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How did World War II-era planes end up at the bottom of Lake Michigan?

Wildcat - air to air 2021 mag res by Scott_Slocum.jpg
Scott Slocum
/
EAA
F4F. Wildcat. Grumman. F4F-3. N12260. Warbird. Warbirds. AV. 21. AV21. AirVenture. 2021.

Although Lake Michigan is more well-known for its shipping history, it’s also been a vital resource for U.S. war efforts. Scouring the bottom of the lake will not only lead you to its many ship wrecks, but a large number of World War II era planes. So, how did they get there?

"There was a tremendous amount of training going on during the second World War right in Lake Michigan," says Ben Page, the museum collections curator at the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S Navy realized they needed to train naval aviators to take off from a moving ship, but enemy submarines and the risk of attack made it unsafe to train them on the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. There was already a large naval base just north of Chicago and a space for the ships in the city itself, still known today as Navy Pier.

Page explains, "The aircraft could operate out of Glenview and the ships could operate right out of Chicago, they'd kind of meet in the middle of the lake and that's where they would go train."

Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter
Courtesy of the EAA Aviation Museum
The restored Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter currently on display at the EAA Aviation Museum.

During the course of the War, Page says more than 15,000 Navy and Marine pilots completed their training on the lake. During that time, somewhere between 150 and 300 planes crashed into the lake. Since the 90s, at least 50 aircrafts have been recovered and restored from the depths of Lake Michigan, including a classic Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter currently on display at the EAA Aviation Museum.

"Because of those conditions in the lake being cold, deep and freshwater, they come out not looking too terribly worse for wear,"Page says.

That's good news for Navy historians. Since many of these planes were lost during the war, Lake Michigan has become a great source of these relics. Page explains, "There’s all different types down there. If it flew off a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier during WWII, chances are an example ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan."

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