Constable: Film tells of WWII planes on lake bottom
The story behind Wheaton native John Davies' new film of mystery, drama, tragedy, ingenuity and heroism starts precisely the way tales such as these should.
"I met a guy in a bar," begins Davies, 62, whose career boasts an eclectic collection of award-winning films. The year was 1987 and Davies, working on a television crew making documentaries for WTTW, recently had been elevated from associate producer to producer.
Free to develop his own ideas, Davies was about a year away from launching "Wild Chicago," one of WTTW's most popular shows.
But on this night, he had finished work for the day and decided to stop at The Northside, a Lincoln Park bar tucked under the L tracks that served as an '80s hangout for people who made their livings in the world of television.
One of those people was Ryszard Nykiel, a director of photography working on a variety of 30-second spots.
"You know," Nykiel said to Davies, "there's a hundred World War II planes at the bottom of the lake."
It would have been easy to dismiss the outrageous story of a bar patron claiming that the world's largest collection of vintage war planes was on the other side of Lake Shore Drive at the bottom of Lake Michigan, and that nobody, well almost nobody, knew anything about it. Instead, Davies decided to investigate.
The result was "Top Guns of '43," a 1988 half-hour WTTW documentary that Davies produced and cowrote. It told the unlikely story of how the U.S. Navy, short on battleships after the attack on Pearl Harbor, converted two luxury Great Lakes passenger steamers into makeshift aircraft carriers and used them to train more than 15,000 aviators from Glenview Naval Air Station and 40,000 crew members from Naval Station Great Lakes near North Chicago.
Experts say that training played a key role in winning the war. Former President George H.W. Bush learned how to pilot there as a teenager before serving in the Pacific, where he famously was rescued after his plane was shot down in 1944 near the islands south of Japan.
"These guys were the top guns of 1943," retired Navy Vice Adm. Richard F. Whitehead proclaimed in Davies' film. Leader of the aircraft carrier training program on Lake Michigan, Whitehead died in 1993 at age 99. Many of those pilots and crew members have died. But the wealth of information about the program exploded in recent years.
"Now there is so much more material," says Davies, who says his new hourlong documentary, "Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan," features more found footage, new underwater views of the recovery efforts and state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery that brings those veterans' stories to life.
Narrated by legendary Chicago anchorman Bill Kurtis, the documentary debuts Sunday in a private showing at The ArcLight Cinemas in The Glen Shopping Center in Glenview, which sits on the land that housed the former naval air station. The film also will be shown Tuesday at a private gala at Chicago's Navy Pier. The program airs to the public on WTTW at 9 p.m. Thursday and again at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 29, and in numerous cities throughout the nation during the Memorial Day weekend.
By training in Lake Michigan instead of on actual aircraft carriers in the oceans, the pilots were protected from attacks by enemy submarines. But, working on shorter decks with less room for error, the pilots and crew faced many of the same natural dangers, including wind, waves, waterspouts, snow, and even the thick black smoke from the coal burned to power the ships. More than 100 planes plunged into the often-frigid water, and others caught fire or crashed on the deck. But only eight people were killed.
Davies' documentary shows actual footage of some of those crashes and rescues.
Extensive underwater efforts in recent years have led to the renovation of about 40 of those lost planes with exotic names such as Hellcat, Wildcat, Vindicator, Dauntless and the Birdcage Corsair. Pulled from the depths, many of those planes now are on display in air museums.
Executive producer Harvey Moshman of Evanston, who also has worked on many award-winning documentaries, is an accomplished diver and underwater photographer who provided some of that footage.
While Davies and his wife, Teresa Tucker Davies (a producer whose work includes the movie "Holes") have lived in the Los Angeles area since 1991, "I just end up somehow going back to Chicago," says Davies. He graduated from Wheaton Central High School in 1971, where he acted in school plays with classmate Jim Belushi and worked at the Audio Visual Institute of DuPage County, screening all the institutional films shown in school. Senior year, he shot an 8 mm film of his class.
"I actually brought it to my high school reunion a few years back," Davies says.
After taking a few film and TV classes as a theater major at Kalamazoo College, Davies took jobs with a TV station in Battle Creek, Michigan, and later in Minnesota, before landing a gig with WTTW in Chicago.
In 1978, Davies and Belushi teamed up to form Eggboy Productions, and used the station's video and audio equipment. "He and I would sneak that equipment out on the weekend," Davies says of his friendship and work with Belushi. The pair made comedy shorts with Second City and for HBO, Showtime and "Saturday Night Live."
Davies began writing, producing and directing comedy specials, including Comic Relief charity shows that raised money for the homeless, a documentary called "Phunny Business" about an African-American comedy club in Chicago, and comedy salutes to Michael Jordan and Andy Kaufman. He also produced "Sneak Preview" with film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. But he always had an interest in planes and World War II.
His parents, Mary and Jack, who were Welsh, came to the United States after being stationed in Coventry, England, where they "lived through the blitz" of German bombs during World War II, Davies says. As a boy, he often flew by himself back to the United Kingdom to see relatives. One of his early films was a documentary about the first commercial jet airplane. He also learned about planes from his father, a paper salesman who would take Davies on sales trips in the Midwest.
"We'd go to airports, sitting on the hood of the car, and identify airplanes while they'd roar right above you," Davies remembers.
One of the Wildcat planes rescued from Lake Michigan now is on display at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, where Davies also has plenty of fond memories.
As Chicago gears up for Memorial Day weekend and summer fun, the idea of Navy Pier as a military operation and Lake Michigan as a dangerous World War II training location seems a long way off. Just as divers are recovering those vintage planes, "Heroes on Deck" revives the story of that mission.
"Once you've seen this," Davies says of his film, "you're never going to drive down Lake Shore Drive and look at Lake Michigan the same way again."