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Documentary Producer To Speak On South Coast About Forgotten World War II Story

It was the early days of World War II, and it wasn’t going well for America.

The U.S. Navy was hard hit by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it only had a handful of aircraft carrier compared to the Japanese Navy. The Navy could ill afford to use the few carriers it had to train the aviators it would need to fight back in the Pacific.

John Davies is Executive Producer of “Heroes On Deck: World War II On Lake Michigan,” a documentary being shown in Santa Barbara on Thursday which chronicles the unique, but almost forgotten way the Navy solved its carrier pilot training problem.

The Navy took two old passenger ships and rebuilt them with flight decks, like aircraft carriers, so pilots could get actual takeoff and landing experience. And, because of security concerns, the training took place at a spot where Japanese or German submarines couldn’t reach the ships. It was based in the Great Lakes.

Davies says the two training carriers on Lake Michigan became a key part of preparing carrier pilots during the war, with most of the pilot who fought in the Pacific passing through the program.

He first heard about the Lake Michigan aircraft carriers 30 years ago, while he was working in television in Chicago. Davies was a producer at a PBS station, and a cameraman told him that there were more than 100 World War II era planes at the bottom of the lakes, planes which had crashed during training efforts. Davis produced a short documentary about the forgotten story for the Chicago PBS station in the 1980’s, but a few years ago, he decided to do a full scale documentary.

It features two pilots who trained on Lake Michigan before becoming decorated combat pilots. And, he was able to get some actual footage shot by a combat pilot who came back to Lake Michigan to train new pilots.

The part-time Santa Barbara resident enlisted longtime CBS, and A & E anchor, reporter and documentary producer Bill Kurtis to serve as narrator: “Heroes On Deck” was shown on 170 PBS stations last year. It will be screened at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum at 7 p.m. Thursday. Davies will be on for a question and answer session about the film.