The ceremonies having been driven belowdecks to the wardroom by a drenching rain, Captain Warren K. Berner, U.S. Naval Academy class of 1922—nicknamed “Tarzan” by classmates—read his orders and assumed command of the USS Sable (IX-81) on 8 May 1943. Less than a month from his 45th birthday, Berner, a naval aviator for nearly two decades, had served onboard the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley (CV-1). He had been chosen to fit out and command one of two aircraft-training vessels now in the Fleet’s inventory.
Ice around Buffalo Harbor, New York, held up the Sable’s final trials for weeks. Fog, rain, and low visibility followed, precluding her from getting under way for trials on 21 May, so the inspection board on hand for trials looked over what features it could pierside. All was not perfect; the inspectors noted poor ventilation and high temperatures in compartments including the ice-machine shop, machine shop, radio and gyro rooms, steering engine-room, radio motor-generator room, and, last but not least, the barbershop.
The War Shipping Administration had acquired the steel-hulled, side-wheel Great Lakes excursion steamer Greater Buffalo—built in 1924 at Lorain, Ohio, by the American Shipbuilding Company—for the Navy from the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company on 7 August 1942. Although the ship had been designated an aircraft-training vessel, her unique mission—and that of her running mate, the USS Wolverine (IX-64)—removed her from the traditional practice of naming carriers for famous former ships and battles. Given the “miscellaneous” classification of IX-81, the Greater Buffalo was renamed the Sable on 19 September 1942. When the route sheet accompanying the notification of the name assignment crossed the desk of an officer in the Bureau of Ships (BuShips), he wrote, “Hoot mon—a fur coat?”
Conversion, occasionally hampered by inclement weather, proceeded at the Erie Plant of the American Shipbuilding Company in Buffalo. An experimental steel flight deck, 540 feet long and 85 feet wide, took shape on a box girder frame—the first such flight deck to be used in the construction of an American aircraft carrier. Various deck-coverings would be applied and evaluated.
During the conversion process, Captain Ross P. Schlabach, the supervisor of shipbuilding, had decried the crew’s berthing as “very unsatisfactory,” instructing the contractor to remove all partition bulkheads there. The modification would thereby provide a “large crew’s quarters, consistent with standard Navy practice and contributing to the health and sanitary conditions of these spaces.” It would also enable the installation of more “standard hinged Pullman type” berths—not only there but in the pilot’s lecture room, enabling any overflow to be housed more comfortably.
The Sable got under way the day after her pierside inspection—22 May 1943—and set course for Chicago. Captain Berner put the ship through her paces, conducting full-speed and maneuvering trials en route to her new homeport. For her full-power run, with her two 30-foot diameter paddlewheels churning the waters at her sides, the Sable maintained a speed of 17.6 knots for four hours. A representative of the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) found the flight deck and arresting gear installation “substantially complete, in good condition, and ready for operation.” The Sable reached Chicago on 26 May and logged her first landing two days later. On 10 June she began operations.
Experience dictated changes, and ensuing alteration requests included one for fenders and extensions to the lower gangway—to prevent boats from fouling the ship’s overhang—and the installation of an additional outrigger forward of the two existing ones. Adding a third outrigger, such as that employed on board the Ranger (CV-4), Yorktown (CV-5), and Enterprise (CV-6), would enable the flight-deck crew to move non-folding-wing aircraft there to clear the deck in the event of a mishap.
The addition of a second carrier made it possible for the carrier qualification training unit (CQTU) to operate from two ships simultaneously and allowed flight operations to continue while one ship was taking on coal or under repair. The Sable’s 11 arresting wires, as opposed to the Wolverine’s 9, enabled the former to land the heavier service-type aircraft in light wind conditions. On 20 March 1944, the Sable and the CQTU based at Naval Air Station Chicago, qualified 51 pilots—a new Navy record.
Ten days into 1945, Captain William H. Ashford Jr., the ship’s third commanding officer, who earlier in his career had been flag lieutenant to Rear Admiral William F. Halsey Jr., implored BuAer for three portable energizers for accelerating starters, two bronze tow-bars, and a crane. Ashford’s request for the last item ended up at BuShips, not BuAer, because BuShips had authority over those particular pieces of equipment. In Ashford’s experience, such an item was standard for a carrier, and on board the Sable sheer brawn was the only means of removing damaged planes from the catwalk or flight deck. Heavier aircraft, such as the Grumman/General Motors TBF/TBM Avenger and the Grumman F6F Hellcat, needed more than just manpower to be moved. With the utmost economy, BuShips decided to provide the Sable with a repaired crane—not a new one—and have it delivered to Chicago.
War in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, but training on Lake Michigan continued. By 1 July 1945, the Sable had logged 58,223 total landings, at one point achieving more than 42,000 landings without a fatality, a tribute to the ship’s efficiency. With the end of the war in the Pacific in mid-August, however, the proverbial handwriting on the wall indicated the fate of the Sable and Wolverine.
On 17 October 1945, the Ninth Naval District Sub-board of Inspection and Survey looked over the Sable as she lay alongside the finger pier, south of the Navy (Municipal) Pier at the foot of Grand Avenue in Chicago. Recent discharges had thinned the ranks of her officers and men: There were now 259 sailors on board, including 81 in the engineer force alone. The board found the Sable in “good condition,” her boats satisfactory, but her machinery of “obsolete design throughout,” with inadequate spare parts. Her radio and radar rooms had sufficed for the duration of her service, but her men found them “small, crowded, poorly located, and not too well ventilated.”
“Owing to the fact that the program for which this vessel was originally purchased . . . and converted to an aircraft carrier has been completed,” the board concluded that retaining the Sable “would not be in the best interests of the Navy.” Once the service removed the items it had installed, the board urged that the ship be declared surplus. It also recommended that if scrapping proved uneconomical—that is, if it cost more to take the ship apart than the value her materials would bring—“the hull be towed to deep water and sunk.”
The Sable was decommissioned on 7 November 1945, and two days later BuShips endorsed the findings that the vessel “be stricken from the Navy Register and disposed of.” Striking occurred on 28 November 1945. Sold by the Maritime Commission to the H. H. Buncher Company of Pittsburgh as a scrap hull on 7 July 1948, she was reported as disposed on 27 July.
The Sable, ex-Greater Buffalo, had indeed “done the state some service,” as a training platform in safer waters than could have been obtained off either coast, enabling instruction to occur far removed from the danger of enemy submarines. While a generation of civilians could wax nostalgic over happy excursions on a lake and have fond memories of cruises in the Greater Buffalo, a generation of naval aviators could point with pride to the fact that they had learned their difficult and demanding trade on board the Sable, which, along with the Wolverine, had enabled them to make U.S. naval aviation the best in the world.