WWII-era plane pulled from Lake Michigan
On the day Americans marked the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and our nation's entry into World War II, spectators gathered at Waukegan Harbor to see a long-forgotten relic from the war lifted from Lake Michigan.
An enormous crane tenderly lifted the FM-2 Wildcat fighter — submerged in the lake since a December 1944 training accident — from the water and placed it on a large, gray tarp at Larsen Marine.
Military veterans, reporters and other onlookers watched from a safe distance as crews stabilized the plane and prepared it for eventual transportation from the lakefront.
"I think it's fantastic," said 71-year-old Wadsworth resident Al Seyler, a Marine veteran who watched the recovery. "It's fascinating to see (it) come back."
The Wildcat was an important fighter plane for the Allies during World War II, seeing action in both the Pacific and European theaters. Armed with four .50-caliber machine guns, the single-seat craft was used by the U.S. Navy and Marines and by British forces.
This particular Wildcat went into the lake on Dec. 28, 1944, after its pilot, Ensign William E. Forbes, experienced engine failure during a takeoff attempt from the U.S.S. Sable.
Although Forbes escaped, the aircraft rolled off the bow of the ship and sank. Forbes died in 2008.
The Wildcat settled upside down in the muddy bottom, 200 feet below the surface. Dozens of other aircraft remain submerged in the lake, deteriorating.
"The rest of them need to come out of the water real soon," said Taris Lyssenko, whose A&T Recovery company has salvaged about 40 aircraft from Lake Michigan.
When the Wildcat was pulled from the water Friday, much of it was intact. Although part of the tail had broken away, both wings were attached, as was the propeller and many of the gauges inside the cockpit.
It was rusty, of course, and zebra mussels had taken over many of the plane's surfaces. But some of the Wildcat's paint was still visible, as were distinctive markings on the propeller and wings.
Two holes in each wing that once held the plane's guns were visible, although the guns were long gone. On the retractable landing gear, one of the tires remained full of air.
"Good old Lake Michigan, ice-cold water," said Seyler, the retired Marine.
Christine Smith, the daughter of pilot William Forbes, was unable to attend Friday's event but was excited to hear the effort was successful.
"I just have chills," said Smith, who lives in Snohomish, Wash., north of Seattle. "We were all there in spirit, especially my father."
Smith said her dad didn't talk much about his war experiences, but he did tell his family about his harrowing escape from the frigid lake.
"I remember him saying he'd never been so cold in his life," she said.
Organizers of the recovery effort hope the aircraft will be restored and put on public display.
"This thing would've been a piece of junk," said Mettawa resident Chuck Greenhill, a pilot and military veteran who's helping to fund the project. "Instead, it will become a piece of history that people will be able to see and appreciate."
Greenhill funded the similar recovery of a different Navy plane, an F4U-1 Corsair, from the lake in 2010. That fighter is being restored and will eventually be displayed at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla.
The museum and the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Navy's official source of historical information, also sponsored Friday's project.
After climbing up on the wing of the Wildcat Friday morning and peering into the cockpit, Greenhill was pleasantly surprised by the craft's condition.
"It looks pretty nice for an airplane that's been under the water that long," he said. "It's all there. It's a real airplane."
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