The WW2 & The 40s at NASGI

It was only thirty years after the Navy had acquired its first aircraft and 14 years after naval aviation had come to Grosse Ile, when it would face a war that would bring aviation into a new age fleet warfare tactics that were unheard of only years earlier.  With the demands of war on the horizon NRAB Grosse Ile began to prepare for what would be a war that for the first time in history that naval forces would fight battles from the air without surface forces ever seeing each other.

Even though there had been a slow build up in the late 30's  we were hardly ready for war, especially a two front war in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In January 1940 the Bureau of Aeronautics contracted for the investigation of the possibilities of a jet engine for aircraft.  This would lead to the future closing of NRAB Grosse Ile, due to longer runways required by jet aircraft.  This was still three decades away.

June, the Chief of Naval Operations expanded the flight training program, calling for the assignment of 150 cadets a month starting in July and to be increased to 300 a month within a year.  Activity at Grosse Ile would start to increase dramatically.

The ZMC-2 which was completed in August 1929 at what was now the center of NRAB Grosse Ile, was ordered scraped by the Commanding Officer of NAS Lakehurst on April 30, 1941 even though it had been a success. The car and engines were to be salvaged and later used for training at the Lighter-Than-Air ground school at NAS Lakehurst.

Grosse Ile reservist along with other reserves were put on short notice for call to active duty in October 1940.  By November one third of all reserves would be ordered to active duty and by January 1941 all would be ordered to active duty.

On August 28, 1941, the base started a slightly new mission, the primary flight training of British aviation cadets. After a month those that did not wash out would go on to Pensacola to complete their flight training. Because more cadets washed out at this point in their training Grosse Ile was known as one of the Elimination bases or E-Bases for short.

December 7, 1941, the date that would forever change the way naval power was used.  A Japanese sneak attack by their naval air wing on Pearl Harbor would show the importance of a strong aircraft carrier centered navy and spell the death of the battleship navy.  War was declared the next day by Congress and the President and with war came the growth of NRAB Grosse Ile.

Some of the function at Grosse Ile, Michigan during World War Two were:

  1. Navy Training School (Aviation), Grosse Ile, MI.
  2. Naval Air Station, Grosse Ile, MI.
  3. Air Force Atlantic Fleet Branch Office, (Administrative), NAS, Grosse Ile, MI.
  4. Combat Aircrew Refresher Training Unit, NAS, Grosse Ile, MI.
  5. Airborne Radar Training Unit, Naval Air Station, Grosse Ile, MI.

On the 16th the Secretary of the Navy approved the expansion pilot training with an increase from 800 to 2500 per month.

In December of 1941 the following aircraft were assigned to NAS Grosse Ile, MI, GB-2 (1), N3N-1 (4), N3N-3 (22), NP-1 (10). There may have been others but have not found listings of them so far.

You may also find that the base in these early years may have been listed as NRAB Detroit or NRAB Grosse Ile.

With the increase in personnel and training operations the base was overflowing. In 1942 the base at Grosse Ile was almost doubled in size from 375 acres to 604 acres. Within a few short weeks a large number of wooden buildings would spring up north of Groh Road which until then was the northern boundary of the base. The new streets bore names such as Yorktown, Hornet, Wasp and Ranger. There was even an Olympic size indoor swimming pool which a quarter century later at NASGI's decommissioning was still the third largest indoor swimming pool in Michigan.

There were also structures added to the older sections of the air station south of Groh Road. There was a huge wooden drill hall built that in the future would be used by the Marines as an aircraft hanger with the hardwood floors having been replaced by cement. Three cement runways in the form of a triangle with a large round cement pad in the middle known as the center mat. Two of the runways were nearly 5000 feet long. The longest being 3-21 and runway 17-35 slightly shorter at 4580 feet. Finally 9-27 connected the triangle at the top with 3850 feet of concrete. The seaplane hanger was also being used for the crash boat.

The base also supported 16 outlying airfields (CLICK HERE FOR MAP), some which the Navy retained on into the 50's. The map contains the official Navy names. As with many names associated with the base names differ depending on when and who is talking about them. Some of the names are OLF Custer Airport, OLF Marshall Airport, OLF Carl's Field, OLF Newport Field, Flat Rock Field, Dauncy Field, Ash Field, Brownstown Field, Sanders Field, Sheep Ranch Field, Masserant Field, Monroe Field, Scofield Field, Maybee Field, Leathers Field, Blackmore Field, Navarre Field, Boiles Field and OLF Nan-Bar Airport. 

Sanders Field is also known as "Carl's Field" and even 60 years later the owner is still Carl Brinkmeyer and his grass strip still has FAA designation as a airport even if Carl hasn't flown his plane in years. Hangars still there and rusting away in 2006. I have no idea where the Sanders name came in but Carl has owned and farmed that property on either side of the grassy strip for seventy plus years.

The Monroe Field has been known as Marshall field since the late 1930s. Owned by Owen Marshall  and was a grass airfield in the late 1930s. In 2004 it was sold for a housing project. Hangars were removed and even named it something like Marshall Estates.

The Newport Field buildings were turned into a high school in 1948. It graduated the class in 1953, the last year it was used for a school. It became a Nike Missile site. The hexagon runway is just about grown over in 2006.

Flat Rock field is also the Nan-Bar Airport. Nan-Bar was named from owners daughters, Nancy  & Barbara. Another grass field that was in operation before the war. Was in operation probably till the late 1970s, but is about to be developed into another housing project. The Civil Air Patrol operated out of there in the 1940s and later. (Nanbar was owned and operated by A. H. (Red) Stultz and Chester Brazer. They leased the property from Mr. Hill a lawyer in Flat Rock.  -- Gene Shabinaw)

Some of these may be the same OLF known by another name, that would explain the listing of 19 instead of 16 OLFs. The largest of these being OLF Newport, located just 10 miles southwest of NAS Grosse Ile.  It had a hard surfaced hexagon Landing area that measured 1700 ft. across. This is where most of the cadets took their solo flights.  The Navy built a fire / crash station, barracks for crash crews, and refueling facilities.  Near the end of  World War II with the end to the primary training mission, CAG 97 utilized OLF Newport for FCLPs. Following the war, Grosse Ile reverted to a reserve base.   OLF Newport, taken over by the Army in the 1950s, became a Nike anti-aircraft missile base until the early 1960s.


By the end of 1942 there were more than 3000 plus personal at NAS Grosse Ile, with an expanding British aviation contingent.  (The station complement consisted of 351 officers, 750 student pilots, 2647 enlisted personal and 36 civilians. The base also served as a designated refueling point for Naval Ferry Command. the seaplane base at the southern tip of the island remained but had very little use.) From "United States naval Air Stations of World War II Volume 1 - Eastern States" by M. L. Shettle

By October 1942, Naval Reserve Aviation Base Grosse Ile, Michigan was leading all Navy Reserve bases in turning out primary student pilots for the allies. In recognition of this on December 9th, the Navy changed its official designation to U.S. Naval Air Station, Grosse Ile, Michigan.  Later on 1 January 1943, the rest of the Naval Reserve Aviation Bases (NRAB) engaged in Primary Flight Training in all parts of the country were re-designated Naval Air Stations (NAS) without change of mission.  This was the end of the NRAB's except for Anacostia, which was abolished on 7 July 1943, and Squantum which became an NAS on 1 September 1943.

The Island being mostly residential with a small population was having growing pains.  As in many areas of the country new subdivisions popped up to help alleviate housing shortages and in January 1943 there was a small commissary opened on base for military and their family.

Two side wheel excursion steamers were converted into the training  aircraft carriers Wolverine(IX64) was commissioned in August 1942 and the Sable (IX81) was added a year later. Both side-wheel propelled carriers and likely the only such propelled in the world.

Aircraft were lost during operations from the aircraft carriers USS Wolverine and USS Sable. Because these were training exercises, losses due to accidents were expected. Between 1942 and 1945, there were 122 aircraft losses and more than 200 separate deck accidents. Although the majority of these incidents resulted in only minor injuries, eight naval aviators lost their lives.

Approximately 120,000 successful landings took place, and an estimated 17,000 naval aviators qualified.

The majority of carrier qualifications during World War II done from the decks of these two paddle wheelers, and a large number of landing signal officers and ground crew learned their trades on the two ships.

Wolverine launched its first aircraft in August 1942 and served as a training platform until November 1945 when both vessels were decommissioned. The ships were later scrapped.

Early postcard of "The Great Ship 'SeeandBee'". "The name of the Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Company's mammoth passenger steamer was chosen by a contest, the winner being a teenage girl who suggested the phonetic spelling of the company nickname, "C & B."! Designed for the 189-mile overnight run between Cleveland and Buffalo, the steamer boasted 510 staterooms and could accommodate 1,500 passengers in addition to freight. The SS Seeandbee was built in Wyandotte, MI and was launched on 9 November 1912. From 1912 until 1925 was the largest sidewheel steamer in the world. Commissioned in late 1913, her early years coincided with a downturn in passenger traffic in the wake of the Titanic and Eastland disasters, a problem aggravated by her enormous size. Paired with City of Buffalo, in addition to her regular Lake Erie route, she often ran overnight excursions to Niagara Falls on the weekends. Passenger shipping again ground to a halt during the depression and in 1932 she was laid up, being re-commissioned for the run to Chicago during the World's Fair, and she afterward remained in inter-lake business until C&B's bankruptcy in 1939. In the same year, Y. J. McGuire bought the old steamer for $135,000 and sold her to the U.S. Navy the following year for $750,000. Converted to a training aircraft carrier and renamed USS Wolverine, more than 18,000 naval aviators trained on her 550-foot-long flight deck during World War II. Sold in 1946, she was scrapped in 1947".

Photo located and furnished by Jerry Clement

Link to more picture of the Lake Carriers:

Both conducted carrier qualifications on the Great Lakes free from enemy submarine interference. (from "The Naval Aviation Guide" edited by Lt. Cdr. Richard A. Burgess)

It was not all work and worry during the war years at Grosse Ile in 1943 Sonya Henie visited the base and on April 3 1943 the Coca-Cola "Parade of Spotlight Bands" (radio program) featuring Jan Savitt and Orchestra did a broadcast from the base

The August 1943 aircraft assignment was the largest collection of aircraft ever assigned to NAS Grosse Ile at a total of 211 aircraft which included 156 Stearman N2Ss of various models.

June 28, 1944 saw Vaughn Monroe and his orchestra perform at Grosse Ile and later that year on August 23 Tony Pastor and his orchestra preformed there also. There was also sports. On 14 September 1944 the Detroit Lions played a practice game on base. The Detroit Tigers Mickey Cochrane and manager Cy Perkins also visited the base.

With the war in Europe approaching its final year, England reduced the number of British aviation cadets coming to the United States and in April of 1944, the final 400 British aviation cadets were transferred. They were the last of over 1800 British aviation cadets trained at Grosse Ile; a record number for the Primary Flight Training Command!

Soon British aviation cadets were replaced with U.S. Navy cadets from other bases being withdrawn from primary training. In a short period of time the training program had over 800 cadets and the late model N2S-5 Stearman biplane.

Primary Training ended for good in November 1944 and the station was taken over by Carrier Air Group 97 and the East Coast's refresher training unit. Incidentally, a catapult and arresting gear unit was installed at Newport one of the lying fields for this purpose. At the same time, the base was the home to a unit of the Fleet Airborne Training Unit - Atlantic, that trained airborne radar early warning crews in the operation and Maintenance of their equipment (info furnished by M. L. Shettle).

Along with the stars of the day coming to the base to entertain, there were future stars such as Ltjg. Bob Barker also going through the base to train for combat in the Pacific.

Nearing the end of World War II, flight training was cut back at Grosse Ile and other bases. By the time the war ended in mid August 1945, there was very little activity at the base. NAS Grosse Ile had made a major contribution to the war effort.

Just a side note that may also be of interest is that one of the future Presidents of the United States was assigned temporary duty at NAS Grosse Ile for a short period of time. His name? Lt. George Bush. After serving on the USS San Jacento in the Pacific Lt. Bush was assigned to NAS Grosse Ile, Michigan for "temporary duty under instruction, Torpedo Squadron Ninety Seven" 6 Feb. 22 March 1945.

"As of September 7, 1945 Carrier Air Group 97, a Replacement Training Group, was stationed at Grosse Ile and several other fields.  VT-97 was one of the squadrons and had 1 TBF-1, 7 TBF-1C, 1 TBM-1 and 11 TBM-1C's at Grosse Ile. The rest of the planes in VT-97 were at
Quonset Point, Sanford, Hyannis and Boca Chica.

Grosse Ile also had aircraft from the other three squadrons in CAG-97 as follows:

VF-97: 12 F6F-3, 1 F6F-5.
VBF-97:  2 Brewster F3A-1 (Corsair), 6 Goodyear FG-1 (Corsair), 6 Vought F4U-1, and 2 Vought
         F4U-1D. In other words 20 Corsairs.
VB-87:  39 Curtiss SB2C-4E's. - William Larkins"

The Navy's first peacetime budget after WW2 marked a nationwide launch of a new Naval Air Reserve program. Grosse Ile along with 20 other air stations around the country had their new peacetime mission. The reservists at Grosse Ile celebrated by having an open house and displaying one of the F6F Hellcats at Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit.

As the program gained momentum, new units were formed. Soon there were more than two dozen squadrons of all types. For fighters, they used F6F Hellcats and FG-1D Corsairs, SB2C Helldivers were flown by the scout/dive bombing squadrons. Patrols were performed by the dependable PBY's and transport pilots flew the Navy's version of the DC-3 and Super DC-3 Dakotas. All squadrons had the use of the SNB/JRD and SNJ trainers.

Towards the end of the decade NAS Grosse Ile received its first Ground Control Approach unit (GCA) # 18 and it was set up beside runway 3-21, where it operated until the air station closed.

In response to the Soviet blockade of land routes into Berlin a crack 13 man crew from NAS Grosse Ile's Ground Control Approach Unit was activated and sent to enable all weather flight operations for the Berlin airlift.

(I reported aboard Grosse Ile 17 July 1948. Early in 1949, GCA # 28 was selected by agreement with the Air Force, to participate in the Berlin Airlift. The entire crew was sent to Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio for training on the Air Force equipment, after one month we were flown to Frankfort, Germany for duty at the Rhein Main AFB. We were billeted at Frankfort and manned the GCA equipment at Rhein Main. I believe that we arrived at Rhein Main in March 1949 and returned to Grosse Ile early July 1949 after 90 days participating in the Berlin Airlift. -- Cecil B. (Skip) Harman)

August 1949, NASGI sent a Carrier Air Group made up of two fighter and an attack squadrons to NAS Pensacola for two weeks of carrier training on the USS Cabot (CVL-28) in the Gulf of Mexico. This was a first for Grosse Ile crews. During re-qualifications, 54 pilots made 606 takeoffs and landings from the Cabot. The next best was a little of 200.

NEXT the 50s

Web Master: Stanley Outlaw
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Revised: April 28, 2013