Dedication at Vernon Hills High School to honor forgotten pilot training ground

  • Converting passenger steam ships into makeshift aircraft carriers, the Navy during World War II trained 17,820 pilots at an auxiliary airfield near what is now Vernon Hills High School.

    Converting passenger steam ships into makeshift aircraft carriers, the Navy during World War II trained 17,820 pilots at an auxiliary airfield near what is now Vernon Hills High School. Courtesy of Heroes on Deck

  • An overlay of old runways over the current landscape near Rustoleum Field at Vernon Hills High School. The area was used for pilot training during WWII.

    An overlay of old runways over the current landscape near Rustoleum Field at Vernon Hills High School. The area was used for pilot training during WWII. courtesy of Village of Vernon Hills and Lake County GIS

 
 

Few are aware but what is now part of the campus of Vernon Hills High School played a pivotal role in pilot training during World War II.

Vernon American Legion Post 1247 hopes to raise awareness with the dedication Sept. 7 of a state historical marker and related activities during the Cougars' first home football game of the year.

"They called them bounce fields," says Post 1247 member Craig Warner, a former Air Force and commercial pilot and avid history lover. "It was really an astonishing story and nobody knows about it."

Known as Allendale Field and later Libertyville Field, an area that also encompassed what is now the adjoining Vernon Hills Athletic Complex featured runways used to train Navy pilots how to land on aircraft carriers.

"The fact that 17,820 pilots graduated from this training is even more bizarre," Warner added. Among them was then 18-year old Ensign George H.W. Bush, who later served as the 41st U.S. President.

Post 1247 and the Illinois State Historical Society is sponsoring an official marker acknowledging "Lake Michigan Aircraft Carriers" to be installed and dedicated just outside the northeast entrance of Rustoleum Field, 145 Lakeview Parkway.

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The marker is in observance of the 100th anniversary of the American Legion, in March 2019.

"The placement of it is so students can see it as they walk in," said post Commander Todd Renihan. "It's something we have to put some light on."

Renihan credited Warner with unearthing the information and planting the seed to proceed with a dedication as an appropriate observance.

"I can't help but think if you talk to those guys (pilots in training) now they'd be very happy today that kids are playing football there and they don't have the fog of war," awaiting them, Warner said.

"We wanted to expose it to the maximum number of people," he added. "Those markers are very permanent and tell a unique story."

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was "desperately short of aircraft carriers and more importantly, qualified pilots," the marker reads.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Training had been conducted at sea but carriers were needed as part of the war effort and would expose trainees to enemy attack. The Navy converted two side-wheeled cruise ships and re-christened them the USS Sable and USS Wolverine as Lake Michigan-based training craft.

"Six months after Pearl Harbor, they were training guys," Warner said.

Libertyville Field was the primary auxiliary field for Glenview Naval Air Station. Runways were striped to show the size of a carrier deck and eventually arresting wires were installed.

The aircraft carrier qualification training lasted three days. When a pilot showed proficiency, he would fly to a holding point over the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette and await clearance to land.

William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, is scheduled to be on hand for the 20-minute dedication at 6:30 p.m. preceding the football game. Post 1247 will be the Color Guard for the opening ceremony and special seating will be available for veterans.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But that isn't the only history associated with the site. Eventually, the Navy stopped using the property and the Army took control, operating it as a Nike missile air defense system base from 1954 to the early 1960s.

"I was hoping for another group to pick up on that," Warner said.

Ultimately, the land was acquired by the village and a consortium of school districts and converted to the Vernon Hills Athletic Complex.

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