-44.
An aircraft nosed over on the flight deck of training aircraft carrier USS Sable on Lake Michigan, 1944.
Overhead view of the WWII training aircraft carrier USS Sable (IX-81) underway on Lake Michigan. An FM Wildcat is making a deck launch in 1944-45. (US Navy photo)
USS Sable IX-81 underway with side paddlewheel churning away on Lake Michigan, 1945.
Port side view of USS Sable from above with aircraft nosed over on the flight deck, 1945.
Starboard view of USS Sable underway with a Wildcat fighter launching from the flight deck, 1945.

Naval Service

Training duty

The completed Sable departed Buffalo on 22 May 1943 and arrived at her assigned homeport of Chicago, Illinois on 26 May 1943 and was docked at what came to be called Navy Pier joining her sister ship USS Wolverine in what was casually referred to as the "Corn Belt Fleet". Sable along with her sister ship, Wolverine, were assigned to the 9th Naval District Carrier Qualification Training Unit (CQTU) and were tasked with qualifying pilots for carrier operations. With the flight deck shorter and lower to the water it was felt that if a pilot could master take offs and landings they would have less trouble when they were stationed on a standard size carrier. Pilot training was conducted seven days a week with the fifty-nine pilots becoming qualified within nine hours of her first day of service. One issue that arose was that because of the lower top speed and height of Sable there wasn't enough "wind over deck" needed in order to launch certain types of aircraft or even carry out training on calm days. In August 1943 Sable was used as a base for testing the experimental TDN-1 torpedo drone aircraft.

Naval aviators who had earned their wings at Pensacola or Corpus Christi reported to NAS Glenview and received orientation training before commencing the required minimum of eight landings and takeoffs from the carriers. Before any shipboard landings were attempted, however, practice landings took place on runways that had been marked like carrier decks.

Training on board the USS Sable was rigorous. The training began at sunrise and didn’t end until sunset. Take offs and landing were practiced throughout the 14 hour day and would only be cancelled in foggy weather where the takeoffs and landings would be too risky. Once the pilots completed their daily takeoffs and landings, they would return to Glenview. Rarely would a plane remain overnight on the flight deck. It was the goal of the Navy to train each pilot in the same type of aircraft that they would be flying with the fleet. Shortages resulted and often prevented this practice. Carrier fighter group pilots could qualify in Grumman F4F Wildcats, while scout and bomber pilots flew in the North American SNJ Texan. The program was so rigorous that 30 pilots could be qualified in one day. On May 28th, 1944 the Sable broke her own record and qualified 59 pilots with 498 landings in a total of 531 minutes.

Training on board the USS Sable was not limited to pilots. On board experience was also given to carrier personnel before they were assigned to escort carriers. Every two weeks, a new class of 15 men reported to receive four weeks of training in flight deck procedures. Instructors and techs came to receive practical shipboard training, along with thousands of other aircrew members.

9th Naval District Carrier Qualification Training Unit was at NAS Glenview, IL
Landing Signal Officer on USS Sable 1944
lecture room
Aviator's lecture room on USS Sable 1943
Decommissioning and disposal

Following the end of World War II, Sable was decommissioned on 7 November 1945 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 28 November 1945. Before she was to be auctioned off a proposal was made by the Great Lakes Historical society to have Sable become a museum for Great Lakes history at Put-in-Bay, Ohio near the Commodore Perry monument. When that proposal failed she was sold by the Maritime Commission to H. H. Buncher Company on 7 July 1948 and was reported as "disposed of" on 27 July 1948. In order to fit through the Welland Canal, Sable was cut down prior to her journey to the ship breaking yard at Hamilton, Ontario. It was reported that 28 feet (8.5 m) of her beam along with 50 feet (15 m) of her stern flight deck were removed prior to her being moved by tugboats. Even with the modifications Sable only had 5 feet (1.5 m) of clearance on each side while passing through the canal locks.


Together, Sable and Wolverine trained 17,820 pilots in 116,000 carrier landings. Of these, 51,000 landings were on Sable alone. One of the pilots qualified on Sable was a 20-year-old Lieutenant, junior grade, future president George H. W. Bush on Aug. 24, 1943. Of the estimated 135–300 aircraft lost during training, 35 have been salvaged and the search for more is underway. Both USS Sable and USS Wolverine hold the distinction of being the only freshwater, coal-driven, side paddle-wheel aircraft carriers used by the United States Navy. USS Sable earned both the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal during her Naval career.

George H.W. Bush  (middle)

Flight deck operations on USS Sable IX-81 from 1943-1945

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Lecture Room for aviators on Sable 3-Jun-43 SNJ Texan just landed as other goes around SNJ Texan after landing 10-Jun-43
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TBF, FM-2, SNJ aircraft on deck F4U Corsair, Wildcat, TBFs, plane guard boat Mishap with FM-2 Wildcat (M-5)
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TDN-1 drone tests 10-Aug-43 (#1 of 3) TDN-1 drone tests 10-Aug-43 (#2 of 3) TDN-1 drone tests 10-Aug-43 (#3 of 3)
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Flag of USS Sable and Chicago skyline c 1944 Sable's bridge, FM-2 Wildcat (M-21) nose down FM-2 Wildcat (M-21) nose down & pilot
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FM-2 Wildcat hard landing buckles landing gear 13 Wildcats & SNJ-4 tied down on Sable, 1944 Crewmen duck in catwalk during a wild landing
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Memorial service for Pres. Roosevelt 15-Apr-45 FM-2 Wildcat (M-3) barrier crash, #1 of 2 FM-2 Wildcat (M-3) barrier crash, #2 of 2 
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SNJ (J-10) launches, May-45 The 50,000th landing on USS Sable, May-45 Lt. Whitaker, Landing Signal Officer, May-45
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Slice in steel deck by spinning propeller of an F6F F6F-5 Hellcat attempts trap 1945 Crews move to secure FM-2 after hard landing
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Crews securing F6F Hellcat hanging over side Crews securing F6F Hellcat hanging over side Crews hoisting damaged Hellcat over to barge
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SNJ Texan prepares to launch FM-2 Wildcat launch on USS Sable FM-2 Wildcat recovery on Sable
VJ Day
V.J. Day on USS Sable with crew and aviators 14 Aug 1945

History of Vessel
Name: S.S. Greater Buffalo
Nickname: "Majestic of the Great Lakes"
Owner: Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Co. (D&C)
Route: Buffalo to Detroit 
Builder: American Ship Building Company, Lorain, Ohio
Cost: $3.5 million
Hull no.: 00786
Keel: 2 May 1923
Tonnage: 7,739 GRT as Greater Buffalo
Length: 518.7 ft (158.1 m) (as Greater Buffalo)
Beam: 58 ft (17.7 m) 
Height: 21.3 ft (6.5 m) (as Greater Buffalo) 
Decks: 7 (as Greater Buffalo)
Installed power: Inclined compound steam engine
Piston #1: 66 in (170 cm) bore
Piston #2: 96 in (240 cm) bore
Piston #3: 96 in (240 cm) bore
Stroke: 108 in (270 cm) length
9 × coal-fired Scotch boilers (6) single-end, (3) double-end
3 × 100 kW turbo generators for ship lighting and operation.
Propulsion: Two side-wheel 32.75 ft (10.0 m) diameter
11 floats (paddles) 14.833 ft long and 5 ft wide, 30 rpm.
Speed: 18 knots (33 km/h)
Crew: 300 (as Greater Buffalo)
Notes: 2 × 6,000 lb (2,700 kg) anchors fore and 1 × 6,000 lb (2,700 kg) anchor aft (as Greater Buffalo)
Launched: 27 Oct 1924
Maiden voyage: 13 May 1925
Identification: U.S. Official Number 223663, Code Letters WSBH (1934–42)

Acquired by U.S. Navy: 7 August 1942
Conversion: American Shipbuilding Co., Buffalo, N.Y.
Renamed: U.S.S. Sable (IX-81) on 19 Sep 1942
Commissioned: 8 May 1943
Decommissioned: 7 November 1945
Stricken: 28 November 1945
Fate: Sold 7 July 1948 for scrapping


Greater Buffalo was built in 1924 by the American Ship Building Company of Lorain, Ohio as a side-wheel excursion steamer designed by marine architect Frank E. Kirby. Her hull number was 00786 and the official number assigned to her was 223663.

Drawing of steamer Greater Buffalo designed by Frank E. Kirby (1922)

The interior of the ship was designed by W & J Sloane & Company of New York City in what was referred to as "an adaptation of the Renaissance style". There were 650 staterooms and more than 1,500 berths for passengers. Each room had a telephone connected by a central switch board located in the ship's lobby. The highest priced staterooms offered a private bathroom, couch and balcony. Her dining room could seat 375. Greater Buffalo could transport up to 103 vehicles on her main deck and 1,000 tons of freight. At the time she was given the nickname "Majestic of the Great Lakes".

Postcard of Main Saloon and staircase aboard steamer Greater Buffalo.

Her hull was all steel with eleven watertight compartments and a double bottom divided into sixteen watertight compartments. Hydraulically controlled watertight doors could be remotely operated from the engine room. The ship was also equipped with twelve 60-person capacity lifeboats along with an assortment of life rafts and floats.

When completed, Greater Buffalo was 518.7 ft (158.1 m) in length, a beam of 58 ft (18 m), height of 21.3 ft (6.5 m) and measured 7,739 gross register tons. She had nine boilers installed and was powered by a three-cylinder inclined compound steam engine. The engine, built by American Shipbuilding, had one cylinder of 66 inches (170 cm) diameter and two of 96 inches (240 cm) diameter by 108 inches (270 cm) stroke. It was rated at 1,915 NHP.

She was seven decks high, carried three funnels along her top and was equipped with rudders at both ends of the ship for improved maneuverability. She carried a crew of 300 officers and enlisted with their cabins stationed on the lowest deck fore and aft of the ship's machinery. The final cost for construction was $3,500,000.


The Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company ordered a pair of new excursion steamer ships for their Great Lakes routes.

Greater Buffalo was among the largest side wheel paddle ships on the Great Lakes when she entered service in 1924. Her port of registry was Detroit, Michigan.

On her maiden voyage to Buffalo, New York on 13 May 1925 Greater Buffalo carried a capacity number of passengers. The steamer was used as a palatial overnight service boat transporting up to 1,500 passengers from Buffalo to Detroit, Michigan for the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company. Guests were entertained by an orchestra for dancing in the main dining room following dinner service as well as radio programming provided in the main salon. Along with passenger service Greater Buffalo offered their customers the option of transportation for 125 automobiles on their voyage.

During the Great Depression Greater Buffalo was taken out of service from 1930 through 1935. In 1936 Greater Buffalo was docked at Cleveland and used as a "floating hotel" for attendees of the Republican Convention.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 there was a need for large vessels that could be converted into training aircraft carriers for pilot training. Greater Buffalo's length, following conversion, would be roughly two thirds the length of an Independence-class aircraft carrier and it was felt by the navy that if pilots could master takeoffs and landings on the shorter deck they would have less problems transitioning to a standard length carrier. Other benefits by using her for training were that an active duty combat ship would not have to be used for training and with her location on the Great Lakes she would be out of the reach of enemy submarines and mines. Greater Buffalo was acquired by the Navy on 7 August 1942 by the War Shipping Administration to be converted into a training aircraft carrier and renamed Sable on 19 September 1942.

The SS Greater Buffalo was an inland excursion steamer run on the Great Lakes, shown here before her conversion to USS Sable (IX-81).
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SS Greater Buffalo arrives in Buffalo, NY, on Aug 6, 1942, to be converted into training aircraft carrier USS Sable (IX-81), by the American Shipbuilding Company.
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Greater Buffalo before conversion to training carrier
Hurricane deck on Greater Buffalo viewed from exterior of pilot house.
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Postcard showing the ship's pilot house as viewed from forward deck. 
main staircase
Main forward staircase, showing painting of Niagara Falls and ship's once gleaming white interior. The grand side-wheel excursion steamer would be gutted and luxurious fittings torn out during conversion to training carrier USS Sable IX-81 in 1942-43.
Postcard of Greater Buffalo's engine room, which remained mostly unchanged when refitted to US Sable over winter of 1942-43. The engine is an inclined 3-cylinder compound steam engine, having one 5.5 ft dia. high pressure cylinder and two 8.0 ft dia. cylinders with a 9.0 ft stroke. It is said to produce as much as 12,000 ihp at 31 rpms. Shown is the enormous crankshaft that turns the ship's two enormous 32'-9" diameter side paddlewheels.
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Engine room looking forward at main bearings and crankshaft, which is coupled to two 32 ft tall paddle wheels. The port side wheel is located behind window sashes to left. (Photo above)
Layout of inclined engine used to drive side paddle wheel steamer.