Bill Kurtis narrates ‘Heroes on Deck’ WWII documentary

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Bill Kurtis narrated “Heroes on Deck,” the new PBS documentary airing in time for Memorial Day. | Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

A documentary about the little-known connection between Lake Michigan and the training of World War II Navy pilots will debut on WTTW-Channel 11, just prior to the Memorial Day recognition of Americans’ military service.

“Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan” will air at 9 p.m. Thursday and 6 p.m. Sunday on Channel 11 — and also will be broadcast nationally on other PBS stations across the country.

Narrated by Chicago’s very own Bill Kurtis, the hourlong film was created by three noted documentarians, including multi-Emmy-winning executive producers John Davies and Harvey Moshman and producer and editor Brian Kallies.

“Heroes on Deck” will focus on an intriguing response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. After that attack, the U.S. Navy realized it was much in need of pilots who could land on aircraft carriers in the Pacific. With enemy submarines lurking off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Cmdr. Richard F. Whitehead of the Ninth Naval District in Chicago came up with an unusual idea: training the pilots in the safety of Lake Michigan.

Two Great Lakes passenger steamers — the USS Wolverine and USS Sable — were quickly converted into temporary aircraft carriers, and between 1942 and 1945 more than 15,000 aviators were thus trained. Future president George H.W. Bush was among those trained aboard those ships, dubbed “freshwater flattops.”

There were crashes and water landings in the process of that training, leading to more than 100 young men losing their lives and dive-bombers ending up on the bottom of Lake Michigan. At this point in time, more than 40 aircraft have been recovered, and “Heroes on Deck” showcases some of the key recoveries and restoration efforts.

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