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Corsair soars from the bottom of Lake Michigan

F-21 recovered 65-plus years after crash
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Recovery Engineer Keith Pearson (left) and Bruce Bittner of A and T Recovery attach a
strap from a crane to an F4U-1 Corsair fighter plane that was lost in 240 feet of water in
Lake Michigan on June 12, 1943 and pulled out of the water on Nov. 8 at Larsen Marine
Services in Waukegan. (Sun-Times Media photo)

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By Dan Moran
The News-Sun

Lt. J.J. Manley’s report from the USS Wolverine on Saturday, June 12, 1943, included mostly routine information, such as a notation that the freshwater tank was filled and secured at 1635 hours.

But the routine was broken at 1725: “F-21 crashed over port beam into water. Pilot, Ensign C.H. Johnson, recovered by crash (crew), sustaining only superficial cuts. Plane sunk in 220 feet of water.”

And that was where Johnson’s F4U-1 Corsair would remain, largely preserved by the cold, fresh water of Lake Michigan, until the morning of Nov. 8, when workers for Florida-based A&T Recovery hoisted it onto a dock at Larsen Marine Service.

Dripping with water and decorated with mussels and weeds, the fighter plane was placed next to its tail assembly, which had been ripped off during that ill-fated training exercise 67 years ago.

The first to climb back aboard was Chuck Greenhill of Mettawa, an Army veteran and military aircraft collector who helped finance the recovery mission — the 31st World War II aircraft pulled from the big lake by A&T in recent years.

Chuck Greenhill of Mettawa, U.S. Army veteran and military aircraft collector, is the first
to climb aboard an F4U-1 Corsair fighter plane that was recovered from Lake Michigan
in Waukegan on Nov. 8 after it was lost 67 years ago during aircraft carrier qualification
training. (Sun-Times Media photo)

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Greenhill said he sponsored the project because he feels the Birdcage Corsair — so named for its latticed canopy — is a rare find among the different warbirds that were used in training missions out of Glenview Naval Air Station during World War II.

“It’s a very significant airplane, because it represents an era in American history when we were training pilots for overseas duty,” Greenhill said. “Not only did they train the pilots, but the air crews as well. They did thousands and thousands of pilots and crews that way.”

By salvaging the plane for display at the National Navy Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., Greenhill said “people can show their kids and grandkids what commitment and dedication there was in World War II toward winning this fight.”

The process of bringing the Corsair home involved diving some 270 feet below the surface at a point about 35 miles off Highland Park. Keith Pearson, a recovery engineer for A&T, said there are still multiple wrecked or discarded planes from the war years, and “the ice-cold fresh water they’re sitting in is good for storage, (but) the ravages of the lake will eventually take care of them, and they will be no more.”

The Corsair, with its distinct gull-wing shape, is a relatively rare artifact for Lake Michigan because most of the aircraft used for training out of Glenview were Dauntless dive-bombers, which have also been salvaged at Larsen Marine.

The cockpit of an F4U-1 Corsair fighter plane that was at a depth of 240 feet in Lake
Michigan for 67 years until it was pulled out of the water on Nov. 8 in Waukegan.
(Sun-Times Media photo)

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Pearson said the Corsair’s powerful engine forced designers to move the cockpit toward the back of the aircraft, meaning a pilot would be “looking at the engine, instead of the carrier he wanted to land on.”

In 24-year-old Carl Harold Johnson’s case, a post-accident report noted that “(the) pilot made a normal approach but lost sight of the signal officer and decided to take a wave-off, but the plane had settled, and as he applied the throttle, (a tailhook wire) pulled the hook assembly out of the plane.”

The report added that after the Corsair left the deck off the port side of the training carrier, it “remained afloat long enough to allow the pilot to get clear.”

Though he came away from the accident intact and earned his carrier qualification, Johnson would not survive his resulting wartime service. He was killed on Thanksgiving Day 1944 in a two-aircraft collision over Hawaii.

Story reprinted courtesy of Dan Moran and The News-Sun (

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